Common Sense is the Key to Enjoying All Kinds of Recreation on Winter Lakes
Ice fishing. It’s one of those outdoor activities about which most folks say either “Uh-uh. Nope. Never. Are you crazy?” or “Love it. Can’t wait until the first ice. Let’s go!” But, those who try ice fishing for the first time and those who can’t wait for the ice to freeze up should have the same first thought – “How do I venture onto the ice safely?”
In “cold country,” you’ll often hear it said, “The ice is never really safe.” Obviously, with tens of thousands of people participating in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin alone, that can’t be the case. You can enjoy all kinds of activities – like fishing, snowmobiling, four-wheeling, skating, ice-boating, and more – quite safely if you employ some caution and commonsense. The truth is more in line with, “It can be difficult to tell if the ice is safe.”
Ice Conditions to Consider for Your Safety
You really can’t tell if ice is safe by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or ice is covered in snow. Ice strength is a combination of many factors, and it can vary from location to location, even on the same body of water.
Conditions to consider include the location of springs, current flow (river ice is always more suspect than lake ice), wind, amount of ice coverage, water depth, and more. Remember that current is more prevalent near bridges, overpasses, and culverts, so use extra caution in these areas. Where ice is marked as “dangerous,” stay away – no matter how good you might think the fishing is.
In general, newly formed ice is stronger than old ice that might be even thicker. Ice seldom freezes uniformly. The insulating effect of snow slows down freezing, and the extra weight of a blanket of snow reduces how much additional load the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore is usually weaker than ice farther out. Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous.
It just means the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. You’ll often hear experienced anglers saying those noises are “making ice.” Finally, schools of fish and flocks of waterfowl can adversely affect the strength of the ice. The movement of big schools of fish can push warm water up from the bottom of the lake creating holes or thin ice, causing snowmobiles and cars to breakthrough.
Judging ice strength can be tricky, and leaving it up to experienced outdoor people is best. CAUTION: the game and fish departments do not monitor lake ice thickness or strength in most places. Nearby lakeshore bait shops, marinas, fishing clubs, and resorts are usually most up to date on ice conditions.
Tools to Help You Be Safe on the Ice
When you’re on frozen lakes you’re not sure about, use an ice chisel like Cabela's Ice Chisel or the Cabela's Ice Hammer/Chisel to tap the ice as you go. If you hit the ice and water starts to creep into the mark, go back the way you came quickly. Cut holes with your ice auger every 25 or 50 yards. The holes will allow you to accurately gauge the thickness of the ice – one of the most critical factors in determining if it’s safe.
If you were to go through the ice, one of the essential survival tools you can have is a pair of retractable safety picks slung around your shoulders. Should you need to rescue yourself on the ice, having devices that allow you to deploy sharp spikes into the ice to pull yourself out are essential. If you’re fishing alone, having “ice claws” like Frabill Ice Picks or HT Enterprises Polar Ice Picks is vital.
Should a fishing companion go through the ice, DO NOT run-up to the hole to try to pull them out. The outer perimeter of the ice hole may be as weak as the ice at the hole, and you will fall in too, making the problem twice as dangerous. Instead, try to get others to tie a rope around you and belly crawl toward the victim until you can reach or throw something to them to pull them out.
The best way to avoid accidents on the ice is to stay off of questionable ice. Keep to where roads have been plowed and are well-traveled. Stop to check the latest ice conditions and warnings before you head out.
Tip: Keep a set of HT Enterprises Deluxe Retractable Polar Ice Picks handy at all times. Designed with super-grip EVA handles, these lightweight picks feature retractable heads that cover the sharp spikes when not in use. A smart investment for any ice angler.
Minnesota has to be considered the ice fishing capital of the country, and possibly the world. Lakes like Mille Lacs, Red, and Minnetonka have cities of ice fishing houses or huts set upon them. In some places, they even name the streets out on the ice. So the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has come up with an infographic to remind us all how thick the ice needs to be for various kinds of travel.
Learn more on the Minnesota DNR website at www.dnr.state.mn.us.
Watch video: Ice Fishing Safety Tips With Pete & John