When someone tells you “you’re walking on thin ice” it’s meant as words of extreme caution or warning. Ice fishermen need to take it literally. First ice produces some of the hottest ice fishing of the year and ice anglers are anxious to get on the ice to start the new season, but first ice also demands an extra level of vigilance and concern.
“First ice is a time that demands both stealth and safety,” shared ice fishing authority Brian Brosdahl. “If you’ve ever went through the ice it’s a ordeal that you won’t soon forget and don’t want to repeat. With that in mind, make sure you have a spud bar or ice chisel.” A lot of guys may not even have one these days, but it’s a must-have tool on first ice.
Call your favorite tackle shop or a local guide before venturing out and check on ice conditions. If you don’t see others fishing or signs that other anglers have been on the ice, use extreme caution. I don’t know of anyone that hands out awards for being the first one on the ice, but you might end up on the evening news.
“A spud bar is my friend!” joked Brosdahl. “A spud or ice chisel is going to allow you to check ice conditions as you go.” Standard ice chisels, like Frabill’s (www.frabill.com/standard-ice-chisel-592.html) 52-inch, 5.5-pound model, are an inexpensive price to pay for peace of mind when testing ice conditions. Use the spud systematically to check ice thickness every 10 to 20 yards or so while you gradually work your way out to where you’re going to fish. “Be careful to not out walk your spud,” advised Brosdahl. If you’re in a group, don’t walk all together in a straight line. Spread out so if you do fall through you don’t all go down together. That way, the others can help you get out. Don’t stand in a group until you’re sure the ice is safe. Use a long rope to pull your shanty behind if you’re using one so as not to add weight in one location and to keep from spooking fish.
A life jacket is a good idea. It might seem like the inflatable variety of life jacket would be ideal for the situation, but a conventional life jacket may be better. “Some inflatable life jackets have a cord you have to pull to blow them up,” said Brosdahl. “The shock of going through the ice may leave you disoriented or confused or if you get knocked unconscious you won’t be able to pull the cord. There is a pill that dissolves in the auto inflation models. If the pill doesn’t dissolve you’re toast and a regular, conventional life jacket works all the time.” Once you’re on the ice and are sure conditions are safe you can take it off.
Even better is a floatation suit like Frabill’s new I Float Jacket and Bibs (www.frabill.com/apparel/ice-fishing-apparel/i-float-jacket.html.) Several manufacturers make foam-filled suits that are the ultimate life-saving devices. Not only do the suits float, but they also maintain your body temperature preventing hypothermia until help arrives or you can get yourself out. Flotation suits sport bright colors that can aid rescuers in finding you; they also have glow-in-the-dark patches or piping so you can be located after dark.
You can’t always tell ice quality by just looking at it. Clear, blue ice is obviously the strongest, but just because there has been a week of sub-freezing temperatures don’t assume the ice is safe. Mark some increments on your ice scoop and measure the ice thickness so you know exactly how much ice there is. Milky-colored ice or slush is never safe.
Remember that ice thickness can vary greatly from lake to lake. Smaller lakes and ponds will have safe ice first. If there’s snow on the ice, assume that it’s unsafe until you can check its thickness. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice. Keep in mind that ice thickness is not likely to be uniform. Current, springs, waterfowl, and debris on the ice can cause ice thickness to vary greatly from one location to another and in a very short distance.
There’s one safety item that you should put on before you even step on the ice-creepers or ice cleats. Slick, glare first ice is an accident waiting to happen. Creepers provide traction and keep you upright. A nasty spill on the ice can result in a broken arm or elbow, torn ligaments or a concussion. Frabill’s rubber ice creepers (www.frabill.com/ice-fishing/accessories/ice-creepers-for-boot-traction.html) pull easily over most winter boots. 10 carbide spikes (per creeper) contact and grip the ice to keep you upright and injury free.
Some other first-ice essentials should include a set of ice awls or picks, a length of rope and a cell phone in a sealed container or zip-loc bag. Several of the Frabill (www.frabill.com) suits that ice fishermen prefer come complete with ice awls that are at the ready. Should you go through, a set of ice picks can assist you in getting out quickly. Wear them around your neck where you can grab them. If you go through, try to remain calm. Don’t remove your jacket or outer clothing. Clothing can trap air to keep you afloat and keep you warm. Dig the ice awls into the ice, kick your feet and try to roll out onto the ice. Keep rolling until you’re on safe ice. Rolling will help distribute your weight until you’re on safe ice and can stand up or crawl. Try and head back in the direction you came from. That’s where the safest ice is like to be.
A cell phone can be used to call for help and notify authorities that you need help or that you made it out of the water and are safe. If you have a length of rope it can be used by others to pull you out while maintaining a safe distance.
The best policy is to realize that no ice is safe ice. Authorities generally consider 4 inches of ice to be a minimum for safe travel by individual anglers, 6 inches to be safe for group activities and 8 inches for travel via snowmobile or four-wheeler. Traveling on the ice is never recommended by car or truck, but a minimum of a foot of clear, hard ice is required for going on the ice in YOUR vehicle, but not mine!