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James C. Schneider of Willmar was able to retrieve most of his ice fishing gear from his pick up truck after it was hoisted from Foot Lake. He was able dry out his Vexlar fish locator and put it back in service. He needed only replace a corroded terminal on its battery. His gas auger is running again too. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Ice fisherman very grateful and wary after icy plunge

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WILLMAR -- Surviving the harrowing experience of having his pickup truck break through the ice of Foot Lake in Willmar has made James C. Schneider, 73, of Willmar, a grateful man, and a very wary one.

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He said the experience taught him just how unpredictable ice can be, especially when the chain of events that led to his Dec. 27 plunge into the icy waters may have had its start with a flock of geese, a school of carp, or both.

Schneider had done everything right when he ventured out on Foot Lake around 3 p.m. that day. He and another ice fisherman had met up at the Robbins Island access with their pickup trucks, but decided to drive out on the lake from the other end near the Kandiyohi County fairgrounds.

As they made their way out, they used their augers to drill holes to check the lake depth. They wanted to fish where the lake's depth dropped from three- and four-feet to 10.

Everywhere they drilled, they found 15-inches of ice.

They found the dropoff, put up their portable fish houses and enjoyed a good walleye bite that evening, said Schneider. Retired after a 47-year career as the owner of a local sanitation transport business, he typically spent four or five evenings a week ice fishing on local waters. With a couple of very nice walleyes flopping around in his bucket, Schneider's fishing partner packed up his portable fishing house and drove home in his pickup around 5:45 p.m. Schneider decided to hold tight for another 15 minutes.

Then he too packed up in the dark, did a complete circle with the truck to point back to where he started, and drove maybe 30 feet into the blowing snow.

"I dropped right into the lake," said Schneider. His 2004 Chevrolet Silverado's front end pointed downward, and ice prevented him from opening his door.

He pushed the button to drop the driver's side window about two-thirds of the way, and thought about staying put. He believed he was back in shallow water. He'd wait for a rescue team. But he was still over 10 feet of water, and the icy water gushed into the opened window as the truck started to nosedive. He was bundled in heavy, insulated coveralls. After many years of hard labor, Schneider his share of knee, hip and shoulder problems too. Schneider said he pressed on the ice outside his truck window and it bobbed up and down, but he had no choice: He used his legs to push himself out of the truck and skidded three or four feet over the thin ice.

He was drenched and frozen to the ice, but lucky. He had skidded far enough to land back on the safe, 15-inch ice.

"The Good Lord must have been with me," he said.

Fortunately for Schneider, Willmar Police Officer Craig Lange was close by as well. Schneider said he rolled to break free of the ice that held him, got up and headed towards a distant fish house in the sub-zero wind chills. He slipped, slammed the back of his head hard and hurt his elbows. But he saw someone coming his way, and pulled the flashlight he keeps around his neck to signal for help while yelling all he could.

Officer Lange got him to a portable fish house where a party of three from New London had all they could to help the officer get the now very chilled Schneider inside.

A pickup truck ride to Rice Memorial Hospital and 3½ hours wrapped in warm blankets later, and Schneider said he could only think about how grateful he was to those who had come to his aid, and how lucky he was that they had. Officer Lange had happened to see his headlights disappear, and had come to investigate believing he had gotten stuck in a snow bank, said Schneider. The next day, Schneider's fishing partner and Hanson Towing of New London returned to the spot where the pickup had plunged into the lake. They drilled and drilled until the area looked like Swiss cheese, and discovered that he had hit the bull's eye. His pickup had hit one, 12 foot-by 16- to 17-foot spot where the ice was only four-inches thick, as compared to 15-inches of ice all around the spot.

Schneider said it is believed that the small area had been kept open longer than the rest of the lake by geese. These thin ice areas can also attract carp, which congregate in cold water and by virtue of their movement keep the ice above them thin.

Bruce Gilbertson, area fisheries supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources in Spicer, said there is no way to know for sure if that is what happened in Schneider's situation, but it is very plausible. He said the problem that Schneider encountered has occurred on a number of lakes in the area this winter. They froze over early, and then due to fish congregations, underwater currents or springs, small areas opened up. These small areas iced over just when the area started receiving an insulating blanket of snow. Consequently, the thin ice patches were slow to thicken up, and impossible to see.

Schneider said he was fortunate to have good insurance, which covered his losses and the approximate $4,000 bill associated with hoisting the submerged pickup truck.

He was able to retrieve most of what he had in the truck, and was surprised. He was able to dry out his gas-powered auger and replace a battery terminal on his Vexlar fish locator, and both are working just fine.

He was even able to extract his Conway Twitty CD that his young grandson loves to hear so much.

It's now playing in his new Silverado pickup, the one that's parked in the garage. Schneider said he's not planning to venture out on the ice in a pickup any more, and instead is waiting to get his boat out in the spring.

When he does, he said Officer Lange and his son are going to be among his first guests.

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