Ice fishing is one of the fastest growing segments of the entire sportfishing industry. Diehards across the ice belt prefer drilling holes in the hard water to the ease and mobility of open-water fishing. In fact, the largest ice fishing tournament in the world, held annually in northern Minnesota, attracts over 10,000 anglers each year. While ice fishing is a fun outdoor activity, it needs to be enjoyed safely - with caution and preparation top of mind.
The first thing to know about ice fishing is that no ice is "truly" safe. Experienced ice anglers rely on a combination of general guidelines, experience, and current information. Ice cannot be judged solely on its appearance, nor can it be judged on thickness alone. Variables such as snow, current, fish activity, and waterfowl activity all affect ice safeness. While the ice may look uniform on the surface, what lies underneath is oftentimes not.
Areas of snow-covered ice are often dangerous as snow acts as insulation. One stretch void of snow can have 8 inches of ice where an adjacent snow-covered stretch only has 3 inches. Ice formed over moving water is never safe as the current can eat away at the ice underneath. Be particularly wary of channels and bridges as current strengthens in narrow areas. On some lakes, schools of fish or waterfowl group up, causing warm water to be brought up from the bottom of the lake. The constant movement of fins, feet, and feathers also can deteriorate ice. Generally speaking, new ice is stronger than old ice and clear ice is safer than cloudy ice. Cloudy ice or snowy, slushy ice is only about half as strong as new, clear ice.
With 4 inches of new, clear ice, an average-sized angler is generally safe to venture out on foot. Anything less than 4 inches is considered too risky. Many avid ice anglers look forward to first ice as the fish are often eager to bite. These anglers travel light with minimal gear. As they walk, they check the ice along the way - manually driving a metal chisel to create a small hole. If the chisel won't break through, the ice is likely safe for walking. If the chisel does break through, assess the thickness with a tape measure.
First ice also requires the use of a life jacket. In case you do fall through, a properly-fitted life jacket will keep you afloat, which is critical in freezing water. Some anglers will even wear a full flotation suit, which also helps keep you warm. Ice picks are another piece of necessary first-ice equipment as they provide the extra traction needed to pull yourself up onto the ice. Picks need to be accessible and thus most anglers simply wear them around their neck. Lastly, bring a throw rope, just like you would in a boat. If you have to pull someone out, stand as far away as the rope will allow to distribute the weight and reduce the chances of someone else falling through.
With 6 inches of solid, clear ice, anglers are generally safe to use snowmobiles and ATVs. While your mobility is increased, the recommendation is to still check the ice every 50 yards. With 10 inches of ice, smaller cars and trucks can begin driving on the lake. With a foot of ice, medium-sized trucks are generally safe to drive with full-sized trucks being used at 15 inches. Again, these are general guidelines for new, clear ice. Due to their weight, the use of vehicles inherently increases your risk.
If you choose to operate a vehicle on the ice, do not wear a seatbelt. This sounds contradictory, but seatbelts make it more difficult to exit a vehicle quickly. Some anglers will even lower their vehicle's windows or keep the door slightly ajar in case of an emergency. When operating a vehicle on ice, it's important to drive slowly. While speed limits are rarely posted, driving over 20 mph is strongly discouraged as the weight from cars and trucks creates waves under the surface, which damage the ice. In addition, driving slowly allows time to avoid any potential hazards. When parking your vehicle, keep at least 50 feet from others to spread out the weight.
Contact your local bait shop or resort for current ice conditions. Oftentimes, bait shops can identify thin ice or dangerous areas. An example of this would be pointing out where an aerator has been placed on a lake.
Fish with a friend. Not only is ice fishing more enjoyable with company, it's also safer. A cell phone is a helpful tool, but it isn't very useful when you're treading water.
Tell someone when and where you're going. Perhaps most importantly, tell them when you plan to return. This way, if you're not back on time, that person can seek help. If your plans change, make sure to notify your backup person.