“Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”
So start the lyrics to George Gershwin’s song “Summertime” from the opera “Porgy and Bess.”
It’s January, and it’s cold. The living for man and beast that do so outdoors is far from easy. The cold of late is strong enough to be dangerous if you’re not careful.
Last weekend, I woke up to -37 degrees F on the Minnesota-Ontario border during the middle of a family lake trout trip. Mornings started slow as gear was prepared, layers were applied, and snowmobiles were started. Most snow machines needed a boost to get going, their batteries’ cranking power sapped by the extreme cold.
Our trip has more often than not been a voyage into some of the coldest weather of the year, by the calendar timing and by unfortunate circumstance of polar air shifts. Planning this trip annually has meant locking in a date and letting the weather do what it does. We’ll be out fishing whether it is 30 degrees or -30 degrees, both of which we have experienced.
I know some first-rate fish bums. Guys without year-round jobs, bank accounts, or wives and kids, that chase the biggest fish in, not coincidentally, the wildest places. These guys will live on pork and beans and travel far into remote lakes in Canada for the chance at big bites.
One small mistake, in summer, can set back one of these fish bums momentarily in these type of settings. One small mistake in winter? It could cost you your life.
In planning a number of long distance ice fishing trips through the years, I’ve learned a few things that have saved me some discomfort and could potentially save my life. Here are a few of those tips…
Have a plan and tell people where are going. If something should happen and someone else or emergency services needs to look for you, they’ll know where to find you. Tell others where you’ll be, when you are going and when you expect to be back, and what route you will take.
Travel in numbers. Going solo means if something goes wrong, you’re on your own to get out of a jam. Plan a trip with others and travel together; there is safety in numbers.
Watch the weather. Cold weather can be overcome with proper gear, but blizzards and winter storms are another matter. Know what is in the forecast, as well as keep an eye on the horizon. A change of winds and clouds can reveal a front coming in and a change in temperature and precipitation.
Dress the part. Wear cold weather gear in layers. Wear long underwear, wear wool, wear sweatpants and sweatshirt, topped by vests, bibs, parkas and heavy duty gloves, hats, balaclavas, gaiters, buffs, choppers and helmets. Pack extra gloves and hats. If you get a pair wet and frozen, you’ll need a backup.
Take good care of your heater — it is the only thing that will keep you fishing. When the mercury drops below zero, I leave the plastic, single canister heaters at home and go to sunflower units. One-pound propane canisters have a heck of a time with frigid temperatures as the gas pressure inside the tanks that keeps propane in liquid form become thrown off by rearranging pressure and temperature, two inputs to ideal gas law.
I’ve seen one pound cylinders spew gas, igniting fires and spilling flammable liquid propane on the hands and clothing of ice anglers. Sunflower heaters have some of the highest heat outputs and don’t have a lot of parts to go wrong. Pack a backup thermocouple or second heater and you are ready for about anything. In my experience, a 5, 10, or 20 pound liquid propane tank seems to perform better in cold weather than the one-pound canisters.
Secure your gear so it isn’t bouncing in a tub or rack. Cold is very tough on plastics — like the trays many of us use to transport our ice fishing tackle or the housing that surrounds our flashers. Pack your gear in tight so that rods, tackle, and equipment aren’t bouncing against each other and breaking.
I’ve found that an enclosed and insulated bait cooler is worth the investment if you want to have live bait in serious cold weather. If you go cheap on your bait cooler, it will probably disintegrate on the drive out or freeze into a solid brick, killing your expensive bait in the process.
Use a heated shield snowmobile helmet. An unheated shield will freeze up and impact your visibility. Not being able to spot a slushy pocket, a block of ice, an ice heave or other obstacle could cause an accident that could leave you in serious danger. Being injured in cold weather, miles from help, possibly without cell service, places you in unnecessary jeopardy if it can be avoided with a heated shield.
Know your machine and keep it well tuned. Be it a snowmobile or 4-wheeler, keep it in good running condition, bring extra oil if it’s oil injected, bring extra spark plugs and a socket, and bring starting fluid.
Ensure before you leave that your snowmobile has an emergency toolkit and extra belt included. Pack an extra tow strap in case you need to bring back an inoperable machine.
One of the best Christmas gifts I received was a lithium ion jump pack — it’s been used to jump two snowmobiles miles from help, and it’s good peace of mind for my truck and boat if I’m ever subject to a dead battery somewhere out back in the boondocks.