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'Diehards' hitting frozen mighty Missouri

Alicia Fisher, of Mitchell, tries her luck for walleye while ice fishing last January at Lake Mitchell. (Matt Gade/Republic)

CHAMBERLAIN — The nights are long. The air is cold. That means the lakes and rivers are frozen.

To Raymond Pickner, it's perfect fishing weather.

"You gotta like to fish, and I love to fish, whether it's springtime fishing or ice fishing," Pickner said. "But my preference is ice fishing."

Pickner, a 51-year-old Chamberlain resident, has been ice fishing for almost 40 years. When the weather turns frosty, he grabs his rod and takes his first steps on the ice at 5 in the morning.

"There's nothing like it if you're a true fisherman," he said.

But early ice season can be unpredictable, and anglers got a relatively late start this year due to an unseasonably warm fall. It's typically this time of year when the diehards are out.

According to Chamberlain Conservation Officer Brian Ridgway, ice fishing ebbs and flows in Chamberlain due to inconsistent ice conditions early in the season.

"There are a select few people who are diehards, and they'll be out there ice fishing as soon as it's on," Ridgway said. "Now, January will be a different story. There will be ice fishing."

Ridgway said the hobby is more popular north of Pierre and in the south near Platte and Pickstown, but ice fishing has picked up popularity in the Chamberlain area thanks to the Chamberlain-Oacoma Ice Fishing Tournament, which Pickner founded and has run for eight years.

The annual tournament is made up of 99 teams of two, which pay $80 and receive a bucket of gear and supplies, as well as cash prizes for the top 15 teams at the end of the tournament. This season's tournament is Jan. 21, and Pickner always sees a full house.

Pickner has seen people fishing in some places as early as two weeks ago, but it wasn't until the recent cold weather that the river solidified and became more safe.

Pickner manages Cedar Shore Marina in Oacoma, and he said there's about 10 inches of ice in the area.

"I wouldn't be scared to drive a four-wheeler out there on it," he said.

It was just a week ago the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department reminded anglers to use caution before venturing on any ice.

"We know winter recreationists are excited to get out, but we are encouraging people to use extreme caution when going out on the ice," GF&P Aquatics Chief John Lott said in a written statement.

According to GF&P, it takes at least 2 inches of ice to support a person, 6 inches to support an ice shack and at least one foot for some vehicles, but those numbers apply to strong, clear ice. Dark or cloudy ice is not as strong.

District Conservation Officer Supervisor Steve Rossow, who supervises GF&P officers who work in Lyman, Gregory, Tripp, Jones, Mellette and Todd counties, recommended people wait until there is 4 inches of ice before walking onto any frozen water. For snowmobiles or ATVs, he said there must be 5 or 6 inches.

Rossow said anglers should check ice depth by drilling holes in shallow water first, then drilling about every 10 feet as he or she walks to the fishing spot. He also encouraged people to tell someone where they're going, so any potential rescues are easier.

Rossow said some ATVs have broken partially through, but he couldn't recall a time when GF&P had to rev up an airboat, which can travel on ice and water, to rescue an angler.

Vehicles falling through the ice is also uncommon, Rossow said. He said anglers in the area usually avoid driving on the river because the ice is usually not as thick as lakes in northeast South Dakota or calmer waters under the surface upstream. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers pushes water through Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson, approximately 17 miles north of Chamberlain.

"Most people don't drive on the ice out here just because we don't get good, thick-enough ice," Rossow said.

When the surface is solid, Rossow said fishing conditions near Chamberlain are good, but when anglers hear of fish biting around Mobridge, in northern South Dakota, or even Webster and Waubay in the northeast, they'll travel long distances to try their luck.

"If the bite takes off in Mobridge, the fishermen can jump in their vehicles and get there in no time at all," Rossow said. "I don't know if it's more popular or not, but the fishermen are definitely more mobile and move to where the fishing is good."

For anyone going on their first ice fishing trip, Rossow recommended talking to local bait shops to find the best fishing spots.

Pickner said technological advances, which can allow anglers to sit in a warm shack with underwater cameras, have made the sport more appealing to the public, but those tools won't guarantee a successful trip.

"If that's what suits them, that's fine, but I'm going to tell you what, it doesn't matter," Pickner said. "I've seen walleye come up to my camera, look right at my camera, look right at my bait and swim off. If they're not hungry, they're not hungry."