Walking on Thin Ice

People never cease to amaze me when the lakes first start to freeze in the late fall. As the mercury starts to dip below freezing and the first lakes and ponds begin to lock up, many anglers can’t wait to take their first steps out onto the ice for the season. I’ve seen a few brave (or insane) souls posting photos on social media of their ventures out onto 1.5″ to 2″ of ice from this weekend.

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The Minnesota DNR recommends walking on no less than 4″ of clear ice.

While no ice is 100% safe, early ice can be particularly dangerous because ice doesn’t always form at a consistent thickness across an entire body of water. Higher volumes of water in larger or deeper lakes take longer to cool so they also take longer to form ice. Areas with current such as inlets and outlets of creeks and rivers won’t freeze as quickly as areas with still water.

Bring Necessary Safety Equipment

Every ice angler should have the following safety equipment:

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Always have a pair of ice picks on, no matter how thick the ice is.

If you fall through the ice, getting out is very difficult without safety picks. Safety ice picks are metal spikes, usually with retractable guards that allow you to claw your way back onto the ice once you have fallen through. They can be concealed in your jacket sleeves or jacket pockets. Have a throw rope handy with something that floats attached to one end so your partner can toss it to you if you can’t get to the ice with your picks.

The water is extremely cold and you won’t have the energy and strength that you would swimming in the lake in the summer. For this reason, wearing a personal flotation device is also crucial.

Frabill makes an ice safety kit that includes safety picks, cleats, and a whistle. That will get you started, but be sure to have the other essentials I’ve listed as well before venturing on the ice.

Check the Ice Strength and Depth Often

As you venture out onto the ice, drill holes with your auger to check the thickness of the ice every twenty feet or so. As I mentioned earlier, lakes don’t always freeze at a uniform thickness so six inches of ice near shore does not guarantee six inches of ice at your honey hole. The Minnesota DNR recommends walking on no less than 4″ of clear ice.

I mentioned an item called a “spud bar” in the section above. Forcefully jab the spud bar downward into the ice in front of you as you walk to check the ice strength. If the ice breaks from the impact of the spud bar, it will most certainly break if you step on it. Retreat in the direction you came from slowly.

Use the Buddy System

Don’t go ice fishing alone, especially at first ice. While ice fishing is already a social activity, fishing with a partner is much safer than fishing alone. If you do happen to break through the ice, your partner can throw a rope and help get you to warmth. Your partner will also be able to call for additional help in the event of an emergency. In addition to fishing with a partner, always let someone know where you will be fishing and when you plan to return.

Don’t Fish in the Dark

Sometimes the fish bite best just before sunrise, just after sunrise, or in the middle of the night. Fishing at night on the ice can be a blast, but with the unstable conditions of first ice, it can also be incredibly dangerous. Ice sheets can crack and form pressure ridges as the lake freezes up. It’s harder to judge the condition of the ice when you can’t see it, so travel is far more dangerous at night. Wait until later in the season when there is plenty of thick ice before you begin fishing after dark.

Don’t Drink and Fish

Yes, it’s fun to have a few beers while you’re out on the ice. It’s especially fun when you’re fishing with good friends. However, alcohol impairs judgement and contrary to popular belief, actually lowers your body temperature. At first ice, don’t drink on the ice. Instead, crack a cold one while you’re telling stories about the one that got away at the fish fry that evening.

Getting out on the ice and catching the first fish of the hardwater season is exciting, but be careful so that your first time out on the ice for the season isn’t your last. Good luck and have a great ice fishing season!

Bonus tip:

Ice fisherman value their gear almost as much as they value their lives. At first ice, don’t take your digital sonar unit, a hundred expensive lures, and your gas or propane auger when a bucket, a pocketful of jigs, and a hand auger would suffice. Protecting your life is important, but so is protecting your gear!

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