Early Ice Safety Tips

No ice is ever completely safe, but early ice can be especially dangerous. Keep these tips in mind to stay dry this early ice season.

Early Ice Safety Tips

After months of anticipation, thanks to unseasonably cold temperatures, it looks like ice fishing season is finally upon us. However, there is a certain amount of risk that you take when you venture out onto frozen lakes and rivers. That risk is multiplied when you’re heading out on thin ice. Before you blow the dust off your tip-ups and head to the local bait shop, here are a few safety tips you need to remember. 

Spud Before You Step 

A spud bar is a multi-purpose ice safety necessity when it comes to early ice. Whether you’re the first one out on the lake or you’re following someone else’s tracks, you need to check the ice thickness as you go. By firmly hitting the ice in front of you every couple of steps with the spud, you can quickly gauge the ice thickness. If the spud goes through on the first hit, the ice likely won’t hold your weight. It should take at least two or three solid hits before the spud breaks through, and that’s only if you’re walking out with minimal gear. It’s a good idea to have a rope tied to the handle of the spud in case it goes through unexpectedly, so you don’t surrender it to the murky depths. A spud can also be used for opening fishing holes in early ice, so you don’t have to carry your auger. 

Get a Grip

Early ice is often accompanied by slippery conditions. A fall on early ice can put you out of commission for the rest of the ice season, or worse. There are a number of slip-on ice cleats on the market that wrap around the soles of your favorite boot. These are a critical piece of equipment most veteran ice anglers have multiple pairs of that sometimes get overlooked by newcomers to the sport. If you have dedicated ice fishing boots, you can also purchase spikes that screw into the rubber soles. Just remember to take your cleats off before going inside because the cleats can wreak havoc on flooring.

Will it Float?

In this case, the “it” is you. Your early ice fishing gear should always include some sort of wearable flotation device that you actually wear. I know plenty of boaters who have PFDs on board, ready to put them on if conditions get bad. Just like how a boating accident can come out of nowhere, falling through the ice is usually a surprise as well. Having your PFD in your sled while you’re chest-deep in the water doesn’t do you any good. Many manufacturers now sell ice fishing jackets and bibs with flotation material sewn into garments. A regular life jacket is much more affordable and should fit right under your jacket without restricting your movement too much. Whatever you choose; wear it.

Pick Your Way Out

If you are unfortunate enough to fall through the ice, there are a couple things you can carry to help get yourself out of the water. Hopefully you’re wearing your PFD or a floating ice suit to help keep you from sitting too low below the ice to be able to pull yourself up. A pair of ice picks worn around your neck can provide enough grip on the ice to help pull yourself up. They’re an inexpensive tool that could save your life. Many have a cord, so you can wear them around your neck and have them handy in a worst-case scenario. Your spud bar can also be positioned across the hole and used to hoist yourself up. That is if you didn’t drop it when you broke through. 

Buddy System

Some anglers can be pretty tight-lipped when it comes to sharing fishing spots. But being stingy with sharing your location could get you killed. If you don’t have a fishing buddy to take with you, it’s a really good idea to share your itinerary with a friend or loved one. That itinerary should include what body of water you’re fishing, where you’re accessing it, and when you plan to return. Better yet, bring along a fishing partner. In the event you fall through, they can toss you a line or at the very least call for help. Plus, fishing with a friend provides the opportunity to narrow in on what baits or lures are hot at the time by doubling the number of lines you’re tuned into.

Keep an Eye to the Sky

Ice conditions can change rapidly when the ice is thin. Heading out right at dawn when the thermometer reads below freezing and the sun isn’t up yet and assuming the ice will be safe all day is a recipe for disaster. A warmup of a few degrees, a sunny sky or an offshore wind could leave you wishing you had paid closer attention to the weather forecast. Check the forecast and pay attention to changing conditions. Don’t assume anything when it comes to early ice. Just because the ice supported you one day, doesn’t mean it will the next.

When in Doubt

If you’re the least bit unsure about the ice safety, or if you lack the necessary safety equipment, don’t risk it. With any luck, in another few weeks the ice will be even thicker and safer (though still not 100-percent safe) and you can enjoy your trip without worrying about seeing first-hand what the ice looks like from the fish’s perspective. No fish is worth risking your life. Follow these tips and you can live to fish another day.


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