Ice fishing is great way to add another outdoor activity to your lifestyle. It's cheaper than owning a boat and you can catch a lot of fish. It's also a great way to bond with your family and friends. With today’s large ice shelters, you can get a portable heater, chairs and thermos of hot chocolate and spend the entire day in a warm, comfortable environment while catching fish. The days of sitting on a bucket on a frozen lake are behind us. You can still do that. But with today's advanced ice fishing gear, why would you? Portable ice fishing shelters, heaters and electric augers make ice fishing easier and cheaper than ever before. But this family-friendly wintertime activity is not without danger. Every year anglers go through the ice and some don’t make it out. Here are a few things you need to know before stepping onto the ice.
In Minnesota, Michigan and Northern United States, ice fishing is a way of life. There are cities on ice in the Northern U.S., but that is where the ice is three feet thick. Here in Illinois, we are considered the fringe of the “ice belt" and many are less familiar with ice fishing. The ice belt is the region that spans the entire northernmost U.S. and Canada and has more than 60 days of fishable ice over the winter months. In the far north, lakes may freeze with over three feet of ice. Here in Illinois, driving a car or truck onto the ice is never a good idea as our ice is much thinner than that. Instead, anglers should use an ATV or a snowmobile to haul their gear out to the fishing spots. Once again, always be sure to know the thickness before doing this. Only ride your machine out if you have fished it recently and are sure of the thickness.
Know the thickness
Ice safety should be obvious, but many people see a frozen lake and walk out and start drilling holes. Fishable ice is at least six inches thick. Talk to local bait shops — they typically have the inside scoop from anglers that are out there every day and can be a great source of information.
Test the quality of the ice. One tool that helps to do that is an ice chisel or "spud bar". It's basically an ice prod - a long steel tool that let's you jab at the ice and check for weaknesses. By jamming this into the ice every couple steps when walking out, anglers can get a feel for the thickness and consistency of the ice. If the ice "spiderwebs" or the rod goes through that's not good — back up immediately and get to safer ice. Another way to test the thickness is to take a cordless drill with you and long drill bit. If you think you are on thin ice, drill a hole and find out. Once you know the ice is thick, you can comfortably fish it for a few days, as long as the temperatures stay low. But even that is no guarantee that ice won't shift or crack or create weak spots from underwater current or temperature changes.
The most dangerous time for anglers is early and late ice. Early ice is when the temps drop low enough for lakes and ponds to freeze. Late ice is late in the season when the temperatures are rising and the ice is melting. This is actually the most dangerous time of the season- when anglers want to get "one more ice fishing outing". The danger of thawing ice is that the ice doesn’t melt "evenly". By that I mean there will be section of ice that are still thick and fishable, and others that are not. This makes the threat of a breakthrough extremely high. You may be walking on a foot of ice one minute and then step onto two-inch patch and you're going through. In addition, late ice gets waterlogged and eventually honeycombs creating “rotten ice”. Even 12 inches of rotten ice is not safe ice.
So, how thick is safe ice?
Here is a very basic ice thickness guideline:
2" or less - STAY OFF
4" - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
5" - Snowmobile or ATV
8" - 12" - Car or small pickup
12" - 15" - Medium truck
Don’t fish alone
Another safety tip is to fish with a buddy, which has several advantages. If one of you goes through, the other can be there to help get you out, and survive. It’s also a lot more fun to share a memory with someone. If you must fish alone, always tell someone where you are going and when you will be back. This is by no way even close to the value of fishing with a partner.
Always bring safety gear
Like the Boy Scout motto, it's always wise to be prepared. You can do everything in your power to keep from falling through the ice, but if it happens you want to have the gear that gives you the best chance for survival. Having safety-feature-laden clothing is a great way to start. The IceArmor series by Clam Outdoors is one of the industry's best and safest ice fishing apparel lines. The Lift Suit is designed for maximum warmth, but has all of the safety features like buoyant fabric technology and drain vents in the jacket and bibs that let water drain out quickly. Ice Picks are also a must-have — they can help you crawl out of a hole or hang on until a partner can pull you out. A throw rope enables you to easily throw a life-line to a person that has gone through ice without endangering yourself.
What to do if you break through
The key to surviving a breakthrough is simple — never break through the ice. Survival rates are getting better with technology. But the reality is that many people that go in do not come out alive. Ice water subjects your body to “cold water shock” that causes an involuntary inhalation and hyperventilation. If that takes place when you are under water you will most likely inhale water. So with that in mind, here are a few things that might help you survive a breakthrough.
- Keep your head above water at all costs. If your head goes under, you are will be in big trouble.
- Don't panic, and try to get out of the water immediately. If that isn’t possible, it takes about a minute in cold water for your hyperventilating to get under control. Once under control, make your way to the spot you were walking on prior to falling in. If no ice picks, kick your legs and pull your body on the ice as best you can eventually rolling to safe ice. If you have picks, get them out, get to the edge of the ice and by stabbing the picks into the ice, pull yourself out of the water.
- Once out, roll-crawl away from the hole.
- Get warm immediately! Before hypothermia can set in, get inside of a warm truck, shelter or home as soon as possible and remove all of your wet clothing. If you cannot raise your core temperature, seek immediate medical attention.
Be safe and have fun!
"No ice is 100% safe," explains Joe Henry, Director of Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau, "Ice fishing is an amazing winter time, family friendly activity but it warrants a little common sense and good decisions before stepping or driving out onto the ice."
Ice fishing is one of the greatest wintertime activities for the outdoorsman and his family. Just be sure to use these safety tips and some common sense to have a fantastic time with friends and family, and put a few fish in the frying pan. With today's advanced equipment, you will have everything you need for a great experience in a safe, warm, comfortable environment. See you on the ice!
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