"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2006 by Bill Scifres

Well, Christmas came early again this year--in the form of a fat, little guy known as Santa. He brought cold weather and ice (for fishing) to the northern-tier counties and hopefully, for ice anglers, at least, in other parts of the state.

How long it will last, and whether the weather will be severe enough for the anglers’ ulterior motives, is still open for debate. And early, at that, because it often comes with the Christmastide.

The word December 3 from the northern-tier counties was that there may be some safe ice by next weekend. This, of course, begs the question of what is “safe ice?”

In reality, there is no such thing as safe ice if it breaks or otherwise leads to a dunking of an angler or other user of the waterways. Safe ice is that simple, and that complicated.

Water characteristically changes to ice at the surface when it reaches 32 degrees. It is warmer as it gets deeper, typical of all waters. And yet, two impoundments of water are seldom the same, yet very much alike when air and water temperatures are influenced by air temperatures. Otherwise, the waters are quite different.

Another good thing to remember about water is that shallows cool and heat faster than deep water.

This may sound confusing, but then if one considers the fact that even the various sides of a given body of water can vary, you run smack-dab into even more differences. A lot of this can be traced to ground water (springs in the bottom), but air temperatures, the presence, or lack thereof, of trees (or even what species of trees adjacent), can be a factor. Even a cover of snow can affect the qualities and quantities of ice. Snow, you know, is one of the best insulations. Strangely enough, it is cold, but can be used to stay warm.

Many individuals--including many people of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)--speak eloquently of safe ice, and yet they do not realize that ”what is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander.” As we pointed out above, every body of water--every impoundment--is different and influenced weatherwise and by many factors, many elements, including ground water.

Likewise, a situation in which the conditions look bad and evil, may, in fact, be quite safe.

For example, water on ice may look menacing when the ice is safe. But in such a situation the angler must be ultra cautious.

I have fished a number of times with water on the ice. As a matter of fact, some of my best catches came with such conditions. Here a small boat can be very useful. “First and last ice are always good,” it is said.

There are people at the DNR, and its satellite Division of Fish an Wildlife (even some outdoor writers), spouting such generalities as four inches of ice being safe for foot traffic, and various other depths of ice being safe for supporting various weights. Maybe so, but that is much akin to leaving one’s calling card in the door with a note that says you will visit Davy Jones’ Locker on another day.

Of course, streams and rivers are a whole new ballgame. Most of the questionable criteria involved in questionable conditions of standing water can influence the ice on streams and rivers. But one . . . current . . . can be really troublesome if one is not extremely cautious.

Take, for example, the case that happened to me one frigid January day many years ago. I was wearing hip boots because I would be in water, and walking most of the day as I took up traps that had been set before a late winter cold spell hit to stop runoff and bring water levels close to normal. My mission accomplished, I had headed for home with a hunting coat bulging with steel traps. Some three miles from home I had to cross a small stream and I had no time to spare. Darkness was coming fast. I walked over a quiet pool but five feet from the far bank my feet slipped and the weight of the jolt (I weighed only a shade over 100 pounds) plunged me into the channel, which was only about four feet deep and very cold. I could lie on my back in the snow to drain my boots and tear the seal from half a pint of peach brandy that had gone untouched all day. Then, I headed for home as fast as Shank’s Mare (my legs) would take me. It was zero and well after dark when I got home, and my dad had to help me get out of frozen trousers. But I never caught a cold and stream currents and ice were with me forever.  

So go ice fishing, or enjoy winter’s wonderland in many other ways. But don’t just walk on ice willy-nilly . . . or you could get wet . . . or worse.

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All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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