Ice anglers can thank their lucky stars if they are wrapping up a season without bodily injury — regardless of their fishing luck.
Ice fishing is more like a potentially dangerous, extreme sport than the sedentary one it appears to be, with anglers sitting on the ice or huddled in shelters, according to a group of Mayo Clinic surgeons.
Indeed, the researchers discovered enough burns, broken bones and concussions among those who venture onto the ice to catch a mess of fish that they concluded that ice fishing is more perilous than traditional methods, according to their study, published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Falling through the ice may jump to mind faster than a walleye wallops bait as the biggest danger, but statistics tell a different tale, according to the research, originally published online last summer and soon to be publicly available.
“However, it turns out that burns are just as common, but rarely discussed,” said Dr. Cornelius Thiels, an osteopathic surgical resident at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Ice-fishing shelters — ranging from small tents or shanties to elaborate, two-story tiny houses, with electricity from their own generators, TVs and other amenities — “often contain rudimentary heating systems,” Thiel said.
“We have seen injuries from fires and carbon monoxide inhalation. We hope this research will bring awareness to the safety issues that surround this pastime and help prevent similar incidents,” he said.
Data analyzed from 2009-14
Study team members analyzed data chronicling emergency room visits between 2009 and 2014 obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System All Injury Program. They were able to discern that the injuries to 85 out of 8,220 patients were suffered while ice fishing, while the others were among commercial or traditional sport fishing.
The national data are representative sub-sample of more than 100 hospitals that have six or more beds and a 24-hour emergency departments across a variety of geographic regions. The surveillance system is a collaborative among the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
There may have been more cases, the researchers conceded, because the reports don’t flag fishing injuries, so they had to plumb the narratives of the reports to find those tied to ice fishing.
Nearly half of the ice-fishing injuries were orthopedic or musculoskeletal, such as broken bones, sprains and strains, Thiel said.
Most of those no doubt can be attributed to slips and falls, which anyone can appreciate after experiencing a body-slam to the ice while trying to walk across a windswept Lake Onalaska, Lake Neshonoc, Mississippi River backwaters or other bodies of frozen water.
Slipping is easier, but more hazardous, than falling out of a boat, which has the advantage of a soft landing.
Anglers injured while ice fishing were more likely to have injuries to the torso or lower half of the body, and those injuries were more serious than those suffered during other times of the year.
Immersion/drowning occurred in nearly 5 percent of the ice fishing cases, but in just 0.3 percent among those fishing from boats, decks or shores.
Five ice-fishing cases involved major trauma, a category that includes concussions, loss of an appendage and organ injuries. Just more than one-third resulted in minor trauma, such as cuts, abrasions, punctures and injuries from errant hooks, according to the findings.
Four anglers’ injuries resulted from falling into cold water, with two such incidents in December and two in March. Four were burned because of mishaps with their heating systems.
Most of the 85 patients were treated and released. Roughly 11 percent were injured so severely that they were admitted to a hospital and/or transferred. The rate of admission/transfer of 11 percent in ice ﬁshing was significantly higher than in traditional ﬁshing.
In what obviously is attributed to the lack of mosquitoes during the winter, there were no cases of insect bites or delayed infections from hook injuries on ice, compared with 4.7 percent during mild seasons.
Ice anglers may be tougher
Hardiness may come into play, Thiel and his co-authors theorized, writing that “people who ice ﬁsh may be tougher or more resilient due to the nature of the sport and therefore less likely to present for care for minor injuries than their warmer weather counterparts, and this may be a source of selection bias.”
It also is possible that mortality rates may be higher for either or both types of fishing because the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System does not track cases before or after emergency department visits.
Intoxication was reported twice as often in the narrative of ice-ﬁshing injuries, compared with traditional ﬁshing injuries, perhaps attributable to lengthy periods of imbibing while huddled in shelters on ice. That issue merits further investigation, the researchers indicated.
When compared with traditional ﬁshing, patients who went to ERs with injuries were similar in age, at 36 for traditional fishing and 39 for ice fishing. The majority were males, at 88 percent among ice anglers and 80 percent among traditionalists. Nearly three-fourths of those injured while ice fishing were Caucasian, compared with 59 percent for other methods.
The statistics and study did not include another hazard that appears periodically during ice-fishing seasons: Men who tell their wives they are going ice fishing but inadvertently tip off their lying intentions by not taking any kind of tackle.
That proved to be the undoing of some anglers more than a decade ago on Lake Mille Lacs, a massive, relatively shallow lake about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities that becomes a village of upwards of 10,000 ice anglers during winter weekends. Various law enforcement agencies cracked down on prostitutes on the lake — some of whom operated out of their own shanties and others, peddling their wares door to door.
Even ignoring such cases of ne’er-do-wells, “Ice fishing has become more popular in the last few years, and, with this, we have seen an increase in ice fishing-related injuries,” Thiel said.
“Ice ﬁshing as a recreational activity and sport … has a unique injury pattern and environmental risks that were previously unreported,” Thiel and his co-authors wrote. “Participants should be aware of the potential risk, and injury prevention education should be tailored around this information.”