One gift arrived early this year for avid cold-weather anglers in the Quad-Cities.
“Normally, we don’t start ice fishing until after the holidays, but we’ve got really safe ice right now,” said Jon Hurt, who manages Croegaert’s Great Outdoors, 4002 11th St., Rock Island.
“You better get out this weekend," the veteran fisherman, who refers to himself as "Captain Jon," told a customer earlier this week at his bait shop. "We're going to lose a lot of ice.”
Sunday's warm and wet forecast, Hurt warned, could threaten the clear and consistent ice that's formed across Quad-City area waterways.
Just a mile and a half south of the store, Mike Culbertson dragged his one-person ice-fishing tent onto the frozen-over Hennepin Canal in Milan.
"If it seems thick by the bank, I’ll walk out," said Culbertson, who noted the ice just east of the U.S. 67 bridge measured about 4 inches thick.
The 46-year-old Culbertson, who recently returned from Arizona to help care for his ailing father, said this season marks the first time he's stepped on the ice in more than a decade. And he's making it count.
On 10 separate solo outings, he's caught and released dozens of fish, including crappies, bluegills and largemouth bass.
In Milan, Culbertson drilled four holes into the rock-hard surface around a log that stands jaggedly out of the canal.
The fixture, he said, absorbs heat from the sun during the day and attracts bait fish, which in turn, draw bigger fish.
"Anytime you find a tree or a stump, I highly recommend you fish that," said Culbertson, who found 5-inch-thick ice at Sunset Marina in Rock Island. "I've been all over."
Under the ice, Hurt said, fish need oxygen and food.
"They won't expend energy they can't replace with a meal," he added.
Returning to the ice also reminded Culbertson of the three times he plummeted into freezing-cold water in the past.
On Tuesday night, less than five miles east of the longtime outdoorsman's spot on the Hennepin, a man fell through the ice and drowned in the Rock River off the shores of Moline.
The Big River Rescue and Recovery Dive Team, a volunteer crew, found the body of the 18-year-old Moline resident on Thursday about 200 yards from where he was believed to have gone into the river.
Jeff Harrison, conservation officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, stressed that anglers should stick to the buddy system on ice, and carry flotation devices.
Before venturing out on the ice, the DNR suggests folks should drill a hole into it from a dock or the shore to gauge its thickness and quality.
According to the agency’s safety guidelines:
• 4 inches of clear blue ice will hold one person
• 5-6 inches of clear blue ice can hold snowmobiles, four-wheelers and groups of three or more people
According to the experts, sporadic spells of warm weather should not cause much melting. Additionally, sunny skies only will help smooth the ice, said Hurt, who reiterated steady precipitation on Sunday likely will impact conditions.
For those who do happen to catch fish in the meantime, they may notice a difference in taste.
During the winter months, Hurt said, there is significantly less sediment in fresh water. In turn, the walleye or bluegill successful anglers throw on the pan may pack more flavor.
As for Hurt, his ice fishing days are long gone.
About three years ago, the 59-year-old slipped on the ice and fell on his back.
"I'm 6-foot-3, so it's a long way down," he said. "It's not worth slipping and falling down at my age anymore."