Winter warriors balance sport with climate risk

Traffic on Lake Winnebago has resumed as unseasonably warm January days turn into many people’s frigid nightmare. The attraction of walking and  driving on the ice makes for a lake full of eager sportsmen venturing across dangerous waters to get the perfect fish. Being on the ice, although at times thought to be a dangerous sport, can be quite entertaining if the correct precautions are taken to limit potentially tragic repercussions. Being cautious not to make a mistake, science teacher and outdoors enthusiast Brian Perzentka takes each trip on the ice step-by-step.

“When I was young and in high school I fell through a couple of times,” he said. “Now, I take a spud bar [a chisel] and if you hit the ice with a spud bar once and it goes straight through I won’t go on it. If you can hit it once solid and it doesn’t go through then I keep walking.”

Experience in this environment has given Perzentka the knowledge that is needed in braving the uncharted territory that is  only accessible during the winter frost.

“The more you’re on the ice the more you can read it and understand what’s going on,” he said.

To break up the long, frigid winters, social studies teacher and fisherman Ned Mandeik spends many of his days on the Winnebago, going on an occasional ice fishing trip.

“I don’t take chances, but I like to ice fish a few times just to get outside and break up the monotony of winter,” he said.  “By December I am hunted out, so I turn to ice fishing as a ‘filler’ until I can get the boat back in, which is not as much fun but it’s better than not fishing at all.”

Each year private fishing clubs, such as West Shore and Friendship, plow main roads and mark them with standing evergreen trees for those who travel on the ice. However, trees lying down are set on the ice to warn of bad ice. Perzentka, being aware of his surroundings, finds this makes it possible to take calculated risks instead of decisions based on impulse.

“I won’t go on anything less than four inches of ice; it’s not worth dying over or falling through,” he said. “Early ice you have to be really careful, which most people don’t realize how thin of ice you can go on and still be safe.”

Junior Joe Rebholz checks the statistics before venturing into a potential disaster, knowing that in order to be safe on the ice, people have to know the risk that comes with going out on any given day.

“I check the ice reports on the lake’s website link and make sure there is enough ice,” he said.

Mandeik takes seriously the power that water can unleash onto the lake, and how much impact it can have on those walking on its surface.

“I won’t go out until late December or January and avoid moving water that tends to not freeze solid,” he said. “I am not a risk-taker.”

Perzentka has experience with taking more out on the ice than just himself. When driving a vehicle or four wheeler on the ice, the risk heightens with the added weight.

“There has to be six to eight inches to take the four wheeler out,” he said. “I have an old four wheeler that if it were to fall through it would float because of the tires, so I wouldn’t have to worry about it with the distributed weight”

In contrast to Perzenkta’s theory of thicker ice being safer for a truck, Mandeik removes the possibility of his vehicle falling through the ice altogether.

“My truck will never be on the ice because I don’t have the time or money to have it fished out of the lake,” he said. “I stick with smaller northern lakes, so walking a sled full of my fishing gear is feasible, whereas it would not be on larger lakes like Winnebago.”

Every step requires a fisherman’s attention, but even more so on cracks, because mistakes need to be avoided to prevent injury and damage.

“When I cross cracks, I always walk across them first and hit them with the spud bar making sure they are solid even if there isn’t a bridge,” Perzentka said. “When you see people and vehicles going through, the majority of the time there were signs not to go there and they still did.”

Even when cracks are not completely visible from the driver’s seat of the vehicle, one may be lurking below the ice. Recently, Perzentka took his truck on the ice, but was cautious being as it was the first time that year.

“It’s amazing what it can hold, but it definitely moves a lot,” he said. “I’ve been out and it feels like it drops a foot, water coming flying out of the hole and you’re scared for a little bit, but then it fine.”

Winter adventures will always be a matter of balance.

“If you are careful and aware of your surroundings it’s pretty safe, but will never be 100 percent safe,” Perzentka said.


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