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Ice Safety

Ice Safety Photo: Kris Jaskielewicz

As we approach another exciting ice fishing season we anxiously anticipate walking on the hard water yet again.  In our eagerness to get out there though the second it's ready, some of us may forget the basic safety guidelines associated with our favorite winter sport. Being able to 'read' the ice in order to determine its level of safety, can be a invaluable asset for all  ice anglers; especially hard core guys who fish real early and late into the season.

As a severely afflicted ice fishing addict myself, I can perfectly understand this logical desire to drill holes thru frozen water from first ice to last ice. As someone who has witnessed more than one ice angler fall thru however, I also realize that we are not invincible. In this on-line fishing article we will review some basic ice safety fundamentals that should help make this another safe season 'on top' of the ice.

Ice Safety Tips
Will in water

Periodically we can find 'ice safety tables' in outdoor magazines or books. Too many people, I believe, put so much faith in these that they don't consider the myriad of variables which come into play concerning the formation of ice. The guidelines are just that … guidelines, they are not the bible.  Ice thickness alone is not the only factor to consider before you travel across it.  To say that three or four inches of ice is fine for a person to walk on, may well be the case on one side of the lake, but on the other, those three inches could see that same person fall thru almost right away. For this reason, when you see ice safety tables, it is important to understand that they were meant as a guideline for ideal ice conditions - namely clear or 'blue' ice.

Clear or blue ice is usually formed at the start of the winter season.  Ideally, there will be several days and nights of sub-zero temperatures with little wind or snow for the ice to form at its best.  Snow cover actually acts like an insulation barrier - slowing down the freezing process; the more snow cover at the start of the year the longer it typically takes for safe ice to form. Excessively deep, heavy snow on a frozen water body (even in the middle of winter) can make the ice below less trustworthy. Ditto for wind. You can have plenty of sub-zero weather at the start of the winter that can get us crazy ice anglers itching to get out as fast as possible, but if the winds are howling at the same time … forget about it. You need calm, cold nights with little or no snow to get things going. In fact I recall a few years ago in early January on Simcoe when I fished out from Keswick during the morning on a solid 5-6 inches of ice.  The main lake far to the north was still open and by noon the northwest winds were howling so bad I elected to get off in a hurry.  By supper hour that very same day the ice exactly where I was fishing had already broken up … making me realize how dangerous things can be out there if you're not careful.

When winter temperatures fluctuate dramatically, ice conditions suffer as well. Some of the other dangerous ice conditions you may encounter throughout the season include:

Inflows and Outflows - When a river or creek flows into or out from a lake, the area 'at the mouth' can be a critical place to watch out for.  Here the current is stronger and the ice underneath will not be as strong.

Slushy Ice - when rain or mild weather melts the top layer of ice and snow. Too much of this on top of already thin ice can be hazardous. 

Rotten Ice - when the ice begins to show the effects of longer periods of sunlight usually at the end of the winter season.  Snow cover is usually gone, and the ice will appear very dark and become relatively soft.  This is often referred to as 'honeycombed' ice. Shorelines facing south, especially those without shady tree cover, will see ice become 'rotten' well-before the ice on the opposite shoreline.

Pressure Cracks - Ice is constantly contracting and retracting throughout the winter. The result is that that huge pressure cracks may form. These cracks can open up to over a meter of unfrozen water - yet they may also be deceiving and not show any open water at all. Pressure cracks often form in the same locations on big lakes like Simcoe year after year.

Springs - Underwater springs which naturally push water to the surface, are places to look out for. Sometimes these can be spotted by seeing wet spots on the ice, but not always.

Pies - It is not uncommon for ice to break up and then refreeze again throughout the season.  Huge chunks of ice, often in the shape of a pie can be detected through the thicker ice which has formed overtop.  Although usually safe in mid-winter, near the end of the season, especially when surrounded by honeycombed ice, these pies can break away. And need to be avoided.

Major Points - Natural points of land that stick out into a lake, are also places to watch out for - especially near the end of the season when they are facing south and receiving more of the suns' rays.

Wood - The ice around man-made docks and other structures can be unsafe because they attract and hold the heat from the sun.

Old Ice Holes - Ice anglers may have left a single hole unmarked and these can be hazardous if stepped into.  A real danger to watch out for however are the larger holes or series of holes underneath ice huts. These huts are often moved throughout the course of a winter. Most anglers will clearly mark the holes with branches or a stick … but there's always the chance you'll find an unmarked hole.

Shoals At seasons end shallow rocky shoals, small islands and shallower water can have much thinner ice than the surrounding deeper water. One such place on Lake Simcoe year after year is around the "Sand Islands" … those tiny little islands in front of Georgina Island at the southwest side.

As mentioned earlier, an ice safety table can act as an excellent guideline for winter outdoor enthusiasts but please keep in mind however that this guideline is for rock-solid blue ice.  When other ice conditions are present, it is recommended that ice thickness be doubled before you venture out.

