Safe Ice for Ice Fishing

 Safe ice is a relative term, just because you see someone on the ice do not assume the whole lake is frozen solid.

Safe Ice

I have seen a ton of posts online lately where people are looking for safe ice. Reality is no ice is safe ice. There is always inherent danger when fishing on ice. I know the intent of the people posting the question isn’t so they would get a response and just head out all gung-ho to fish the body of water mentioned, at least I would hope it wasn’t. I’m sure it is more of a question as to where someone has found “safe” ice, and where they should start looking for their safe ice to fish on.

Safe ice is a relative term. What one would consider safe ice another may not. I grew up skating and playing hockey. I did a lot of swamp/pond skating in my day. I look back on how we determined if the ice was safe and think what were we thinking? Lucky for us if we did fall in the swamp/ponds were very shallow and not as life threatening as some bodies of water would have been. Once the pond had skimmed we would first get on the edge of the ice and see if we could see bubbles frozen into the ice and then estimate how far down they were. We would make our way out further listening for cracks and signs of weakness in the ice. These swamps/ponds generally froze up evenly so we were usually good to go.Weeds frozen in the ice will absorb heat energy from the sun and create soft spots in the ice. The only weak spots would be around weed clumps. Ask me how I know that….OK I’ll tell you. Rushing to the pond one morning I decided to take a short cut out to the area where we set up to play hockey. In the middle of winter this wasn’t a problem however this was early on and as stated the bushed areas had not frozen enough to support me. I went through up to my thighs. As I thrashed along breaking more ice and eventually ended up on one of the clumps of weeds. At that point I was able to jump from clump to clump eventually finding safe ice. Then the cold walk home to change clothes and get back to the ice before I lost too much skating time. Oh to be a kid again. When it came to larger lakes and ponds we generally waited to see older kids or adults out there before we would venture out.

Beaver Dams, food piles, and lodges are another place to avoid when traveling over the ice..I’d like to think thru the years that I learned a bit about what safe ice looks like both at the beginning of the season and at the end. Those years skating was just the start of my learning about ice. My early ice fishing adventures consisted of my father and one of his work buddies out on the lake down the road from our house. I can’t say I remember too much about it other than building a fire on the ice, eating Keilbasa and beans and playing around. If my memory is correct my father would fish a few times a year (usually early ice as he only had a spud) and was far from hard core. At some point and I don’t remember when I decided I’d take up ice fishing using my father’s gear. Seeing as I had already established a pattern of wait and see for larger bodies of water this is what I also used when ice fishing. I can’t stress enough how valuable a spud is to early ice fishing. Early on I always chipped as I went. I’d chip a hole determine the ice thickness and move a short distance chip another and so on until I reached the area I wanted to fish. Back then 2 ½” of ice was good for me, today I am older and wiser (heavier too) so I prefer 3 ½” to 4” of ice. Early on only having a spud also meant my fishing season was only as long as I was willing to chip holes, usually somewhere between 8 and 12″ of ice thickness. Since I also skated the abbreviated fishing season wasn’t a big deal to me and I’d just switch over to playing more hockey. There is also another result of ice fishing like that that is best avoided. If you sweat first you will get colder faster. Believe me I know. Six holes at 8″ of ice thickness will make you sweat. No shelter and cold temps you will get cold. OK back to ice thickness.

The next stage of my ice experience came when I decided to go all in and buy a hand auger. Early ice I would drill the holeAt first ice there will often be areas of open water to beware of. and soon realized that the act of drilling the hole required me to stand close to the area I wanted to check and probably wasn’t a great idea if the ice was not safe. I went back to the spud for checking the thickness. I also through the years learned what the “good” ice sounded like when I hit it with my spud. So I now walk slamming the spud/chipper into the ice in front of me as I walk along. I still stop every so often to verify thickness.

Another word of caution and this applies to early as well as any time of the ice season. Just because you see someone in one spot on the ice do not assume the whole lake is frozen solid. My early observations told me the larger bodies of water did not always just instantly have safe ice everywhere. Since I was usually one of the first anglers out on ponds I learned to read my local waters and the patterns of how they would typically freeze. I say typically because every year can be different and if you intend on being an early ice angler you should observe the lake you want to fish prior to it freezing solid. You will see what areas catch first and what areas didn’t, an indicator as to areas where caution should be taken. My first experience with this was while fishing Canobie Lake in Windham NH. I often fished alone due to the fact that all my buddies thought I was crazy to ice fish, too boring for them. I knew the north end by the boat ramp always froze first. One day I was setting up traps and I always made note of the stress cracks or just general difference in the appearance of the ice. I had three traps set and was about to step on some of that different looking ice when I said go back get the spud and check it first. I am thankful to this day that I did that as the spud went through the ice with little effort. One side of that line in the ice had 3″ of good black ice, the other less than an inch. Another lesson learned that day.

