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Ice fishing: Hard lessons on hard water



By Diane Tipton, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Ice fishing puts the angler in touch with the elements in a way no other outdoor activity does. Fishing “hard water” is alluring for its simplicity—ice, water, wind, fish, a line in a round ice hole, and time.

Wind might be the element ice anglers have had enough of this year. One dedicated angler, who sometimes sleeps overnight on the ice during the season, recently had a wind-powered adventure he and his friends will remember for winters to come.

Retiree Robert Morris of Helena made his ice shanty from a recycled pop-up camper with 10-inch tires that carries a 2×4 framed plywood shack. This winter he is set up at Canyon Ferry Reservoir a few miles out from the Silos, propped on jack stands with tie downs to the ice. His fishing buddy’s ice shack was sitting on skis and lashed to Morris’s shack with a lead rope.

During one of the longest nights this winter, Morris was up at 4 a.m. to fish for ling. The wind was already growling when he checked his line with a flashlight and crawled back into his sleeping bag. All was well for a time, until a heavy weight hit his ice shanty hard enough to break its moorings and hurtle it across the ice.

“I was suddenly sailing at highway speed on the ice in the black night, with the wind slamming my friend’s ice shack into mine, twisting and spinning us,” Morris said.

Morris said he felt pretty certain, with all the open water and pressure cracks along the ice at that time, that he was a goner.

“I started calling a few close friends to say thanks and let them know what happened to me,” he said. “Odds were they’d be out looking under the ice for me come morning.”

When the strange assemblage slowed, Morris hurriedly crawled out to take stock. The tongue of his ice house trailer was snagged on a sled he uses to pull groceries to his fishing site.

“I lifted the trailer tongue onto the ice hoping to add some traction,” he said. “I thought of abandoning the whole thing and hiking to shore, but in the dark I had no idea where I was.”

Even as he climbed back into his ice shack it took off again, traveling another few city blocks with the trailer tongue scraping and jittering over the ice.

“My fishing poles, supplies, jack stands, everything was strewn far and wide across the ice back the way I’d come,” he said.

When first light dawned, he was finally able to reorient himself for a nearly two mile walk back to the silos.

“I was so glad to be alive,” he said. “I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz blowing out of Kansas in my little ice house on wheels.”

“He walked in just as I was about to listen to my phone messages,” said Sharon Walker, manager of the general store at the Silos at the Townsend-Canyon Ferry Lake KOA. “Boy was I glad he was there in person before I listened to that message—otherwise I would have been scared to death that we’d lost him.”

Friends in the Silos area helped Morris gather his belongings over the next few days. He had lots of help, a lot of fellow ice anglers were scouting around for their ice houses and belongings too. But none had ridden the night’s high wind as Morris did.

“A few days later I was back out on the ice anchoring my ice house with bolts screwed into 2×4’s under the ice,” Morris said. “I spend 19 or 20 days a year out on the ice in winter. It’s one thing that I really enjoy—even after this experience.”

There are some measures ice fishermen and others recreating on the ice can take to make every trip safer.
• Don’t fish alone.
• Keep fishing holes small and few. When drilling fishing holes with an ice auger, keep the diameter under eight inches. Bigger holes are not necessary to land fish and can create a safety hazard for others.
• Watch your step.
• Spread out. Disperse weight and fishing holes.
• Be prepared for weather conditions.
• Be prepared for emergencies. Carry equipment such as ice picks or awls, rope, extra buckets and personal flotation devices. Also pack a first-aid kit and matches for starting a fire.

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