Expert Ice Fishing Safety Advice
From U.S. Army and Michigan DNR

By Don Jordan

posted 12/21/07

updated 12/28/10


Unless you are a polar bear, or a member of one of those "polar bear" swim clubs, the idea of mixing an ice fishing trip with a January swim probably leaves you cold.

And well it should. A sudden plunge through the ice on an ice fishing trip will almost certainly cool you down to cadaver temperature. "Going through" means you die in about 30 minutes of hypothermia, if you don't drown first.

Those who have read "Inside Outdoors" for a while will recognize this column. I write about ice fishing safety every year, because it seems to do some good. I have only had to report two ice fishing deaths lately. So, here is this year's set of ice fishing tips; first, from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Dept.:

*Leave information about your plans with someone -- where you intend to fish and when you expect to return.

*Wear a personal floatation device and don't fish alone.

*Ice varies in thickness and condition. Always carry an ice spud or chisel to check ice as you proceed. Go to for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers table on ice thickness vs. loads.

*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!

*Carry a set of handspikes to help you work your way out onto the surface of the ice if you go through. Holding one in each hand, you can alternately punch them into the ice and pull yourself up and out. You can make these at home, using large nails, or you can purchase them at stores that sell fishing supplies.

*Carry a safety line that can be thrown to someone who has gone through the ice.

*Leave your car or truck on shore. Every year several motor vehicles go through the ice people have drowned as a result.

*Heated fishing shanties must have good ventilation to prevent deadly carbon monoxide poisoning. Open a window or the door part way to allow in fresh air.

Here are some ice safety tips from the Michigan DNR and the U.S. Army:

*According to the U.S. Army, a 200-lb. Human needs two inches of ice to support the load, with 17 feet between similar loads. Remember, ice does not freeze with uniform thickness. Where it is two inches in one spot, it might be one inch just a few feet distant.

*Avoid "dark ice" because it almost always thin. Good ice is white/blue.

*Don't become a victim yourself trying to recklessly save your buddy. Use something to reach across suspect ice to victims who have gone though -- a long limb, a ladder or even a rope will work. Lie down flat and extend the device to the break.

*Don't congregate around large numbers of other anglers or drill several holes close together. The combined weight of several 200-pound anglers and ice that has been weakened by having many holes drilled in close proximity can ruin your day.

*If you do go through, don't panic. Turn toward the shore, or the direction you were coming from when the ice broke. Ice in that direction supported you and is your best bet. Use your ice spikes to pull yourself. Once you are out, DO NOT STAND UP. By lying flat and dispersing your weight you can avoid another break. Polar bears use this method. They low-crawl over thin ice, keeping their entire body flat to the surface for weight dispersal. The Michigan DNR advises you to roll away from the break toward where you were walking.

One last thing. Leave your car or truck keys back at the vehicle. Be sure both you and your fishing partner know where they are. The truck isn't going to be much of a refuge if the keys are on the bottom of the lake in your drowned pal's pocket.


Copyright 2007. 2010. Donald Lee Jordan

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