Ok, people who choose to go ice fishing are not, by nature, risk averse. Afterall, we are talking about a group of anglers who venture out on a sheet of frozen water often in brutal winter conditions in pursuit of fish with no guarantee of catching anything, staying dry or even returning home safely. Many people who have not gone ice fishing think this behavior borders on insanity. Even those who might have an open mind about fishing through the ice express reservations. In his recent column in the Door County Advocate Jon Gast, while openly admitting that he “..never experienced..” ice fishing, is troubled by the rash of ice rescues. He declares “Each time I find myself scratching my head and wondering why people do it.” Gast goes on to cite the incident this January of 34 anglers who were rescued off the ice of Green Bay. This was recently followed by the scary occurrence of two anglers crashing through the ice near Sugar Creek County Park. Last year over sixty anglers had to be taken off the ice when a large ice sheet separated from shore. All of this gives the impression that ice fishing is inherently an extreme sport and should be avoided by all but the foolhardy. However, is ice fishing really that dangerous? Are the people who participate in this winter activity seriously imperiling life and limb just to catch a fish dinner? Is it worth the risk?
Among the many skills we have had to hone during the CoVid-19 pandemic is risk assessment. Of course, risk assessment is a very personal undertaking. Life is full of perils that we accept each day as part of being human in a functioning society. Driving a car, riding a bike, walking on a slippery sidewalk, going to a large event with a bunch of strangers (who knows where they have been?) all involve risks that each of us choose to accept or not. So, is ice fishing one of those activities that is so fundamentally hazardous that we should put in into the category of unacceptable risk? Apparently, millions of people don’t think so. In a comprehensive survey taken from the 2010 census data, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that almost two million Americans (16 years and older) participated in ice fishing annually. I am confident that in 2021, that number is significantly higher. These anglers spent an average of ten days out on the ice. (See Page 83 of the report for the gritty details.) Add to these American anglers those in Canada, Scandinavia and other northern European and Asian regions it can seen that a lot of people find the rewards of targeting fish through the ice worth any possible risk.
Ice fishing does indeed offer many rewards. The sunshine (sometimes) and fresh air (always), exercise, beautiful scenery, along with the solitude and/or camaraderie are all benefits of spending time on the ice. But these could be enjoyed by just ambling through the woods in the winter. There is also the challenge of successfully catching a fish. Long time anglers embrace this challenge and the barriers brought on by the ice and cold only make the satisfaction that much greater when you pull a nice one through the hole. The fact that ice anglers drop a single line down an eight-inch pinpoint of a hole on a huge expanse of lake and actually expect to catch a fish might the craziest facet of ice fishing. In the summertime, I may cover many miles of open water without catching a fish.
Amazingly, I do catch fish through the ice. In Door County, we have a wonderful variety of species to target including yellow perch, bluegill, lawyer, walleye, northern pike and, of course lake whitefish. Each of these provide an exciting challenge along with the opportunity for a fresh fish dinner. We have some marvelous fish frys available at the area restaurants, but I contend that unless you have savored properly prepared perch or walleye that just a few hours ago were swimming in the cold waters of the bay, you have not experienced a true Wisconsin Fish Fry. If you want fresh perch, you will have few opportunities unless you go get it yourself. Although my ice fishing season is off to a bit of a slow start, I have still put some nice catches of perch, bluegills and whitefish on the ice. These have provided some wonderful table fare for myself, my wife and my neighbors. It is one of my joys to provide fish to friends who do not have the opportunity to experience truly fresh fish.
What about the risks in this risk/benefit calculation? There are some. The most dramatic and the one most logically feared is death. Makes sense. It turns out that ice related deaths are rare. In one survey of ice-related deaths covering most ice fishing states and Canadian provinces, there were 65 ice-related fatalities in 2019. Not all of these involved ice fishing. Only six involved people fishing on foot falling through the ice. 38 occurred with people driving snowmobiles or ATVs. A Minnesota DNR study estimates that there are about five ice related deaths each year. Data from Ontario and Michigan show similar numbers. In the 2019 study, 5 ice related deaths were reported in Wisconsin. Considering that almost a half a million people ice fish in the Badger state each year (as of 2009), you can see that your chances of dying while ice fishing are very slim. The drive to the ice fishing spot in the winter is probably more risky.
Of course, death is not the only danger. Injuries are the greatest hazards encountered by ice anglers and, surprisingly, frostbite and hypothermia are not among the highest risks. People in Wisconsin know how to keep warm. In fact, that is one of the problems. Burns from heaters is a big cause of injury. In one published study of ice-fishing related injuries based on emergency room visits, bone and muscle injury along with various trauma were most common followed by burns with injuries due to cold far behind. Falling on the ice is a major concern but most such injuries do not result in a trip to the emergency room. I have experienced several mishaps while ice fishing and only one sent me to the emergency room (broken finger) or resulted in a doctor’s visit (torn rotator cuff). Most left me with bumps and bruises. Falling on any hard surface is not a desired outcome for any septuagenarian. Like all risks, those related to ice-fishing can be mitigated, if not eliminated, through common sense, preparation, and proper equipment. Experienced anglers know this. To those less acquainted with ice fishing safety, I refer to an excellent article that appeared on the MeatEater website,”6 Ways to Die While Ice Fishing”. Also, the Wisconsin DNR has an excellent ice safety page including what to do if you do fall through the ice.
Despite all precautions taken, even experienced anglers can find themselves in trouble on the ice as the recent ice strandings testify. These sorts of incidents have happened in the past, but they seem to be happening to more anglers and often to those who have long experience on the ice. One possible reason for this is the long-term changes to the ice, particularly on Green Bay. Anecdotal experience of many anglers is now catching up with what climate scientists have known for decades. The climate is getting warmer. This is resulting in warmer lake water and delayed ice formation each winter. It was once common to start to look to get out on the ice soon after Thanksgiving. Now we seem lucky if we can get on by Christmas and on the bay the time of safe ice the last several years has not been until January. Even now, in late January, few if any ice shanties can be seen very far out on the bay ice. This has led to impatience by some anglers and caused them to go out on the ice when they should not. Add to that the increased shipping traffic into the Port of Green Bay. For decades Green Bay would freeze all the way across from Door County to the shores of Oconto and Marinette Counties and form a stable ice sheet. Many years ago, winter travel across Green Bay was common. We have all heard the story about the building that is now The Whistling Swan in Fish Creek being hauled across the ice from Marinette in 1906. That would be inconceivable these days. As of January 22nd, ships were still scheduled to be escorted by an icebreaker into Green Bay. The Green Bay ice sheet, as result is less predictable than in the past.
The prudent ice anglers take all of this into consideration when they decide to venture out for a day’s fishing. They read the ice reports online and in the media, they look at the most recent satellite images and webcams, they contact local guides and bait shops and they talk to other anglers on the ice. Most of all they display caution and common sense. Life is risky. All we can do is be beware of the risks, limit them as much as possible and then enjoy the day.
Stay safe and sane.
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