Calub Shavlik is the acting area supervisor at the Department of Natural Resource fisheries office in Park Rapids. With ice fishing in full swing, he shares some tips on how to make the experience safer, including a close call he had when an ATV he was riding broke through the ice.
Shavlik also shared his tips for making the most of the ice fishing experience in the Jan. 6 issue of the Enterprise.
Take safety precautions
“Ice is never completely safe,” Shavlik said. “You should always drill some holes to see what you’re dealing with and be aware of the ice thickness needed for walking, ATVs and vehicles. Bait shops are probably the best source of information about what is going on with area lakes as far as ice thickness.”
Safety equipment should include a flotation device and ice picks. “The style of ice picks I’ve seen most lately has them hooked on a strap around your neck,” he said. “If you fall in you can pull them apart and you’ll have two ice picks. You have to calm yourself down and not panic so you can get yourself out of the situation.
“With your winter gear on you have a little more time before the cold gets through the layers. If you go in the water you will often have one surge of energy to pull yourself out before your core temperature slowly drops from the cold water. Just don’t panic and do what you need to do to get out.”
Shavlik said it is safer to go out on the ice during daylight hours.
“You can fish after dark, but only if you are familiar with the area and know you can get back safely,” he said. “Most of the fish you catch are during the daylight hours anyway.”
Shavlik also recommends traction aids that strap onto boots to help prevent slips and falls on the ice.
Breaking through the ice
Shavlik knows from personal experience that even when you take every precaution the ice is never totally safe.
“I have fallen through once,” he said. “I was riding an ATV and pushing through on the north side of Lake Winnibigoshish when I heard the ice cracking and busting up. I hit an ice heave. Just like tectonic plates, there’s so much pressure it creates ridges. It was late in the season and there were people on 4-wheelers ahead of me. They drove across and I was following their tracks. I didn’t see the pressure ridge and the ATV went in.
“It shot me over the top of the ATV and I was in the water up to my waist. I was able to pull the ATV backwards by the back end, and because it was an old style ATV with big tires, it didn’t sink. I had extra gear in my truck back at the landing. We drove back and I swapped out my wet gear for dry gear and got back fishing. But I still have a hard time crossing an ice heave just because of my experience of going through one.”
Shavlik said lakes in the Park Rapids area generally don’t have pressure ridges.
“On Leech Lake, they show up pretty regularly,” he said. “It has to do with the wind driving across making ice. Pressure ridges are usually in the same location year after year. Usually the shoreline dictates where they occur, often at a big point on the lake like Stony Point on Leech Lake. There might also be open water in the middle. It’s not safe to drive your vehicle across. On Lake of the Woods and Red Lake, they have built bridges over these ridges that show up at certain locations on a regular basis to get people on the other side.”
Ice-making is slower this year
Shavlik said area lakes have been slowly catching up on making ice this season. “At the end of November and beginning of December, we were not making a lot of ice,” he said. “We just needed those cold nights. The water temperature was there to make good ice. We started creating some good solid clear black ice, but at a slower rate. Typically, by Christmas there should be eight inches or more. Now some lakes have 10 inches, but we’re still not making it at a fast rate.”
When he ventured onto 6th Crow Wing Lake south of Nevis two weeks ago, there was only six inches of ice. “I thought we’d have more than that,” he said. “If you are driving out in a pickup truck, you should definitely check the thickness of the ice first because of the kind of winter we’re experiencing.
“Don’t trust other people. Some people are pushing the limit, getting out earlier than it is safe. Ice houses can put more pressure on the ice, too, and it will start bending and water will start coming out of the hole.”
He explained that ice making happens from the “down side” of the lake. “Wind has a big factor too,” he said. “Windchill drives down the temperatures.”
In contrast, deep snow can act like a blanket, slowing ice formation. “Right now it is not a big issue to worry about yet,” he said. “We probably have about four or five inches of snow out on Spider Lake near Nevis, that fluffy stuff. We can still make ice on the downside. We just need that cold snap.”
Shavlik explained that his DNR management area consists of almost all of Hubbard County.
“Kabekona Lake is historically the last lake to freeze over in our area,” he said. “This year, it didn’t freeze over until the Monday before Christmas, and some areas only had four inches of ice.
“A lot of people don’t know that history. They might look at Garfield Lake, which is not very far from it, but is one of the lakes in that area with a public access that freezes early. That’s why you have to check ice thickness. ATVs might be riding all over the south end of Garfield Lake, but Kabekona is a deep lake that has a tendency to hold the heat longer than other area lakes. When it does freeze over you have good solid black ice, but not the thickness of ice until you get colder weather.”
Long Lake east of Park Rapids is usually the next to last lake in the region to freeze up.
“When you have a long, narrow lake, springs have more influence,” he said. “Way on the southern end, on the access area, you might have people driving their vehicles and setting up ice houses fairly early. But in the middle there’s often still some open water. Geese utilize Long Lake late in the season for that reason. Long Lake holds off because of the spring activity, and because it’s so long and fairly deep too.”
The size of the lake also impacts ice thickness.
“On smaller lakes you don’t get the thickness of the ice, that two to three feet because it might be windy out, but it doesn’t have those long stretches for the wind to start driving down the temperature to make better ice,” he said. “For example, on Red Lake and Lake of the Woods, people have to use an extension on their auger because the ice gets very thick. On a smaller lake like Spider, 18 inches of ice is considered very good.”
Some of Minnesota’s most popular winter fisheries, such as Upper Red Lake, have drawn remarkably high numbers of anglers already this season, while in other places people are patiently waiting for a cold snap to make the ice thick enough to walk on.
The recommended minimum thickness for walking on new, clear ice is 4 inches. Wait for 5 to 7 inches before heading out on an ATV or snowmobile, and keep cars off until there’s 8 to 12 inches. Anyone planning to drive out in a truck should wait until there’s at least 12 to 15 inches of ice. Double these minimums for white or snow-covered ice.
Other safety tips include:
Wear a life jacket or float coat on the ice, except when in a vehicle.
Carry ice picks, rope, an ice chisel and tape measure.
Check ice thickness at regular intervals and remember, conditions can change quickly.
Bring a cell phone or personal locator beacon.
Don’t go out alone; tell someone about trip plans and expected return time.
Before heading out, inquire about conditions and known hazards with local experts.
If you see someone fall through, remain calm and call 911. Do not attempt a rescue unless there is a means of self-rescue. Throw the person any piece of buoyant gear available, as well as a rope, jumper cables or other object to pull them out of the water or away from thin ice. Let go if they start pulling you toward dangerous ice.
Other information for anglers to keep in mind this winter:
Red Lake Indian Reservation is closed to people who aren’t members of the band. Stay east of the longitudinal coordinate of 94 degrees 43’ 12.0” to ensure you are on state waters.
Maintain a social distance of at least six feet from members of other households at public access sites and on the ice. If the access is full, try another lake or try again at a less busy time.