Ice fishing safety should always be front and center
I fell through the ice once, over 40 years ago. It didn’t happen while I was ice fishing; instead, a few friends were enjoying a sunny, early March day and playing hockey on a Chemung River backwater. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. A friend and I, racing for a lose puck near the shoreline, broke through. He got the worst of it; I was able to scramble up the bank after falling into the waist-deep water, but he lost his balance and actually took a brief dunking. We all laughed, and we never did find that puck.
But really, falling through the ice is no laughing matter. And as we head into what could very well be a productive ice fishing season after last year’s Winter That Wasn’t, it’s a good time to rehash some important safety tips for hard water anglers, especially those who simply can’t stand the anticipation and just have to get out there as early as possible.
I made the transition from a Southern Zone sportsman to an Adirondacker back in 1997, and that meant ice fishing during the long winter. I had done a bit of hard water fishing “down south,” but this was a whole new experience, with a dedicated ice fishing fraternity and plenty of options, including big water like Lake Champlain, Schroon Lake and Lake George. I always erred on the side of caution, taking to the ice only after other more knowledgeable locals had done so, and then following the masses on the ice. As a result, I never got into any dicey situations from a safety standpoint, although one buddy had me on clear, black ice of about 3 inches on Champlain one day, pulling perch with regularity but never quite getting used to the transparency of the ice.
Following someone who knows the water intimately helps a great deal, and you can avoid troublesome spots and enjoy a day on the ice. Still, it’s a good idea to purchase a set of ice picks available at most shops that offer ice fishing equipment. Chances are you won’t need them if you’re cautious, but they are a potentially life-saving insurance policy in the event you do fall through.
Perhaps the number one rule to follow is to keep in mind ice doesn’t freeze uniformly and its thickness can vary greatly. Underground springs and current can impact ice thickness and make it unsafe, even though it’s perfectly safe just a few feet away. While clear ice is the strongest, ice formed by melting and refreezing snow is much weaker. Snow cover greatly impacts ice formation, acting as an insulator and inhibiting freezing. Slush-covered ice, too, can often be unsafe, or at the very least uncomfortable for anglers standing in it.
State fish agencies typically offer ice thickness charts which show how much ice is needed to support, in order, one angler, multiple anglers, an angler on a snowmobile, or a truck and many anglers. Those charts are pretty much worthless in my mind, because out in nature ice forms at greatly varying thickness on any given body of water. Rarely, if ever, is there uniform ice thickness on a lake, pond, or river.
I’ll be honest: I have driven my truck on the ice. On Lake George I followed a steady stream of anglers one wicked winter year. It was almost like commuter traffic as well rolled down the lake to our chosen spots. That year, you could have landed a 747 on Lake George. But those winters now seem few and far between, and in most cases I trudged out onto the ice on foot, pulling a sled or shelter behind me. I needed the exercise, I reasoned. And it was a lot safer.
It makes sense to check ice thickness by angering a couple holes as you work your way onto the ice. If you’re with a group of anglers, spread out. Some anglers I know wear a PFD, and nobody laughs at them. Keep an eye out for pressure cracks, bubblers around docks that keep water flowing a chew into the ice thickness, and underwater currents and springs where ice can be thinner.
Ice fishing can be incredibly productive for an angler and is a great way to embrace winter and get out there and enjoy some fishing time with friends. It’s a social event as well as a fishing outing. And with a few precautions it can be as safe as open-water angling.
Every year several motor vehicles go through the ice on frozen lakes, and some people have drowned as a result.
· Leave information about your plans with someone — where you intend to fish and when you expect to return.
· Wear a personal flotation device and don’t fish alone.
· Fish with a friend. Ice fishing is a great sport to share with family members and friends, and having a partner with you increases both the fun and the safety.
· Ice varies in thickness and condition. Always carry an ice spud or chisel to check ice as you proceed.
· Be extremely cautious crossing ice near river mouths, points of land, bridges, islands, and over reefs and springs. Current almost always causes ice to be thinner over these areas.
· Avoid going onto the ice if it has melted away from the shore. This indicates melting is underway, and ice can shift position as wind direction changes.
· Waves from open water can quickly break up large areas of ice. If you can see open water in the lake and the wind picks up, get off!
· Bring your fully-charged cell phone with you.
· Carry a set of hand spikes to help you work your way out onto the surface of the ice if you go through. Holding one in each hand, you can alternately punch them into the ice and pull yourself up and out. You can make these at home, using large nails, or you can purchase them at stores that sell fishing supplies.
· Carry a safety line that can be thrown to someone who has gone through the ice.
· Heated fishing shanties must have good ventilation to prevent deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Open a window or the door part way to allow in fresh air.