Ice fishing safety is paramount when on the hardwater.
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission
It’s the most basic tenet of firearms safety: treat every gun, always, as if it’s loaded.
Mechanical safeties can fail, after all. So the surest way to avoid tragedy is to be extra cautious.
The same principle applies to ice. Always treat it as unsafe until proven otherwise.
To assume differently is potentially catastrophic.
“Ice fishing is associated with more severe injury patterns and more thermal injuries and immersion injuries than traditional fishing,” reads a study of “injury patterns and outcomes” related to ice fishing in the United States, published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. “Providers and participants should be aware of the potential risks and benefits and counseled appropriately.”
The host of Milliken Fishing, a prominent Youtuber, attested to that recently. He posted a video titled “I NEARLY DIED While Fishing” talking about a fall through the ice. He had to be rescued and later hospitalized.
Around the country, more than a few people get hurt, and several die, just that way each winter.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources tracks ice-related fatalities. The totals take into account not just ice fishermen, but also people plunged into icy water while ice skating, sledding, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and even driving.
Cold water treats them all equally harshly.
Only once between 1976 and 2018 – that being in 2015-16 – did the department record no deaths. On average in Minnesota, five people die in ice-related accidents each year, though that number has trended downward in recent seasons.
It’s not just Minnesota, though. Such tragedies occur all over.
Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York, for example, have all seen ice anglers die in recent years.
So two things are clear.
First, ice fishing is fun, is often productive and can put healthy food on the table.
“Ice fishing is a great, inexpensive way to get outdoors in the winter and can produce both large numbers of fish and larger individual fish,” said Andy Shiels, deputy director for field operations – and an avid ice angler – for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. “It can be an escape for anglers seeking peace and quiet, or it can turn into a real social event. Often, friends and family will gather in groups to ice fish, tell stories and eat food in a tailgate-type setting.”
But it’s dangerous to stretch the limits, too.
That’s important to remember at all times, but especially right now, when ice anglers are itching to start their season.
“The rush to get out onto the ice can lead to tragedy unless anglers remain vigilant about the condition of the ice,” said Basil Seggos, commissioner with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
Four inches of ice is considered the minimum needed to support a person. More is better, with seven inches the standard if there’s going to be a group of anglers together.
Ice is not uniformly thick on a lake, though, warned Jason Batchelder, Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s chief game warden.
“Ice conditions can vary dramatically on different parts of a lake. Remember, even though it may look thick enough on the surface, moving water from currents, rivers and springs can cause ice to form unevenly,” he said.
Most importantly, if there’s any doubt ice might be unsafe, don’t venture onto it. Find something else to do or somewhere else to go and live to fish another day.
“Once we have sustained cold weather to form good ice, activities such as ice fishing can be safe and a lot of fun,” said Batchelder, “but when we go onto the ice, we need to use good judgment and observe several safety precautions.”
Some other ice fishing safety recommendations
- Leave information about your plans with someone — where you intend to fish (or snowshoe, ski or hike, if that will take you across ice) and when you expect to return.
- Always wear a lifejacket or float coat while on the ice. Avoid inflatable lifejackets, which do not perform well in freezing temperatures.
- When arriving at the water’s edge, visually survey the ice. Look for open water areas and signs of recent changes in water levels. Ice sloping down from the bank can indicate a recent drop in water level, while wet areas on the ice can indicate a rise in water level.
- Ice varies in thickness and condition. Always carry an ice spud or chisel to check ice as you proceed. If the ice staff punches through, retreat to shore slowly.
- Look for new ice, which is clear or has a blue tint. New ice is stronger than old ice, which can appear white or gray.
- Listen for loud cracks or booms coming from the ice. This can be an indicator of deteriorating ice.
- Be extremely cautious crossing ice near river mouths, points of land, bridges, islands, and over reefs and springs. Current almost always causes ice to be thinner over these areas.
- Avoid going onto the ice if it has melted away from the shore. This indicates melting is underway, and ice can shift position as wind direction changes.
- Waves from open water can quickly break up large areas of ice. If you can see open water in the lake and the wind picks up, get off.
- Take your fully-charged cell phone with you.
- Carry a set of hand spikes or awls – store bought or homemade — to help you work your way out onto the surface of the ice if you go through.
- Carry a safety line to throw to anyone falling through the ice.
Ice fishing safety depends on ice thickness.
Graphic: PA Fish and Boat Commission
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