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Pro fisherman Dan Galusha remembers all too well the time he took one wrong step, shattered a thin patch of ice and plummeted waist deep into freezing-cold water.

Thankfully, the Milan man’s ice chisel broke his fall and allowed him to lift himself out the water and crawl to safety.

These days, when the 64-year-old steps onto frozen water, which he did this week for the first time this season, he opens his ears and lets the ice “talk” to him.

“If it snaps like a pencil, you’d see me rushing back to shore,” he said, standing confidently in his fully insulated waterproof suit less than 15 yards from dry land at the Rock Island Conservation Club. “If you hear a good thump, then you know it’s really thick ice … that’s the (American) Indian in me.”

After a mild start to winter in the Quad-City area, patient ice anglers this week — thankful for the recent cold snap, but uncertain of its longevity — wasted no time getting out to their favorite fishing holes.

As temperatures continue to fluctuate here, authorities are urging outdoors enthusiasts eager to hit the backwaters of local rivers and area lakes to proceed with caution.

Outlook

Jeff Harrison, conservation officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, for example, recently altered his initial outlook on this year’s ice fishing season.

Even as temperatures hovered near single digits on Sunday, the longtime law enforcement official sounded somewhat pessimistic. As bone-chilling temperatures continued to form clear and consistent ice across waterways, Harrison flipped his script.

“I can never predict what Mother Nature will bring,” said Harrison, who mentioned local lakes typically freeze over by mid-to-late December. “I think we’re going to have some really good ice for a long time.”

Jon Hurt, who manages Croegaert’s Great Outdoors, 4002 11th St., Rock Island, said conditions are particularly prime for fishing right now.

“The ice is crystal clear — the best you could ask for,” added Hurt, who predicts anglers this year will enjoy as many as five weeks on the ice. “It’s late, and it’s going to be short, but it could be wonderful.”

According to the experts, sporadic spells of warm weather should not cause much melting. Additionally, clear and sunny skies only will help smooth the ice, said Hurt, who noted steady precipitation could impact conditions. 

“What kills us is the rain.”

Ice depth

Harrison’s hesitation, he said, stems from his deep-rooted concerns for other people’s safety.

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

As of Wednesday, Harrison said, 5½ inches of ice had formed on portions of Lost Grove Lake, Iowa’s newest lake, located in northeast Scott County. He also noticed fishermen at West Lake Park off Interstate 280 in west Davenport.

“I worry every year because so many people, the first time they get a little bit of ice, they want to push it to the limit,” he said. “No matter how thick you think it is, you always need to check and be cautious.”

Early in the week, Galusha drilled several holes on one of the Rock Island Conservation Club’s private lakes in Milan and discovered spots coated with 5 inches of ice.

“That’s unbelievable,” he said smiling, after drilling his first hole of the season. “We’ve got good enough ice to fish.”

Tips from the pros

If you can’t take the cold, don’t even bother.

And if you’re out there to catch fish, said Hurt, who refers to himself as "Captain Jon," “you’re doing it for the wrong reason.”

For him, “there’s nothing better than sitting out on the ice in the middle of the lake and fishing out of a hole the size of a 5-gallon bucket.”

If you do happen to catch fish, however, you 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 you throw on the pan may pack more flavor.

In addition to the obvious social benefits, Hurt also stressed that anglers should stick to the buddy system on ice.

“You never want to go out by yourself,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get out on your own.”

While Galusha tunes in to his veteran senses on the ice, the longtime outdoors writer, and former radio and TV host, also relies heavily on his truckload of safety gear. Not to mention his sonar-powered fish finder.

From his gloves to his boots, the man, who said he has some Lakota Sioux in his blood, sports waterproof everything. And although he also promotes fishing in pairs, the Fresh Water Fishing Hall-of-Famer admitted he does not always follow his own mantra.

“We may live to fish, but we don’t fish to die.”

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Jack Cullen covers health and the outdoors for the Quad-City Times.