While getting some time on the ice to enjoy yourself is a great thing, ice fishing presents a different set of challenges than any other type of fishing. The environment is usually quite cold. Ice is an ever-changing, shifting thing that can change from day to day. It can be quite slick, snow covered, or different thicknesses in different parts. With that being said, let’s discuss some ice fishing safety tips that can help anyone make sure they have a fun and safe time when they are out on the hard water.
Preparation is key
We have all heard this adage a million times. In reality, it is very important any time you are dealing with the outdoors. It holds especially true with ice fishing.
It starts with clothing. Make sure that you have warm winter clothes that are ideally waterproof. The waterproof comes into play when you are drilling holes or catching fish. Once you drill a hole, when you are pulling the auger back through it will bring some excess water back up with it. There is no good way to avoid this. Being cold is one thing. Cold and wet is much worse.
Have a good set of gloves and hand warmers as well. Exposure to the cold is the most dangerous thing this time of year. Any part of your body that may be exposed may need to be covered depending on the conditions. Pack multiple sets of gloves (one always seems to get wet pulling in fish) and hand warmers. If you hands are frozen, you will not be a happy camper.
Here is my typical checklist for my gear:
- Boots and warm socks
- Long underwear (tops and bottom)
- Layered clothes (shoot for 2 to 3 layers)
- Coveralls, snow pants, float suit
- Warm hoodie and warm jacket for top layer (at least one of these should have a hood)
- Beanie and face cover
- 2 pairs of warm gloves (water proof) and hand warmers
- Face cover
If you make sure to have all of these things, you should be prepared for pretty much anything mother nature can throw at you.
Proper equipment makes all the difference
Now that you have you clothing down, let’s take a look at the equipment you will need to stay safe and be successful. First off, crampons are a necessity. These fit over your boots and have spikes on the bottom to help provide traction. There are some conditions where you may not need them, but if you come across a day when the ice is extra slick (wind blown ice can be a nightmare) you will be glad to have these. You can get these at your local bait shop or sporting goods store and they start at around fifteen bucks, but spend a little more for a reliable pair of crampons. Keep them with your tackle.
Ice safety spikes are another important piece of equipment. God forbid you actually fall through the ice. If you do, it is very difficult to get out without someones assistance or a set of ice safety spikes. These are a pair of handheld spikes that are attached by a rope or bungee. They can be worn around your neck when you are out.
There are two major problems with falling through the ice. Either there is nothing to grab onto to get yourself out, or the person that may be attempting to rescue you puts themselves at risk of falling through trying to save you. Safety spikes are huge because they can be dug into the ice and used to then pull yourself back up to safety. These are another fairly cheap item starting at around 15 bucks.
The last piece of equipment is a chisel, or what we call a spud bar where I am from. This is a long piece of steel with a chisel on the end of it. This can serve multiple purposes. Ice is notorious for being different thicknesses in different areas. More on that later.
The spud bar can be carried when you are walking on the ice to check the thickness before you step. People simply lunge it into the ice every 10 feet or so. If it ever goes through the ice, don’t walk there, it is an unsafe thickness. These can also be used to chisel out holes in place of an auger. Your local hardware store sells these and most bait shops do too,
Ice, Ice Baby- Know your ice
Knowing our ice thickness is very important to making sure we are safe. Ice is almost like a living thing, it expands and contracts. It moves with the wind, it grows and shrinks. Ice can be over a foot thick in one area and an inch or two a few feet away. The only way to know is to look for signals that it may be unsafe and to manually check the thickness every 50 to 100 feet. This can be done with a spud bar, your auger, by checking old holes, or even with a handheld drill.
Here is a list of things that can affect strength or ice thickness
- Springs or moving water
- Snow covered ice
- Being new ice or late season
- Major depth changes
- Clear or cloudy ice
- Pressure Ridges (where sheets of ice meet)
As we can see, there a many things that can affect the stability of ice. The key is understanding how to put it all together. One of the most important things that you should look at is recent weather (the last 7 to 10 days). Ice can be added or taken away very quickly depending on temperature. If the weather has consistently been below freezing this makes for strong ice. Higher temperatures or high wind days can wreak havoc on ice strength. High winds over 20 mph move the ice plates and create all sorts of issues. We won’t get too in the weeds on this, just do your own research if you want to learn more.
What part of the season we are in can make a big difference as well. Where I am from, the late season ice becomes more unpredictable because we can have cold weather one day and 60 degrees the next. High temperatures can thaw ice quickly and create problems. Always be more cautious when you are out fishing late season. I have had days when I went out on the ice in the morning and everything was safe and thick. On the way back in there were several spots that were unsafe because of warm weather.
Shorelines can also be unstable because the rocks and gravel tend to heat up from the sun and thaw the surrounding ice. I have seen my fair share of people fall through within 10 feet of shore. Usually not life threatening, but I’d rather avoid any breakthroughs (unless they are with the fishing) 🙂
The last thing to keep in mind, CLEAR ICE IS STRONG ICE
Cloudy ice, also called snow ice, can be up to half as strong as clear ice. Snow covered ice is also slower to gain thickness. Check the ice before venturing out. My standard check usually starts with me venturing maybe 5 to 10 feet offshore and drilling a hole with my auger, then I use the handle on my ice ladle to check thickness. 4″ or more on clear ice is all i usually look for. Remember to keep checking the ice every 50 to 100 feet from there.
The last thing in regard to the ice is thickness. Below is a list of generally accepted thickness, keep in mind this is talking about clear ice.
- Under 4″ KEEP OFF
- 4″ Ice fishing or being on foot
- 5″ to 8″ ATV or snowmobile
- 8″ to 12″ Small car
As a disclaimer, I have never driven a car on the ice so refer to your local experts on best practices there.
Shacks/Shanties-The love shack baby
I saved this for last because having an ice shack is completely optional in many places. I personally tend to move quite a bit so I usually pack light and avoid the added weight and setup time. I have fished in temperatures well below zero many times and find that proper clothing can usually keep you warm in most conditions.
That being said, a shack can help keep you out of the elements and help keep you warm. There are many styles and sizes from a single person to jumbo size for the whole family. Do your research to learn more.
Ice Fishing Safety Sets You Up for Success and Fun
When we put all of this together, it helps to make sure we stay safe and have a great time. It may seem like a lot but once you do it a few times it will become second nature. There is much more out there about ice safety so feel free to do more research on your own. If anyone has anything they would like to add feel free to leave it in the comments below.
As always TIGHT LINES AND GOOD TIMES