Snow on the ice, yes snow on the ice greatly hinders your ability to read the differences in the ice appearance, so extra caution should be taken. Snow will actually insulate the ice and slow down the formation of ice below it. Snow can also make or break a season as well. With little ice  a snow storm can actually increase ice thickness. The weight of the snow on the ice forces water up through the cracks in the ice saturating the snow and when it re freezes we have what is called snow ice. Not nearly as strong as black ice but is better than nothing. The past couple weeks we were fishing on half and half ice, half snow and half black ice.

You can learn to read the story in the ice. Here is a boundary where the ice on the right froze earlier and is thicker than the fresh black ice on the left. Large lakes and stress cracks or pressure ridges: Ice expands when it freezes and as it gets thicker and expands more the ice has to go somewhere. Smaller ponds the edges push up. On larger lakes where ice masses meet each other they also push up against each other creating weak areas in the ice. Sometimes they push up breaking ice on each side then settle back where it looks like there is no ridge at all yet the ice on either side has been broken into chunks creating danger zones. To this day I give stress cracks/pressure ridges the utmost respect.

I hope this has helped someone when it comes to ice safety. There are so many factors involved they are all hard to capture in a post. I hope I have done a decent job here and hopefully opened some eyes as to what to look out for and to always check for yourself for your “safe” ice.

Be safe out there. Mother Nature is very unforgiving.

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More Ice Fishing Safety Info:
PA Fish & Boat Commission

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
New Hampshire fish and Game

North East Pennsylvania’s Polar Express, Ice Fishing Pennsylvania

Ice Stripers, although not a common catch stripers are pulled from Lake Wallenpaupack every winter.NEPA is blessed with myriad lakes which support a wide variety of popular sport and table fish species. Add to that a climate which trends colder than most of the state and you have the makings of and ice fishing paradise. Although not by design, some highways in NEPA are situated such that residents can hop on an expressway and be ice fishing Pennsylvania at any number of fine destinations in an hour or less. Route 84 in particular passes by a string of significant ice fishing lakes which are just a few minutes off the main drag. Climb on board as we explore North East Pennsylvania’s Polar Express,
an Ice Fisherman’s Paradise

Located just south of Scranton, PA off route 380 is the western terminus of interstate route 84. Traveling rte. 84 in an easterly direction will bring us to exit 20, rte. 507 and Lake Wallenpaupack.. Route 507 follows the lake at a distance from the upper end, where Wallenpaupack Creek enters the lake. It continues along the eastern shore connecting with rte.6 at Wilsonville and onto the PPL dam. PPL has provided strategically placed boat launches and access points all around the lake. Ledgedale, Ironwood Point, Wilsonville, and Caffery recreation areas have parking and reasonable access for ice fishermen. Shuman Point natural area can be used as parking for ice fishing but it involves hiking a trail for about one half mile to get to the ice.In addition to the PPL access areas the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission maintains the Mangan Cove Boat Launch. This large facility is located on the northwestern shore off rte. 590

Fish species found at the “pack” include: smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, rock bass, bluegill, pumpkinseed, calico, walleye, muskellunge, northern pike, pickerel, rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, channel catfish and yellow perch. Striped bass and hybrid striped bass have been stocked in the lake, and although not specifically targeted, a few are pulled through the ice every season.

The shoreline of this rocky lake follows the contours of the hills and valleys that were inundated when the impoundment was created. There are many coves projecting off the main lake channel. Try the backs of the coves if you like to chase flags for pickerel. You will catch an occasional northern pike or largemouth bass using large shiners in the coves too.

The inundated Wallenpaupack Creek bed runs the entire length of the lake. It is a focal point for baitfish movement and the predator species that prey on them. Stick to the creek bed and adjacent features if you are after walleyes, trout and stripers. Perch and other panfish can be found in deeper water where the coves meet the main lake and on the flats that occur near Wilsonville, Shumans Point and across from Ironwood Point.

