Life-savers coming in handy in year of especially dangerous ice

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Six or so years ago, Arden Katz was ice fishing on Delavan Lake in Wisconsin with a buddy. As night came, they walked in.

‘‘All these ATVs were coming in,” Katz said. ‘‘Guys who fish there a lot are going on shore to avoid this crack and open water. And I hear, ‘Boom,’ like a car accident. I think, ‘What the [expletive]?’ This guy went right over the crack and into the open water.”

Katz threw the guy an old seat flotation device on a rope and they pulled him out. The old seat from Katz’s boat no longer passed Coast Guard inspection, so he had tied on 50 feet of rope and turned it into a safety device for ice.

If ever a winter needed it, this is it.

I met Katz in the mid-1990s when he ran a bait shop in Elk Grove Village servicing Busse Lake. The business hassle finally drove the North Sider to find a factory job he still holds.

But fishing was more than business. He’s single. He works and fishes. He’s one of my best barometers on Chicago fishing. When perch are in, he’s at Navy Pier or Montrose. When the crappie or walleye are going on Lake Marie, he’s on the Chain O’Lakes. When the browns or steelhead are in the southeast Wisconsin harbors, he’s there.

Understand, he comprehends the complexities of saying, ‘‘To my experience, there is no safe ice.”

Twice he’s had his life saved while going in. Once he went through at Racine Harbor when there was some 15 inches of ice.

‘‘The second time I fell in, I was fighting a 10-pound fish,” Katz said. ‘‘There were cracks in the ice, but it was a foot thick. This crack opened up, and I went in. I could feel the current pulling me. This guy grabbed my jacket and pulled me out.”

Understanding the risks, he keeps ice fishing. As shown by the day he was rescued.

‘‘After that, we moved back 100 feet, but we kept fishing,” Katz said. ‘‘I stayed that day, too, even though I was soaking wet. I guess it is like karma. Like if you ever watched this movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”

In the movie, Harry goes through the ice, and George saves him. Later, Harry is a pilot who saves an aircraft carrier.

Understanding the risks, Katz, not a small man, continues to be one of the first on at early-ice spots like the T-Channel on the Chain or Nielsen’s Channel off the Fox River at Port Barrington. He was again this year.

Fast forward to early January, then cue flashbacks, karma and déjà vu.

It’s been an awful year for ice fishermen. Enough to build desperation.

On Jan. 15, there was briefly enough ice that dozens ventured out on Nielsen’s. Katz was one of them catching lots of bluegills. As he fished, he watched two large men go through the thin center ice over the current area.

The channel is shallow, and the men could stand. But they quickly became so cold that they couldn’t grab the ropes thrown to them.

Katz knew the feeling: ‘‘It feels like you are in the bathtub and people poured ice cubes over you.”

So he pulled out his trusty old seat cushion, then threw it to the guys. They slipped into the rungs, then two other fishermen helped him pull them to safety.

‘‘Hey, tell guys to keep one of those old seat cushions with them,” he said.

And ice-fish with a buddy. Understand the risks, but don’t stop ice fishing.

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