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Rall: Life flashing before my eyes

Scott Rall Daily Globe outdoors columnist The ice is finally here and it only took three days for me to see a picture of a older Jeep Wagoneer and a 16-foot long fish house in tow swimming in an Otter Tail County lake. When it comes to ice that i...

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist

The ice is finally here and it only took three days for me to see a picture of a older Jeep Wagoneer and a 16-foot long fish house in tow swimming in an Otter Tail County lake.
When it comes to ice that is covered with snow it all looks the same. The time for caution is now.
I’ve fallen through through the ice many times but only one of those times was over my head. All of the others were anywhere from soaking my wallet in waist deep water to killing my phone in chest-deep water. I have been in over my boots at least 100 times.
All of these times I was pheasant hunting or deer hunting with too much faith in the hard water I was using to support myself.
I have never fallen through in the actual act of ice fishing. I did fall in one time over my head helping Thad Lambert remove a fish house on East Graham Lake that a friend of his was using while he was out of town. It got warm and with a lapse in attention of a only day or two it was floating in the lake like a cork.
Is is hard for most folks to believe how a easy it is to have a fish house drop through. If you notice, most fish houses are white in color. This is so the sunshine reflects off of the house. A dark-colored house can absorb this sunlight radiation and then it starts to melt the ice near the structure.
As soon as there is a little pool of water on top of the ice, the wind can move that water around and cut a hole clean through in a matter of a day or two. This happens more often in the later part of the ice fishing season, but house owners are watchful of this issue all year long.
Another common cause is when it snows a lot. This additional weight, when added to the weight of the fish house, can make the water come up the holes drilled inside and start to pool around the outside of the house. The wind does its job in this situation as well.
Pulling a fish house out of an ice-covered lake is not easy.
The house I’m talking about was about two-thirds underwater. It was a 5- foot by 6-foot house and it was bobbing in a hole 15 feet wide. The propane tank was floating outside the house and was still attached to the heater bolted to the inside wall. Fishing gear along with a few wooden chairs and much of the insulation press fit into the walls was floating in the hole as well, and made it look like a submarine had gone down in this spot.
It was not a pretty sight. We took a rope and lassoed the house and then tied the rope to an ATV. The snow on the ice had all melted in late February, so the wheels of the ATV just sat and spun.
This event was 30 years ago. Today the ATV would have had chains, but back in the day we were lucky just to afford the ATV.
We worked on this for an hour or so and I attempted to add weight to the machine, so I sat on the front. We could just about get the house to tip over on the side and out of the hole but it was so water-logged we could not quite do it.
We changed directions and re-tied the house with a little different leverage point and were about 80 percent of the way there but could not quite finish the job. It was then that I got the bright idea to take the ice spud bar (used to chop open holes or loosen frozen shacks form the ice) and pry up on the corner of the house to add just that little bit extra we needed to get the job done.
I was standing there with my full weight on the bar and instead of the house coming out, the ice under my feet went out.
I remember this like it was yesterday.
If you can imagine yourself on the second story of a fire station, you grab onto the pole and jump through the hole to lower yourself to the fire engine deck. The only difference was there was no pole for me to grab.
I went in and underwater I went. I was sure I was living the last moments of my life. I bobbed up to the surface and with all my winter clothes on, including heavy boots and coveralls, which now weighed 100 pounds. I was sure this was the end.
Thad did not see this happen right away. He was over on the AVT ramming on and off the throttle. I hollered and as soon as he saw me he jumped off the machine and ran to me.
The ATV was still running and in gear with the tires spinning and no driver. It was attached to the fish house so it was not going anywhere. He pulled me out after a few attempts and there we stood. Ten degrees and soaking wet.
The fish house amazingly had managed to make it up on top of the ice as I fell in. Just the right amount of leverage, I guess. We drug the house 100 yards from the hole and untied it.
I jumped on the machine and we headed for the truck before I froze to death.
By the time I reached the shore I was like a solid wood totem pole. I could not bend my knees or move my arms. We tried to remove my boots so I could make the effort to remove the ice-covered coveralls but the laces on my boots were totally covered in an inch of ice, making their removal impossible. We rode back to the house (a 20-minute ride) and about 10 minutes into the trip the floor heater made the ice soft enough that I could remove my boots and then the coveralls. I tossed them in the box of the truck like they were a five-foot long tree trunk, solid as a rock.
Needless to say, I survived and lived to tell the story.
It took about three days for me to feel normal again. We went back the next day and drug the house to shore for permanent removal a few days later.
This was my closest call on thin ice. It was a combination of late season, water on top of the ice and just the right winds to cut a hole for the house to drop into. I have never had the same attitude about ice or driving on the ice ever since.
There are countless numbers of folks who push the envelope as to who will be the first on the ice, the first to drive an ATV, then a car followed by a full size one-ton Ford diesel with a 6,000 pound fish house in tow. I can guarantee you I will never be one of those folks.
A professional ice fishing guide on Upper Red Lake went for a trek out onto this giant lake a few days back. He was on foot and walked out about one mile. The ice was anywhere from 2-6 inches thick.
My luck would always dictate that I would find the thin spot and an emergency would follow.
I make a trip to Upper Red lake every winter and the ice in January on the big lake is normally 24-32 inches thick. This is enough to hold up a loaded semi-tractor trailer rig and I still don't like driving my dog truck on it.
It all comes down to common sense. There is no rooster worth the life of my dog so I don't hunt along highways or major roads. The same can be said that no fish or 100 fish is worth risking your life for.
That said, it is common knowledge that early ice is generally much more productive to catching fish than late ice, hence the desire to be first. This is why I catch less fish.
Reports all the way back to Dec. 15 were that area lakes had 6-8 inches of ice depth. This is safe travel in most situations. Use your head and always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Ice fishing junkies have tons of experience, but even they still need to be careful.
I will forever have a much greater respect for walking and driving on hard water. It is a healthy respect and everyone should have at least some of it.

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