The primary consideration before beginning any ice-fishing trek is ice thickness. To be safe, you need 3 inches of solid ice for walking; 4 for ice fishing; 5 for walking on ice with a heavy load of gear; 7 for a loaded snowmobile or ATV; 8 for a car or light truck; and 12 for a large truck.
Air temperatures must be sustained beneath the freezing point to form ice, and the colder the temperature, the deeper and faster ice forms. As a result, lakes farther north usually freeze first. While many beginning anglers realize the importance of geographic location and temperature in ice formation, they don't understand that a variety of other conditions influence ice thickness, including a lake's depth and shape.
Shallow lakes, yielding less volume than deep ones, cool faster and thus freeze sooner. They also warm faster, and consequently experience ice-out sooner than their slower cooling, deeper counterparts.
Man-made lakes featuring a flow of water are not only subject to fluctuating ice thicknesses, but fluctuating water levels that may cause deteriorating ice conditions. And since most man-make lakes are also longer and narrower than natural lakes, they're subjected to special sets of conditions. When shallow and protected from the wind and sun, they may freeze earlier in winter. If deep and exposed to the primary winds and open to the sun, this combination of factors plus current flow may cause them to freeze much later.
On any body of water, periods of locally warming weather, especially those featuring rain to erode the ice and increase runoff, decrease ice thickness. Moving currents caused by incoming rivers, springs, flocks of geese or ducks, or even schools of fish swimming under the ice may have similar results. Another thing to watch out for is emergent weeds, which absorb the sun's warmth and decrease the thickness of the surrounding ice. Similarly, in late winter the shoreline warms quickly once all the snow is melted, making the ice near shore much thinner and weaker than mid-lake ice.
Here are several situations anglers should be aware of before venturing out onto the ice:
NEW ICE VS. OLD ICE. Clear blue, freshly formed ice is much stronger than old ice that has been partially thawed or broken up and refrozen.
LAKE NARROWS. Unprotected, weedy, dark-bottom narrows between lakes or lake basins are often shallow and subject to current flow, inhibiting ice formation.
RIVER CURRENTS. River ice varies greatly in thickness, depending on the channel depth, bottom content and current velocity.
SPRINGS. Inflowing springs bring warmer, moving water that can create pockets of open water or thin ice.
ICE CRACKS, HEAVES AND RIDGES. Anglers should avoid pressure cracks, heaves and ridges. Such areas form when layers of thickening ice expand, often leaving lines of open water that may expand as winds shift the ice.
Along with the knowledge of the many factors that affect ice thickness, you should be prepared for the unexpected by carrying the following safety items:
LIFE JACKET. Few summer anglers would consider leaving the dock without life jackets on or at least handy, yet will walk out on ice of unknown thickness unprotected. Whenever possible, wear a Coast Guard-approved personal floatation device (PFD) when traveling on ice of questionable thickness.
CHISEL. As you walk onto any frozen lake, check ice thickness by striking it firmly with a sharp chisel. If the chisel punctures or cracks the ice, immediately follow your path back to shore.
ICE CLEATS. Ice cleats, or creepers, consist of adjustable straps, belts, elastic bands or rubber overshoes supporting metal teeth. They attach to boots, allowing traction on smooth, slippery ice, helping anglers avoid injury-causing falls.
ICE PICKS. Ice anglers venturing on ice of unknown thickness should always carry ice picks. Should you fall through thin ice, the picks can be stuck into the ice and used to pull yourself from the icy waters.
ROPE. Ice anglers should also carry a rope in a convenient location, so in the unfortunate situation someone falls through, you can offer them "assistance from a distance." A rope may also help if you should fall through, as you can toss one end to your potential rescuer.
As a rule, you should always inquire about ice conditions with knowledgeable, local people familiar with your waters before leaving shore. Above all, use common sense and intuition. If you feel the ice may not be solid enough to fish on, don't take any unnecessary chances. Stay off!
Although personal floatation devices (PFDs) are just starting to catch on in many parts of the United States, many experienced ice anglers in Canada wear "flotation" or "antihypothermia" suits. While these suits are expensive, they may save your life should you break through the ice.
One of the best flotation suits on the market today is the Mustang(r) antiexposure coverall. This high-tech suit is lined with Airsoft PVC closed cell foam, which provides both buoyancy and insulation. Other features include: neoprene wrist closures for weather proofness; Tug-Tites at thighs and ankles for improved fit; hand warmer and cargo pockets at hips; and head support pillow for additional flotation. This coverall is worn almost exclusively by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For more information on flotation suits, call Mustang Survival at 360-676-1782 or visit their website at www.mustangsurvival.com.