Safety tips for long-distance ice fishing adventures
By Jody Anderson
What do you envision when someone mentions ice fishing to you? Sitting on a bucket on a lake near home? A portable shelter? A permanent ice shack with satellite TV? A fancy resort shanty? A buddy’s Ice Castle? The great thing about ice fishing is there is a style for everyone. If you are an adventurer, you may even picture dogsledding or skiing into a hidden lake to ice fish.
My personal style has changed considerably over the years. Years ago, I started out small with both my husband and I packed into a one-man suitcase-style house on a lake near home. We then graduated to a two-man shelter and kept upgrading from there – larger, thermal lined, etc. We also began to travel farther away every year. On occasion, we spent weekends at resorts in heated houses complete with transportation that delivered us to the door. We have made numerous ice fishing memories. More recently, it has become our passion to go on ice fishing expeditions on snowmobile.
A few years ago, we spent our honeymoon on Lake of the Woods in the Northwest Angle (located at the top of the continental United States). We traveled the 40+ miles from Baudette, Minnesota, across the lake in a heated Bombardier to the resort we stayed at. We spent four nights in a condo complete with steak and shrimp dinners. Transportation was provided each day to and from our heated house. Hot meals were delivered to us at lunch. The guides even cleaned our fish. It was really one of the easiest trips we had ever been on, and I highly recommend this style if you want to experience ice fishing, but don’t want to invest in a lot of gear. It was on that trip my husband pitched his crazy idea to me.
“I am going to buy a snowmobile,” he said. “We are going to start snowmobiling here.”
To be honest, I didn’t think he was serious, but that summer he placed the order, and in September a Yamaha RS Viking was delivered.
We are now going on our third year of fishing the Northwest Angle, which offers not only great fishing, but also incredible scenery. It holds an abundance of remote areas to explore. Bordering Canada, it allows for day trips into Ontario by snowmobile for trophy crappies and walleyes. Being able to stay mobile has been key to experiencing some phenomenal fishing.
Traveling into Canada is relatively easy since Canadian licenses can be purchased at resorts in the Northwest Angle. If you have a passport, calling into the Canadian authorities is how you legally enter the country to fish. It is the planning and preparing beforehand that will take the most effort to make sure you will have a safe and fun trip.
Following basic safety procedures is important any time you are on the ice, but you need to do a little more extensive planning if you are traveling to remote areas and traveling long distances. Ice fishing is a relatively safe activity. However, it can be risky for those not familiar with the terrain, the ice conditions or are not prepared. The first rule is to remember there is never such a thing as perfectly safe ice. Here are some tips:
Make sure your snowmobile is serviced and reliable. Breaking down 20 to 30 miles out in the middle of the lake or remote area is not what you want. Perform an inspection and check your fluids. Make sure you have an extra drive belt, spark plugs and injection oil, if it is a two-stroke engine. You should also have a tow strap. Before heading out each day, make sure your fuel tank is topped off, in case you get lost.
When it comes to your personal luggage, pack light. Dry bags are helpful as snow often makes its way into the sled. Expensive rods should be in a hard rod case to protect them. It is common for things to fall out of your sled when traveling over rough terrain. Check that your load is secure and strapped down.
Before your trip, check with locals and resorts for current ice conditions before heading out. We check the satellite images of Lake of the Woods online. Keep in mind there are areas that have current and you need to educate yourself about them prior to traveling. Make sure you have an area snowmobile trail map.
Travel with a Partner
Always travel with a partner or a group of people, if possible. When we first started out, we did not venture into Canada alone. We went on a couple of guided trips to learn the area first. Guide service is available through the resorts. On occasion, we have teamed up with other groups, especially when traveling into Canada. We have traveled dozens of miles into new territory and there is added safety in numbers.
Cold Weather Gear
In a place where temperatures are commonly below zero, you need to have proper gear. Today you can purchase top-of-the-line gear, which is worth the investment if you plan on becoming an avid ice angler. You can even buy suits that not only help keep you warm, but also offer an additional piece of mind with a lining that provides buoyancy in the case of an emergency.
Under your outerwear, wearing quality thermal base layers is necessary. Wearing denim is not recommended because fleece offers greater warmth. A good pair of wool socks and warm boots will help keep your feet warm. I never go out without hand warmers and toe warmers. I regret the years I didn’t think they were necessary.
Facemasks or balaclavas are absolute musts. Wearing a helmet is necessary not only for safety, but to keep your head warm. Life jackets can be worn to provide additional protection, especially if it’s early or late ice.
GPS (Global Positioning System)
Extreme cold can zap a phone battery and phone service is often limited or not available at all, so make sure you have a good GPS as well. It has come in handy for us when we have run into bad weather. Oftentimes, visibility is limited. A GPS is helpful in emergency situations since it provides your exact location.
A Nebulus is an emergency flotation device. It is a small, compact tool that can be attached to a snowmobile or ATV to use in ice and water rescue situations. It inflates in seconds and can support up to three adults and a submerged snowmobile or ATV. nebulusflotation.com
Be prepared for whiteouts, breakdowns or getting lost. When traveling, we have propane heaters that can be used in an emergency. We can set up our ice fishing shelter to protect ourselves from the elements. We always carry food and water with us. It is also a good idea to carry maps, a compass, flashlight, first aid kit, emergency blankets (space blankets), plus matches and lighters. Keep some matches in a waterproof container in your jacket.
We have been caught in whiteouts on Lake of the Woods. Once our one-hour trip turned into a three-hour trip. Although nothing serious happened, I did experience vertigo for the first time. Know where shelters are along the way. Lake of the Woods has a shelter on Garden Island that is along our traveling route from Baudette to the Northwest Angle.
Ice picks should always be carried, worn around your neck and over one shoulder in the case of an emergency. Should you fall in, remain as calm as possible and focus on jamming the pointed ends into the ice to anchor you, while kicking your legs to pull your body up and out of the water. Have an emergency throw rope readily available and hang it on your snowmobile where it is accessible.
Some may wonder, “What is the point of ice fishing?” Spending hour after hour sitting on the frozen surface of water in the middle of nowhere, often times with nothing to see for miles except vast white space. The temperatures often well below zero, and with what seems at times like hurricane force winds. Sitting above a drilled hole waiting for the next bite, which could take hours or never happen at all. How do you explain the love affair?
For me, it is the simple raw beauty of the frozen tundra that surrounds it all. It is almost meditative. It is also about battling the extreme arctic-like conditions that accompanies it, which is exciting and all part of the adventure. Catching fish is a bonus.
This winter, keep these safety tips in mind, whether you are traveling near or far. If you are looking to ice fish with some added adventure, plan an expedition across the ice!
Jody Rae Anderson of Minnesota is an avid angler, adventurer and writer. She loves to share stories and interviews related to the outdoors in her column, The Long Line (hometownfocus.us). Jody is also a promotional angler for Clam Outdoors, JT Outdoor Products and Women Fish Too.