December 21, 2022
One of the most dangerous ice-fishing scenarios I've encountered happened one morning on Lake Superior's Duluth Harbor. Ice cutters keep the harbor open for shipping, which yields a continual ebb and flow of ice chunks, open water and safe ice that is broken and refrozen daily. A group of us headed out on the harbor in the pre-dawn darkness, but an unseasonable rain had left the ice jet-black and wet, hiding any treacherous spots. Everything looked the same, and one of our companions pushed ahead, literally walking into open water.
Fortunately, he survived that encounter, but it offered a harsh lesson. Even with decades of experience, the old adage, "No ice is safe," always rings true. Whether it's early in the season or closer to ice-off, be prepared and follow some key rules to stay safe on hardwater.
Develop a plan and make your fishing intentions known to others. Better yet, use the buddy system and never venture onto the ice alone. A solo angler stands little chance of making it out of a perilous situation should the unthinkable happen.
Test to Verify
Chisel or punch all ice to test its integrity. If you don't have a chisel, buy one. Or wait until wheelers and sleds are hitting the ice before you dare walk out. Every step or two, swing a weighted and aggressive chisel downward. For the first few steps from shore, chip a hole and observe general thickness, then measure to be sure. On late-season ice especially, shoreline ice often erodes first. This is why many anglers use waders or some type of bridge, like a plank, to access the main ice sheet—often still feet thick and safe—and reach stellar late-ice bites.
For foot traffic, you want to measure at least 4 inches of solid ice. On early or late ice, I chisel about every 6 feet or so—basically every two steps. I do this until I reach a place where I'm comfortable with my surroundings. Often, I'll even create a border or perimeter of safe ice that I want to stay inside of while fishing.
Read the Ice
Last year we were filming in South Dakota under brutally cold conditions, with nearly 10 inches of the most beautiful black and clear ice you ever saw. Our snowmobiles cruised over the frozen lake, drivers confident in their safety. That is, until we saw a small neckdown.
Most know that inlets/outlets, channels or even narrow spots in a lake can freeze at a much slower rate—especially with flow. But this was in a small slough with temps hovering around zero. Still, a crew member spotted what looked like cattails that were not snow-covered like the rest of the shore. Sure enough, the chisel plunged straight through the inch of ice present at that location.
The ice couldn't support a single person, let alone several with snowmobiles and equipment. Too often, it's under these conditions, with good ice in most places and poor ice only in some, that ice can be most dangerous.
Many times, as in this scenario, reading ice means reading the snow on top of it. Soaked snow, absent snow or snow that appears to have re-frozen is a tip-off. Ice heaves or other areas where large frozen chunks are not lying flat and flush with surrounding ice are trouble spots, too. The aforementioned inlets and outlets, as well as springs and woody areas also make the list. Avoid these areas, or cross only in marked or tested locations.
The same is true for ice that doesn't look like what's around it. On late ice, for example, discolorations suggest softer ice that's starting to become water; lots of darker patches throughout the lake—essentially water coming up through the fractured ice near the surface—signal the end of safe ice. Whatever the case, if ice is different, test it with a chisel first, and measure in several places. Then, consider the test holes your cordoned-off area, and fish only inside this safety zone. Also, if you're drilling late in the season and find you're cutting snow almost as much as you're cutting ice, consider moving to a different area.
Bring a Rope
Rope isn't on most anglers' checklists, but it should be. If you do go in, a handy throw rope not only helps you, it keeps others at a safe distance to prevent them from falling in, too. Without a rope, and even with a friend nearby, there's often no safe way for them to aid you. Make rope an essential gear item, and keep it accessible if you need it.
Include Ice Picks
If a rope isn't handy, ice picks are your last line of defense. These are far less effective for thin first ice, as the ice around you is often easily breakable once there’s already a big hole in it. But if they're on you, ice picks offer some grip—even if only temporary—to help you make your way closer to shore or up onto more stable ice.
Use all tools at your disposal and give yourself time to properly chisel and check every pathway. Early ice and late ice aren't necessarily ideal for children or inexperienced ice anglers. It's simply too easy to forget where you're safe and where you might not be.
Start small and fish an area for a while. From experience, there's a big difference between so-called "making ice" (ice that's still forming and is contracting, cracking and shifting a bit) and "cracking ice" (ice that's literally cracking under the strain of supporting you). So, trust your gut here, but go slow enough to pay attention to what you hear and feel. Ice can bow a lot under your weight, and if it feels like it's "giving," it probably is.
Macho rants and broad declarations about fishing on 2 inches or less are best left at the tavern, not brought out onto the ice with you. Take your time, heed this advice and fight the urge to be the very first (or last) person out there. Be the safest instead, and live to fish another day.
IN COLD WATER
The unthinkable has happened and you've plunged into water cold enough to take your breath away. Here are a few tips for surviving a break-through.
- If possible, keep yourself from going under completely—many people drown on the initial dunk.
- Calm yourself before thrashing to escape.
- Turn your body to head back in the direction of safe ice.
- Kick your feet behind you to get horizontal near the water's surface.
- Get your elbows up on the ice sheet, kicking repeatedly to "swim" up onto the ice.
- Roll away to safer ice before standing.
5 ITEMS FOR THE ICE
Gear you need to ensure your safety during the hardwater season
- Float Suit: There's no excuse not to own one. Their performance has risen a lot in recent years, and affordable options abound. You won't know they float until you need them to, and I'm fine with that.
- Spud Bar: It's your No. 1 safety tool. Use it constantly and treat it accordingly.
- Ice Picks: Hang them around your neck and forget about them. Hopefully, you'll never have to use them.
Note: This article was originally featured in the Midwest edition of the February 2022 Game & Fish Magazine.