Ice Fishing Safety
Dec 21st, 2015 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Dec 21st, 2015 at 12:00 AM
You’ll often hear that no ice is completely safe. While this is true, it’s also true that some ice can hold incredible amounts of weight. Whether or not you will be safe on the ice depends upon your knowledge, preparation, gear, and the actions you take. If completely safe was the standard to venture out on a frozen lake, no one would ice fish. What you want to ensure is that the ice is safe for you, given your chosen method of travel.
Early ice can be very unpredictable
As first ice forms it typically begins at the shores of the lake and stretches out across covering the middle of the lake last. You may think that the thickest ice is near the shore but that is not always the case. The depth at shore, bottom structure (sand vs. mud), and amount of snow cover can affect the thickness of near shore ice. Ice is prevented from forming as quickly as it might elsewhere due to the mud bottom holding heat and the snow providing insulation. With early ice nothing is ever certain. If you venture out on the ice in the early season take every precaution. Ice anglers typically buy safety gear as an afterthought once they have already purchased their shack, sonar, rods, etc. If you don’t own any safety gear consider moving it up higher on your equipment wish list. That decision may save your life.
Have the gear and use the gear
If you are on ice that you have any reason to question whatsoever you should be wearing and using a full complement of ice safety gear. If your gear is in your sled when you walk out it’s useless to you, so wear it. Check the thickness of the ice with a spud bar at least every second step. You’re not only looking to see if the spud breaks through the ice. You also want to pay attention to what noises the ice makes when you hit it as well as how the thump of the spud bar feels when it hits the ice. If the ice is getting thin you can feel that in the thump of the spud bar beneath your feet. Ice thickness can change quickly. Last year I listened to a friend auger holes at his shack then ten and twenty feet away. On the last hole the auger ran about half as long as it did on the second hole. I went and measured. The ice was 7 inches thick in one hole while 10 feet from there it was a bit less than 4. It was a good example of why it’s important to spud everywhere you walk before you set up and drill holes.
The following picture is gear I routinely use. When moving to and from my fishing location I wear a Striker Ice float suit with floating ice picks around my neck. I keep my cell in a water proof case around my neck. If I’m alone I keep a throw rope bag in my sled. If I have a buddy along I go ahead of them and check the ice while they follow with the rope. The throw rope bags are great tools. Make sure you practice with it and show your buddy how to use it before you set foot on the ice.
Looks are deceiving
When you’re walking on the ice keep your eyes and ears open for any indication of unsafe ice. Don’t ever just assume that ice is safe because it looks good. No matter how experienced you may be there’s always the chance you could make a mistake or misjudge something. If you do, in that instant, all your experience in judging the safety of the ice is meaningless and you are now in the water. You’d better have what you need to get out. The very minimum in safety gear is a pair of ice picks. These will help you get purchase on the ice around you to pull yourself up. If you end up in cold water it will take your breath away. Your first move should be to get the picks out and into the ice at the edge of the hole. Once you can breathe kick your legs while punching the picks one at a time and pulling yourself out. A life jacket will keep you up and floating so you can catch your breath and work on getting out without having to swim for your life to stay above water. A float suit makes a world of difference. Float suits are ice fishing suits that have built in flotation. Some are certified as a life saving device by the coast guard while others are not but offer buoyancy or “lift” to help you get out of the water should you break through. If you are considering a float suit but cannot afford the entire suit I recommend buying the bibs first. If you watch videos of the suits in action vs. videos of someone in a life jacket it’s quickly apparent that the bibs serve to get you horizontal rather than vertical and that makes pulling yourself out much easier. When traveling over the ice whether on a machine or walking, I always wear my full suit. There’s never a time I do not have my float bibs on when ice fishing.
This picture is a good example of looks being deceiving. It looks like I’m standing on fractured ice while in reality it was very safe ice. A ship had come in after the ice had formed a few inches thick. Afterword’s it refroze and added depth beneath it. I’m standing on a solid foot of ice. Snow cover makes judging ice conditions even more difficult. A blanket of snow over newly formed ice can give the appearance of safety while potentially hiding very unsafe ice. Always check the thickness of the ice to make sure you know what you’re traveling over.
Be aware of signs that indicate bad ice
Before you go out onto a lake it’s important that you know the lake well. Some lakes are spring fed and where the springs are the ice can be thin. Reservoirs and even small lakes can have current that can eat at the ice from underneath in certain areas. Some reservoirs are drawn down in the winter. This can create very unstable ice. These are all things you need to know about your chosen fishing spot before you take that first step. I don’t recommend ice fishing early ice on a lake that is not completely locked in with ice. Especially on large lakes. Without the ice being locked in wind can push it around creating separation between the different plates of ice. You could be on a solid 6-8 inches but if that breaks off and moves out to the middle of the lake you can find yourself on an ice island hoping for rescue. Your gear and or machine are likely forfeit. The rescuers have no obligation to include gear or machines in your evacuation.
Pressure cracks often form as the ice builds and buckles. The important thing to know about pressure cracks is that they are potentially dangerous even when the ice is very thick. If you have to cross one and are on foot test it with your spud bar and don’t cross in areas that appear indented or newly wet. Crossing pressure cracks in cars or trucks is always a gamble. When I cross them with the snowmobile I’ll often run along them a ways a hundred yards or so parallel till I find a spot that looks more solid before I cross. I don’t ever cross them going slow on a snowmobile.
Ice safety on the great lakes is a whole other level of knowledge. If you plan to fish one of the great lakes and are not familiar with the area I very highly recommend speaking with someone local. Underwater piers, breakwaters, humps, and points can be unsafe for hundreds of yards in different directions due to currents. If you don’t know the potential danger areas (many of which will lie below ice that looks no different) you could very easily put yourself, your machine, or vehicle in the lake.
Be safe on late ice
Late ice, like early ice, can be some of the best fishing. It also is some of the most difficult ice to judge and so it involves increased risk. As the ice begins to break up it typically melts top down but wherever there is current will also melt from the bottom up. The top layer will often candle and then break into shards. It’s very difficult to judge how much safe ice there may or may not be once it starts to candle. The biggest and most common mistake you can make with late ice is thinking that thickness equals strength. This is very often not the case. If you travel out on late ice you need to be wearing your gear and pay very close attention. Test every step with your spud bar and never assume a spot is safe because it was so earlier in the day. Melting ice is ever changing.