Safety is priority as anglers take on 'grave dangers' to ice fish the Missouri River
GF&P officials urge river ice fishers to proceed with caution
PLATTE, S.D. — Ice fishing on the Missouri River comes with plenty of dangers, but it doesn't stop Jaryd Guericke from casting lines in the frozen body of water during the winter months.
While the Mitchell angler has ice fished plenty of lakes around southeast South Dakota over the past two decades, Guericke said the Missouri River is "a whole nother beast," unlike any body of water he’s ice fished.
“It’s sketchy, but if you do it enough and respect the river, you learn how to adapt and do it safely,” Guericke said. “It’s a wildman's sport.”
From banking on there being a thick enough sheet of ice toward the center of the river to safely making it on the ice with more than 40 pounds of gear, Guericke said there are many risky obstacles that “you have to be willing to take” to catch walleye on the river.
Despite the risks and challenges of ice fishing the river, Guericke said the excitement involved is what motivates him to casting a line in the Missouri River during the bitter cold months of winter.
“The thrill of it is unlike anything. It’s just a totally different way of fishing,” he said. “But another big reason why I love ice fishing the river is that I can go and fish and not see anyone for miles.”
For Guericke and many river ice fishers, the process of making it onto the river to set up a shack at a fishing spot can be the most dangerous part depending on the current and ice thickness.
When the current is moving fast, Guericke said the center of the river is where the ice is typically the thickest. However, that means the ice along the shoreline isn’t nearly as thick, adding more danger to the process of crossing from land onto the frozen river. In some instances, Guericke has crossed onto the river with a small patch of open water separating the ice near the shoreline.
“River ice is much different than other bodies of water. It is technically a big cube,” he said. “Because of the current and reservoir being lowered and raised, river ice fluctuates up and down. If they are running a lot of water, the edges will be brittle, and sometimes can have open water on the shore edges.”
To cross over to the river, Guericke sets up planks that allow him to drive his ATV with about 40 pounds of gear in tow onto the river. Guericke uses several tools to gauge the thickness of the ice before trekking further out toward the center of the river to drill a hole where he will fish.
“You could have a small stretch of running water on the edges, but 10 to 15 yards out there could be 15 inches of good, clear ice,” he said. “That’s the uniqueness of ice fishing the river.”
Of course, having a good understanding of the weather needed to produce about 12 to 15 inches of ice on the river Guericke said is vital to make for a safe and enjoyable ice fishing experience.
Getting onto the ice is one thing, but understanding the river system in the winter months to catch quality fish requires "patience," Guericke said. Being aware of how the water levels are being controlled at the reservoir dam upstream from his go-to spot in the Platte area is critical for finding the right spots on the ice, he said.
“I follow the dam, and if it’s below 15,000 cubic feet per second then I can put together the temperatures and the water movement,” Guericke said. “If the river isn’t pushing a lot of water and it’s cold, then it will gain ice much faster.”
As for the fishing, Guericke said the risks of making it on the river ice are worth the rewards of catching walleye. While the walleye swimming along the Missouri River in the winter months have different patterns and feeding habits, Guericke said there is a great window of opportunity everyday to catch nice walleye.
“On Missouri River reservoirs, it’s imperative to find a good structure and be set up about 26 to about 30 feet into the river channel,” he said of his preferred fishing tactics. “I find the bite windows are a lot narrower."
As a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks official, Jeff Martin is frequently urging river ice fishers to proceed with caution.
Martin, a GF&P conservation officer and district supervisor in the Platte area, resides near one of the prime spots that many anglers ice fish on the river each winter near Platte. Although Martin has seen a few ice fishing accidents on the river, he said many people are aware of the dangers that come with it.
“It’s never fair to say it’s safe when you have early ice, but once there is established ice that’s about 12 to 15 inches, you are in a safer position,” he said. “For the most part, we don’t see many life-threatening accidents, which I believe is due to many anglers having an understanding of how risky ice fishing on the river is.”
If an angler is new to ice fishing the river, Martin said going with an experienced ice fisher until one feels more comfortable with it should always be a goal. However, having plenty of experience ice fishing the large body of water doesn’t mean accidents can’t happen.
One way accidents happen along the river near the Platte area, Martin said, is anglers not having an understanding of how the ice freezes in stages. In the Platte area, he said the ice will typically freeze on the north side of the Platte-Winner bridge first and later on the south side.
“Someone coming from out of town may have no clue that the south side was open water a day or two prior. They hear the bite is hot and people are fishing,” Martin said.
To avoid a tragic accident in that respective scenario, he said making phone calls to GF&P offices in the area where anglers are looking to fish to check on the ice conditions is a great start. Following that up by asking local residents about the conditions is also an important step to take before making the trek onto the ice.
Another critical safety measure Martin and GF&P officials stress for river ice fishers is using spud bars wherever anglers are looking to drill a hole to fish.
“People should always be using spud bars during their travels because the ice thickness is never going to be uniform. Just because it’s 12 inches here doesn’t mean it will be 12 in another area,” Martin said.
While the last week of December is typically when many ice fishers hit the river, Martin the warmer winters South Dakota has experienced lately can make it “dicey.”
“A lot of years there will be 12 to 15 inches of ice out in the middle of the ice, but when we have a week of 40 to 50 degree weather can make it very hard and risky to get a machine like an ATV on the ice without falling through,” he said.