4 Inches (10 cm) …..…………………………..One Person
4.4-5 Inches (10 - 11.5 cm)……………………Small Group, Spread Out In Single File
7 - 9  Inches (18 - 23 cm)………………………ATV or Snowmobile
12 +  inches (30 cm + cm)………………………A Car or Light Truck

Ice Thickness Chart

Ice conditions across lakes and rivers can vary greatly from one spot to the next. Those traveling by snowmachine or ATV cover much greater distances and displace more weight than those on foot and should therefore be extra cautious. Stick to well used trails. When in doubt, snowmobilers and others should be prepared to test the ice thickness with a spud bar or hand ice auger at regular intervals. Night travel on frozen lakes is not recommended simply because hazards which are clearly visible in the day are not at night. Obviously the dangers of traveling on ice while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are so obvious that they don't even need to be discussed here.

Ice anglers visiting back country lakes up north on snowmobiles should check with local clubs and others who travel the trails and cross the ice regularly before they go out. So too, should ice anglers who are not on the ice regularly. Ice hut operators check ice conditions daily and are 'the' experts to call if you are unsure. Be sure to contact the hut operator closest to the spot you want to access the lake from.

Bad Shore Ice
Bad shore

Vehicles traveling on ice can pose even greater risks.  That one foot of ice you find along shore may only be eight inches further out. In many cases, ice travel by vehicle is not recommended at all except for professionals like ice hut operators or on well maintained ice roads such as in northwestern Ontario and in other parts of the far north. Check with your insurance company as well before you drive out on the lake … you may be surprised to learn that you are not covered out there if you take this risk.

In the unlikely event you or someone you are with, breaks through the ice it is important to remember a few key points in order to be able to survive the ordeal.  But first here are a few precautions.

1) When in doubt, don't travel on ice; especially alone.
2) Wear ice picks around your neck so that if you do go through you are able to easily pull yourself up and out of the hole.  For less than $10.00 Rapala makes a set of ice picks that are a great insurance to have out on the ice 'just in case'.
3) Consider investing in a good floatation suit.  These buoyant snowsuits are not only warm but will also keep you afloat should you go through. They can also help keep you remarkably dry if you tighten the straps around the legs and arms. Recently they have become so popular that prices are comparable if not less than a good snowmobile suit.
4) Carry a throw rope to make it easier to pull someone out if you have to - or to be pulled out yourself if needed. I make my own by using the same throw rope I have in the boat, but instead of a light buoyant float, I use a small orange plastic bottle filled with a bit of sand to give it enough wait to throw to a potential victim.  This comes with me during early and late season outings or whenever I am on new hard water.
5) If you are fishing a lake away from civilization carry a lighter or water proof matches to build a fire afterwards. Pack a lightweight emergency blanket and a change of wool socks too.  

Falling Through … What To Do!
Now if in the unlikely event that you do go through the best piece of advice is to stay calm.  Thrashing around like a wild man will only weaken your energy level and lower your chances for survival. Plan to go back out the same way you came. You're done fishin for the day bubba so don't even think about trying to get out where you were heading because the ice could very well be unsafe there.  The odds are better that the ice is still safe along the same way you just came. Use your ice picks to pull yourself up and out of the hole.  This might be easier said than done you say? Well, you're right. I have been fortunate enough to have taken a certified on-ice safety course and as part of the program we actually had to jump into a cut out hole in the ice and then get out by ourselves.  Here's what I found made getting out as easy as one, two three.

As soon as you fall through - tell yourself to stay calm while you turn around and ease your way over to the ice you were just standing on. You can tread water just like you do in the summer.  Keep on-lookers back so that they don't go through themselves and make matters worse.

Grab your ice picks from around your neck and jab them one of them into the ice a couple of feet in-front of you. I recommend that first jab is with your right hand if you're right handed and vice versa if you're a lefty

Now, begin to flutter kick - as you allow your body to become more horizontal in the water as opposed to vertical.  Almost think of it like you would want to 'swim your way out of the hole'. Pull your body with your one pick a short distance onto the ice as you kick and then jab the other pick out in front to pull yourself all the way up and out with your other hand.  Try and get a knee or leg up on the ice as soon as possible to make this maneuver even easier.  Once you're up - don't try and stand up right away … pull yourself all the way out and the role or crawl well away from the potentially week ice and then get up.  From there, empty your boots of water and then obviously get to a warm vehicle or inside as quickly as possible.  Or, if in a remote area, start a fire immediately when on shore, and treat for hypothermia if required”.


In a lot of respects, ice safety is just a matter of common sense.  When good ice conditions are present, traveling on frozen water can be extremely safe and enjoyable.  We certainly don't want to scare ice anglers away from all frozen lakes or rivers. Fishin' during the hard water season, can be some of the best fishin' of the entire year.  The goal however is for anglers and others to become more aware of the dangers involved so that you can prevent any mishaps from occurring and are prepared properly just in case they do.  Having a healthy respect and understanding of all that wonderful frozen water will only make your ice fishing that much more enjoyable … and safe!

See also: Survival in the Ice

Hope to see you on top of the ice this winter!
Wil Wegman

Last modified on Friday, 03 February 2017 08:47
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