Ice Fishing Guide to Safety

By Rich Davenport, published 11/13/2021

A nice hard water Chautauqua Lake walleye

Old man winter’s icy grip has yet to fully enveloped our region, but ice anglers all across the Nation’s Northern Tier are sharpening their augers and filling their heater’s propane tanks for hours of hard water adventure.  Yet, each year avoidable tragedies happen, preventable accidents if anglers followed some basic safety guidelines.

Understanding ice

Ice fishing can be one of the safest, most enjoyable winter activities one can enjoy during winter.  Knowing when the ice is safe is obviously important, but understanding what safe ice truly is has often been taken for granted as information that should be “known.”  Add to this presumed “universal knowledge” the myriad of terms to describe the appearance of good ice (clear, green, black, etc.) and it is no wonder many beginners have a hard time with this foundation to safe ice fishing. 

Good ice is clear and hard, resembling freshly made ice cubes.  Some will refer to this as “black” ice, as this is the appearance of clear ice when you cut a hole.  The “black” appearance is actually the water color being seen through the window of solid ice.  Good, clear ice will appear uniform, without many air bubbles and other imperfections that can weaken ice.

Ice is considered “safe” when the thickness of clear ice reaches four inches.  Although many die-hard ice anglers will say two inches of ice will hold a ton (and this is true,) no body of water freezes at a uniform rate.  Areas of current, or waters where a cold spring or hot spring is present, will freeze more slowly, remaining weaker than areas without current or spring activity.  Anglers must understand that when hearing information about ice thickness on a lake or pond, these descriptions tend to be average thickness, rather than actual consistent reports.  Four inches of ice, or better, should provide enough consistent good ice to make most of a lake or pond safe for walkers.

Ice is also a substance that is truly living.  During sub-zero conditions, ice will be forming, and heaving on itself.  Air bubbles, pressure cracks and wind-driven shoves can all change conditions from one day to the next.  Always use caution when walking onto the ice, and check ice quality often but cutting a hole and measuring ice thickness, observing ice quality, while you are moving.

Ice will also deteriorate quickly.  Warm spells, rains, heavy snow cover, thaws and even time will degrade the ice.  Again, pay attention to these conditions, and use your better judgment before heading on the lake.  No fish is worth risking a life over, so always err on the side of caution.

Once the ice reaches a thickness of over eight inches, small machines are safely supported, such as snowmobiles and ATVs.  Still, areas of thin ice may exist, even when reports tell of twelve inches-plus conditions.  Areas where currents exist, like in narrows, or near creek mouths always bring potential danger and thin ice, especially early and late season. Some lakes and ponds have underwater spring activity that can slow ice formation, structure like downed trees and even concrete dock stanchions near boat ramps or marinas can convert sunshine into heat warming the ice surrounding these structures to the point it can make the immediate area soft and thin. Understand where these danger zones may be, and avoid them.

Use the buddy system

Ice fishing should never be done alone.  After all, if the unthinkable does happen, and you fall through the ice, someone had better be close by to call for help, or be able to throw a safety rope to you to prevent another tragedy.  Besides, fishing with a friend or two is always better than going it alone.

Safety gear that are “must have” items

Anglers should always pack with them a fifty-foot rope, a flotation device like a lifesaver ring, ice picks, a communication device like a cell phone or two-way radio, and a compass, especially if you intend to head a few miles out on one of the Great Lakes.  The rope should have several knots tied into it, as to provide better hand grips in icy conditions.  A flotation device tied onto the end of this rope will also help a distressed angler grab onto something with cold, stiff hands and arms.  The use of a PDF, or personal flotation device, is also recommended, and Stearns makes an inflatable vest for just such an occasion.  Inflated by a CO2 cartridge, this life vest is activated by pulling down on a “rip cord”. 

Ice picks are a must have component to every hard water angler’s ensemble.  These lifesaving tools are worn around your neck, and allow a fallen angler to get a hold on the ice when water and gloves make everything slippery.

Perhaps the greatest safety tool in the box an ice fisherman can have is an ice chisel, which may more commonly be called a “spud bar”. This long, steel or iron pole with a chisel on the one end used to be the only way to cut a hole in the ice before augers were invented, and are highly effective at checking ice thickness as you walk. A general rule of thumb is one strike will cut through an inch or so of ice, depending on how hard you strike the surface. Count how many strikes it takes before water starts bubbling up, and this can give you a rough idea of what is underneath you. It goes without saying that if you strike the ice once or twice, and the chisel punches through, back away as you have thin ice. Three or four, or more strikes and ice may be thick enough to hold you where you are. I prefer the “four strike rule”, as this usually means 4 inches or better exists. Cut a hole with your auger and take a measurement, and correlate the measured thickness with how many strikes it took to punch through. Check every few feet you walk, as early and late ice conditions are known to vary wildly.

Always tell someone where you are going, and what time you expect to return.  Anglers can get stranded on ice floes, especially if you are fishing large water bodies, like Lake Erie, and if someone back home doesn’t know your game plan, no one can call for help if you end up being late to return.

Make yourself lighter on the ice

If you do encounter weak or thin ice, the first thing to remember is not to panic.  Ice will break when thin, as the weight of your body can be too much for the existing ice to handle.  This is because our body weight is focused on two small points of our body – our feet.  Upon encountering thin ice, an angler should immediately lay down on their belly, spreading weight across a larger surface area.  Remembering to spread out your weight can mean the difference between surviving a close encounter and not living to tell about it. Following these simple guidelines will keep you much safer, adding enjoyment to this wonderful winter activity.