Ice Fishing Safety Primer

News & Tips: Ice Fishing Safety Primer

There's nothing quite like ice fishing. An adventure on a frozen lake can provide good catches, a welcome relief from cabin fever and great memories. But few other outdoor activities require as much caution and awareness. A plunge through thin ice can easily prove fatal; so too can other hazards such as hypothermia, vehicle injuries or carbon monoxide poisoning in a tightly-sealed ice hut. Fortunately, being aware of a few safety rules can eliminate these unpleasant risks.


The Cardinal Rule

The author keeps his ice picks handy by wearing them around his neck.

Of all the safety rules associated with ice fishing the most important one is never trust any ice. This is especially true early and late in the season, and anytime you are on unfamiliar water.


Even when walking, it doesn't matter that a snowmobile or ATV just drove over the ice ahead of you; it's probably going at a higher speed, and its load is spread over the length of the machine. Nor does it matter that someone told you that the ice was safe yesterday; there might be a miscommunication about the location, or conditions might be treacherous on your route to that spot. Also, remember that rain, mild spells and warm winds can impact conditions on a daily basis, changing everything.


Likewise, don't put too much stock in ice thickness reports from nearby lakes. After all, each water body is unique and is influenced by different factors that affect ice production such as depth of the lake, snow covering, and inflow and outflow currents, just to name a few. At the very best, ice reports from similar lakes or local marinas and bait shops can provide an indication of what you might expect — but that's not to say that there aren't exceptions.


Places to Avoid

Perhaps the only things that all bodies of water have in common are places to avoid. Regardless of the location, stay away from ice that has formed over a current. Similarly, give a wide berth to man-made or beaver dams, beaver lodges or muskrat huts, and logs and vegetation that poke through the ice — invariably these disturbances deteriorate ice quality, making it untrustworthy. Also be aware that ice near shore is generally weaker; primarily because it is constantly being impacted but also because shallow water warms first.


Even when excellent ice is prevalent, be cautious. I was once fishing on a large lake when we decided to get on our ATVs and move to a different location. On the way, however, we narrowly averted an unmarked four-foot by four-foot trough that someone had chain-sawed through the ice. We only saw this gaping hole when our ATVs missed it by inches. Needless to say, the situation could have been disastrous.


How Much Ice?

It's generally agreed that you should never settle for less than four inches of clear, solid ice if you're walking out to your fishing spot. If you are riding a snowmobile or ATV, five inches is preferable. And, if you choose to drive your car or truck out to the fishing grounds, twelve inches of good ice is absolutely needed. Sure, you can get away with less in each circumstance, but these thicknesses provide a proven margin of safety, which is absolutely prudent since ice thickness is not always consistent.


This image illustrates good and bad ice — the bad ice is the darker area in the middle of the photo.

On a personal note, I'd never drive a truck or car out on the ice. Yes, it's done regularly and successfully in the vast majority of circumstances, but I've personally witnessed three vehicles punch through ice that was otherwise considered safe for them — fortunately, the occupants bailed out in time in all cases and the only damage was to the vehicles (which most insurance companies will not insure under these circumstances, by the way.)


In Good Company

It's nice to share outdoors recreation with a friend. A partner adds an element of safety too. This is particularly true when ice fishing.


When walking over uncharted ice with a friend, walk a few yards apart with the lead person testing the ice by drilling holes or chipping at it with a spud every now and then. The second angler should pull all the gear in a sled and provide assistance should the first angler find himself in a dangerous situation. Keep a 50-foot length of heaving line in the sled for just such an occasion, and if each angler has a cell phone so much the better.


Fishing partners should also watch each other for signs of hypothermia. If a member of your party starts slurring words, shivering uncontrollably, or acting unreasonably angry or disoriented, it's time to get them back in, and quick.


Having said all that, if you must fish alone, make sure that you let someone know where you're going. Then proceed cautiously by drilling test holes and checking in on occasion, perhaps via cell phone. Most importantly, stick to the plan, return on time, and be aware of the symptoms of hypothermia. Oh, and have safety equipment on hand.

Dress for the Occasion

Needless to say, dressing for the weather is essential. This means wearing clothing designed to keep you dry and warm. Critical components include a good winter hat, quality thermal underwear and proper mitts or gloves. It's advisable to keep a spare pair of gloves in your pack too since you'll be placing your hands near water frequently. We also carry hand warmers so fingers stay nimble.


Boots should possess a good tread for ice. If the tread is worn, consider purchasing ice cleats to improve their grip.


As for safety equipment, keep a few items handy. While many ice safety experts advise wearing a life jacket under your cloths, I've never known of anyone who has followed this advice. A more practical alternative is a flotation suit, preferably in blaze orange. Get one if you can.


Wear clothing designed to keep you dry and warm.

Another must-have item is a pair of ice picks connected by a cord. You can make your own but a good commercial pair is relatively inexpensive and of proven design. Keep them handy; they're no good buried in your pack.


Lastly, a reliable fire starting kit can save the day after you've taken a soaker on an isolated lake -- don't leave home without it.


Drive Safely

When it comes to snow machines, ATVs or trucks on the ice, it's critical not to drive so that your speed outpaces your visibility or braking ability. Fog, darkness, heavy snow and whiteout conditions can all lead a vehicle astray -- sometimes astray means into open water or weak ice, sometimes it means into rock cuts, pressure cracks or trees -- none of it's good. When driving, be prepared to bail out quickly if need be; in cars or trucks, don't wear seat belts when on the ice and be aware that a floatation suit might actually hinder escape from a vehicle.


The Right Stuff

Simply put, you need to stoke the furnace in cold weather. This means taking along high-energy snacks and drinks. We always carry at least one thermos of hot chocolate, tea, soup or coffee per angler in addition to good hearty lunches and snacks. This is no time for carrot sticks and celery, by the way; eating high-energy food and drinking hot beverages at regular intervals is essential to keeping warm.


One thing you should never consume on the ice is alcohol. Aside from being illegal in many jurisdictions, alcohol consumption promotes hypothermia and impairs judgment — two problems you just don't need.


Parting Thoughts

Many veteran ice anglers might believe that all this sounds overly cautious — but those who have fallen through thin ice, as I have, know that these precautions are a very small price to pay for a safe day of ice fishing. Please utilize them, and have fun out there!