My husband was born 150 years too late. An extremely knowledgeable, ethical sportsman/woodsman: hunting big game and small, guiding,fishing, and boating. You name it, he has done it and done it well. Fishing is his first love of the bunch, but sometimes an unexpected step gives even the most proficient, safe, veteran outdoorsman cause to reconsider that love. This is his story.
It was an unusual day off during the week in the early ice fishing season, so I decided to take advantage of some free time and enjoy my favorite sport. I had ice fished for 25+ years, usually alone. Taking it up in a time when not that many people ice fished. No ice shacks and heaters, you sat on a bucket or stood. There was always the chance of brutal conditions. Even though I went by myself, there were usually others around so there was safety in numbers.
It was clear and really cold that day, just like now. Below zero, wind drifting the snow out of the northwest. I had already been to a farm pond where there was about 5-7 inches of ice. I fished a couple of hours, but couldn’t find any activity and decided to hit the trail to what I hoped were better waters. I headed to Rock Creek State Park east of Kellogg, as far to the east side of it as I could go, past the campground entrance and past the rock jetties.
I got out of the truck, loaded up my gear, the electronics and hand auger. As a last minute thought, I put my ice picks around my neck and headed towards the lake.
As I walked across the ice, I kept stomping and hitting it with my auger. There was about 5-6 inches of snow on top of the ice. About 75 yards out, I set my equipment down and scraped some snow off the ice with my right boot.
A second drag of the right boot and I was completely under water.
In what seemed like many minutes, but was probably seconds, I was hitting the ice trying to find the hole I had just come through. I was a Marine and Vietnam Veteran, use to water and a good athlete, my skills had to kick in. There it was, I got to the edge and put both hands on the ice and started to lift myself out. I grabbed the ice, it broke off and I sank.
Again, I tried and again it broke.
Then I remembered my ice picks and started feeling for them. No sign of the left one, but the right one was floating in front of my chest and face. I reached up and stabbed as far up onto the edge of the ice as I could and held on. Kicking my feet in the water like I was swimming, I finally slid up onto the ice like a seal landing. I was out of the water and took a look around.
A 10-foot-wide hole was behind me and the ice was about 1½ inches thick. My equipment was gone, but I wasn't. Beginning the trek back to the truck, I suddenly realized it was hard to walk. My coveralls were solid and heavy with ice. I started feeling warm and thought if I could just lay down and rest it would help. But my survivalist brain took over, thankfully, and said, "No, you have to keep walking," and moved my feet for me.
When I got to the truck, I couldn’t get the door unlocked. My hands wouldn’t work well enough to get the remote to work. Finally, I got the key in the door to unlock it. As I opened the door, I looked in my rear view mirror and stopped, blood covered the front of me. My teeth had been chattering so badly I was biting my tongue and didn't know it.
I tore at my coveralls as best as my hands would work, slid into the truck, and got it running. For three hours, I laid there across the front seat before I could function. I drove home, teeth back to chattering and stayed in bed for two days.
The ice gear was sold.
After 25 years of ice fishing, knowing the hazards and knowing what was right, I was just plain careless. Doing everything I had told others NOT to do. Kind of like the farmer that has farmed safely for 40 years, who removes the safety cover off a PTO shaft and suddenly finds his clothing wrapped up in it because he looked away for one second.
Five years later, the equipment was repurchased. Eight years later I ice fish religiously once again, but with a renewed mind set.
I always use a spud bar to check ice.
I always have my pegs around my neck, no second thoughts.
I always wear my inflatable life jacket. (If Santa were to get me a float suit, that would be acceptable, too).
I NEVER go alone. If I am not with someone specifically, there are always others in the same location who know I am there or I simply don't fish there.
I practice what I preach.
Hard water is here and ice fishing has begun. But is it hard enough? Check it, be smart, and be safe.
By: Gail McMahon, Merchandising/Social Media, Bass Pro Shops Altoona (and her husband John McMahon, retired)