Ice fishermen are probably one of the most dedicated groups of anglers to their sport in the world. Just about anywhere there are fish and a walkable coating of ice, anglers will be there drilling holes and setting lines. Early ice is always anticipated like a holiday; excitement builds with ice in the driveway puddles, then skim ice on local roadside ponds, and finally...ice up on the lakes and rivers. Following is advice from Keith Worrall of OutdoorsFIRST on the Ice to help you stay safe.
Safety First, all Ice is NOT Equal
Every Winter as many as 60 people lose their lives as a result of going through the ice. Obviously, great care needs to be exercised when heading out on the first ice of the year. When is the ice safe to walk out on?
Ponds and small lakes freeze up first. It takes at least 4 nights of serious cold, with lows in the low teens or colder, to form the first inch and a half. Sure, there may be thicker ice right next to shore, but that's a result of the 'ring' of ice that forms up a couple days before the water body skims over. Some sources claim 1" of ice holds up to 300 pounds, and although that may be true under lab conditions, too many variables exist to trust any ice less that 2.5", and for reasonable safety, 3". That ice needs to be 'clear' ice, too. Milky colored ice created by snow thaws and refreeze is not as strong, and will fail at half the weight applied or less when compared to clear ice.
Lakes freeze over next. The size and depth of the lake makes the difference between a quick freeze and slow, so a 400 acre lake that averages 10' deep will be safe long before a 4000 acre lake with 50' of depth. There is no 'rule of thumb' when deciding if Ice is safe, one needs to stay off the ice for at least the first week of freezing temperatures on the area lakes, and head out with extreme caution on the first trip. Generally speaking, each night with low teens to below zero temps where there is ice with no snow cover will add almost an inch of good ice. Snow cover insulates, and some years may create a situation where the ice is never 'safe' all winter. If the lows are in the 20's, reduce the ice formed every 24 hours to less than a third. Be sure, be safe... or stay on the shore!
Carry an power auger , hand auger, or spud to test the ice. Start on ice over shallow water, and punch a hole to test the thickness. A Frabill scoop with a measure handle dipped through the hole and hooked on the bottom of the ice will give an accurate measure. Don't 'guess', it's too easy to be excited enough about the first day of ice fishing to overestimate. If the ice is good, clear, and solid, trust no less than 2.5 inches if you are average weight INCLUDING all the gear you have with you. Look for 3" as reasonably safe, keeping your combined ice load under 400 pounds. As you head out checking, don't assume anything, that could put you in the water and in trouble. Punch a hole every 50 feet until you reach your desired fishing spot, and don't skip a couple. If the ice drops in thickness by a half an inch from your last test hole, STOP.
At 4" across the entire lake, you are safe to wander as you wish on foot. At least 8" should be present before taking out your snowmobile or 4 wheeler, and the driver and any passengers should be wearing a PFD. Buy a Nebulus, it could save your machine AND your life. At the very least make sure you have enough flotation on your machine to float it, and you.
Never drive a vehicle on less than a solid 12 inches. Some educated sources would tell you it is never safe to drive a truck or car out on the ice. Take that advice to heart if you insist on taking the family pick up or SUV out ice fishing, and be prepared to exit the vehicle in a hurry if you are driving on ice where no other traffic has been recently no matter how thick the ice, a crack or heave hidden under the snow could be a failure point if hit 'just right'. Everyone in the vehicle should have immediate access (wear one) to a life vest, and even better, carry a Nebulus where it's easily accessible. Even 20" of good ice can fail if a heave or open crack occurs.
Rivers are never safe. ALWAYS test your intended path out on a frozen river, and keep machines close to shore where the water is known to be shallow. It's better to not take any machines on the river ice at all unless the current is so low the ice forms up well. Bays can be safe, but the danger zone where good ice meets bad can shift daily. Flowages are also treacherous, as current picks up and drops off and the ice rises and settles as flow through the dam changes. Extreme caution should be exercised driving on ANY flowage, in fact...don't.
Some home made and commercially built shelters can weigh as much as 1500 pounds. Before taking any permanent shelter on the ice, make sure the ice will carry the weight, and use the vehicle and shack total weight as you anticipate towing your shelter out for a trip or for the season. Don't rush it. A flip over is easily pulled out on the ice, and is far more mobile, but if 'creature comforts' are your desire, the big 'sleeper shacks' are pretty cool.
Carry an Ice safety kit. Make sure you have a set of hand spikes you can access right away if you fall through, those spikes will allow you to gain a purchase on the ice surface and pull yourself out. Keep a small air horn (or two) in your top pocket in case you get in trouble, and use 3 short, 3 long, and 3 short blasts to get attention if you find you cannot get out of the water. A whistle is recommended as well as a backup, but the air horn will work when you are stressed and weak as the cold begins to create hypothermia, and your ability to use a whistle may not. You have about 15 minutes before the cold takes you; make sure your distress call can be heard.
When driving across the ice in any heavy vehicle, drive SLOW. Do not follow another vehicle closely, the first vehicle creates an 'ice wave' behind it, and the faster one drives, the more dramatic that wave can be. Striking that wave at it's peak can fracture the ice and dump you and your vehicle into the water even though the ice is 12" to 20" thick. Never drive on the ice with your windows closed. If your vehicle goes through, opening the windows may be an issue, and opening them after breakthrough can cause a much more sudden invasion of heavy ice chunks into the cab, striking you and injuring you to the point where getting out is impossible. If you go through, get out and get out quickly, you may have only seconds. Don't try to save any items in the vehicle, make sure your passengers are on the way out and launch yourself as far away from the vehicle as possible. If you have a Nebulus, toss it out the door while pulling the ripcord. Always have a plan with everyone which side of the vehicle you will deploy the raft.
First Ice safety, and safety on the ice through the entire season is a simple matter of common sense coupled with having the correct gear at the ready. Be safe out there, and enjoy the Winter!