Jim Staricha owns Northland Towing in Isle, Minn., near Lake Mille Lacs. He specializes in recovery of vehicles that break through lake and river ice. He has personally driven vehicles through lake ice and, as a scuba diver, has been pinned under vehicles, underwater, during recoveries. Below, Staricha gives survival advice to anglers and others unfortunate enough to break through winter ice.
Q: You've plunged through lake and river ice and survived. What's your advice about ice travel during an uneven early winter like this?
A: Cold weather is coming, with better ice. Until then I'd say stay off the ice. No fish is worth dying for. If you have to be in your wheel house now, tow it into your backyard and watch TV in it.
Q: What ice thickness do you need to be comfortable?
A: Every lake is different. A lot of lakes have springs, and for this reason and others ice thickness can vary a lot, even on the same lake. If it's good ice and I'm doing a vehicle recovery, I'm comfortable with 7 inches. But that's because it's my job to go onto that kind of ice. I'm a fisherman, and if I were only going out to fish, no way I'd go on ice that thin. I'd wait until there were 12 to 14 inches of good ice.
Q: Some time ago you performed nighttime ice rescues and recoveries. But no more. Why not?
A: Nighttime is the worst. If you drop through ice into cold water at any time of day or night, your first reaction is to freak out. But to survive, you've got to control yourself. Settle down. But when it's dark, it's spooky. You're going to shiver. Your muscles will lock up. You've got to be cool or you won't get out.
Q: Can weak ice present itself unexpectedly even in midwinter, after it's been cold?
A: Definitely. Two years ago, Knife Lake near Mora had a good 2 feet of ice. A guy had his fish house on it and had been to it without a problem. A couple days later, right next to his fish house, he drove onto weak ice and his pickup went to the bottom. The best we can figure is that fish schooled near that spot and weakened the ice.
Q: You dive during vehicle recoveries. Have you ever been trapped by a vehicle underwater?