For many anglers in the northern part of the country, the arrival of freezing temperatures in late fall and early winter signals a shift in fishing opportunities. As boating weather ends and Mercury outboards get winterized, lakes start freezing over and another ice fishing season begins.
Ice fishing is a fun activity and a great way to spend time outdoors in winter with family and friends. From large waters to small pothole lakes, the ice belt offers an array of hard-water angling experiences for many fish species, including lake trout, northern pike, walleye, yellow perch and crappie. Regardless of the location or the target species, every successful ice fishing trip hinges on adopting a safety-first approach. Here is a general refresher on ice fishing safety, how to check ice conditions and essential ice fishing safety equipment.
Safety first: Your local fish and wildlife department’s website, along with water safety organizations, are good places to learn more about ice fishing safety and recommended ice thicknesses for the activity within your region. If you’re new to ice fishing, consider hiring a licensed guide or outfitter, who can help you ensure a fun, successful and safe outing. And when it comes to stepping foot on the ice, if you’re ever in doubt, don’t go out.
A General Overview of Ice Fishing Safety
Exercising caution will go a long way toward ensuring your well-being with any outdoor activity, and ice fishing is no exception. Equally important is to understand that ice conditions will vary and are ever-changing. Taking unnecessary risks is never a good idea, so if you’re ever in doubt about ice conditions, don’t go.
Fluctuating ice conditions are seen each winter in regions where lakes within close proximity freeze over at different times. Just as common is for ice conditions to differ throughout the same lake, which can mean some areas are suitable for fishing while other spots are not.
Generally, shorelines and protected, shallow regions of a lake freeze first and offer ice fishing opportunities long before deep-water expanses have ice cover. However, with certain waterbodies the main lake rarely, or never, yields ice suitable for hard-water angling. As winter ends, anglers must be conscious of the sun’s increasing strength and its ability to erode ice near shore, in shallow areas and around rocks. Inflowing meltwater can also create unsound ice.
Other factors impacting ice conditions include lake narrows, bridges, tributaries and other areas containing current, which can thin and weaken ice, along with pressure ridges forming cracks along the ice. The insulating properties of heavy snow cover can also prevent the development of ice conditions suitable for ice fishing.
Anglers can expect to encounter different kinds of ice on lakes during winter. Clear, solid ice is typically the strongest. Whereas cloudy ice, snow-ice layers and honeycombed ice will generally be weaker and less consistent than clear ice of a similar thickness.
Tip: If you are new to ice fishing, visiting or calling fishing tackle stores is a good way to start gathering information on local angling spots, but always check ice conditions yourself upon arrival.
Tips For Checking Ice
Given the above realities, anglers must regularly check ice conditions every outing. This is a task Mercury Pro Team member Gary Parsons, who has decades of ice fishing experience, does using two important items.
First, Parsons uses a lightweight, fast-cutting lithium ice auger to quickly drill a hole through the ice. Next, he clears away slush from the hole with an ice skimmer and then uses the ruler along the skimmer’s handle to measure the ice’s thickness. See the video at the end of this article for more information on this process.
Keep in mind that just because the ice is thick enough to walk on near shore, doesn’t mean it’s suitable everywhere.
Essential Ice Fishing Safety Equipment
Parsons carries several ice fishing safety items in addition to a lightweight, lithium auger and ice skimmer. Topping his list is a pair of ice safety picks connected with a cord, which he wears around his neck early in the season. The interlocking handles can be pulled apart in the event of an ice break-through and then used to get a good purchase on the ice and, subsequently, drag oneself out.
Parsons also suggests wearing an ice fishing float suit. In addition to providing outerwear protection and insulation for keeping warm in cold weather, the flotation properties of these jacket and bib combinations can aid an angler in getting out of the water should they break through the ice. Read product labels carefully as not all ice fishing suits float.
An emergency throw rope is another essential in Parsons’ ice safety toolkit. In the event someone falls through the ice, the long rope allows him to keep a safe distance while still being able to assist with the rescue process.
A spud bar, or ice chisel, is another item to consider. Anglers typically use this tool along shorelines and when walking to hit the ice and test its strength and thickness. This is to be done in conjunction with the hole-drilling method Parsons suggests.
Owning a pair of ice cleats is also a good idea. Worn over boots, these metal grippers improve traction and provide better footing when walking on slippery ice. A whistle and a first-aid kit are two other universal safety items worth carrying.
In the following video, Parsons provides details on ice fishing safety and how to check ice conditions. In addition to his insights and the information shared above, the typical conventions for outdoor, cold-weather activities apply to ice fishing, such as dressing in layers to stay warm and watching for signs of frostbite. Keep these concepts and best practices in mind, and you will be well on your way to enjoying plenty of fun and successful ice fishing adventures with family and friends.
For more from Gary Parsons and the rest of the crew from “The Next Bite” TV show, check out TheNextBite.com or the show’s YouTube channel, or follow the crew on Facebook and Instagram. You can also follow Parsons on Facebook and Instagram.