Upper Promised Lake boasts some slammer pickerel.Following rte. 84 east to exit 26 brings us to rte. 390, at this point we are just a few minutes from Promised Land State ParkPLSP features ice fishing on two lakes, 422-acre Upper Promised Land Lake and the park’s other lake, 173 acre Lower Promised Land Lake. Both of these offer great opportunities for ice fishing enthusiasts. Primary fish species targeted by ice anglers include: largemouth bass, pickerel, calicos yellow perch, and bluegills. Lower PL Lake is designated as approved trout waters and stocked with brook, brown and rainbow trout by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

There are several parking areas provided around Upper Promised Land that ice Promised Land State Park's resident eagles are ever watchful for a free lunch.fishermen can use to access the lake. The aptly named Pickerel Point offers access to the central lake area and is a good area to try if pickerel and bass are your quarry. The Snow Shanty access is popular with panfishermen and there is a large parking area with access near the dam off rte. 390 that will put you on deeper waters. Lower PL Lake can be accessed via two parking boat launch facilities. One is located on the shallow and weed choked inlet end and the other is near the deeper end of the lake near the dam and outlet. Don’t be surprised to find that you have company observing your ice fishing activities. Bald eagles inhabit the park year round. They will quickly swoop down on any fish left on the ice unattended. Remember that feeding the eagles is a federal crime and you can be arrested for doing so.

Our last stop on the Polar Express is Shohola Dam, also known as Shohola Marsh Reservoir and Shohola Lake. Shohola is a 1,137-acre manmade lake located on Game Lands No. 180 in Pike County. The Pennsylvania Game Commission created the lake in 1967 to enhance waterfowl production in the area. In the process, they created an awesome ice fishing resource.  This is an exposed lake; up on top of the Pocono Plateau the wind can be brutal. Also be sure to check the ice thickness often, there is a significant current in the channel that will freeze later and thaw earlier than the surrounding ice. Access to Shohola Reservoir is provided via 3 boat launch parking areas. Two of them are located near the outlet of the lake and the other one is about midway up the lake on the northern shore. To reach it you must follow an oftentimes icy and unplowed game lands road. Shohola offers really good pickerel and bass fishing as well as better than average fishing for perch, bluegill and calico. This is a very shallow and weedy lake. The deepest parts, at around 10 feet of water, are the creek channel and the areas nearest the dam. Some panfishermen use the weeds to their advantage. They find small openings in the weeds and harvest the panfish using the area. Some anglers will even use heavy tungsten jigs to punch through the weed cover to reach the bluegills and pumpkinseeds living under the weed bed.

This 22 inch Shohola largemouth bass was taken on a tip up baited with a large chub.Tip ups are the ticket for the bass and pickerel at Shohola. Large chubs and shiners on quick strike rigs do the trick.  If you are after slammer pickerel a wire rig is recommended. Some guys will thread colored beads and spinner blades onto their leaders to add a bit of noise, and flash to the struggling bait. The weeds in Shohola offer the bass and pickerel lots of food and cover allowing them to grow to healthy proportions. Be ready for action and don’t be too surprised of you catch an icy trophy.

With a line up of lakes such as those strung along rte. 84 it is easy to see why I like to call NEPA’s Polar Express and ice fisherman’s paradise. Hop in your vehicle and see if one of the fish lurking in the depths will punch your ticket.

Pennsylvania Ice Fishing Reports

View NEPA Polar Expressway Route #1 in a larger map

Ice Fishing for River Walleyes

Ice Fishing on Rivers for walleyes can be as productive as it is exciting.

Ice Fishing on Rivers for walleyes can be as productive as it is exciting.

If you are fortunate enough to live in a state with rivers that freeze up nice and firm in the winter you may have a unique opportunity to try, ice fishing for river walleyes. I live on the North Branch of the Susquehanna River and have managed to get on the frozen “Susky” nearly every season for the last thirty years. River ice fishing is not for the faint-of-heart, but if you have some experience on lake ice, the transition shouldn’t be too difficult.

When it comes to ice fishing for river walleyes your first task will be finding locations that hold fish and have ice that is safe for you to stand on and move about. You will be seeking out river eddies. As water temperatures drop with the approach of winter, bait fish begin to accumulate in the slower moving waters in eddies. Fish being cold blooded are not as active in winter. They survive by expending less energy and staying out ot the main force of the river’s current. Once bait have moved into the eddies the larger predatory species follow. To begin, get out a map of better yet get on your computer and use Google Maps. Find your river of choice and look for spots where feeder streams enter the river. Zoom in to see it the outwash from the stream has caused an eddy to form downstream from its entry point. Not every stream will produce and eddy of sufficient size to make it worth ice fishing but in my experience the odds are in your favor, many do.

The quite water on the backside of this island will freeze in a few months and be a prime spot for ice fishing.

The quite water on the backside of this island will freeze in a few months and be a prime spot for ice fishing.

Feeder streams are not the only features that will produce eddies. any sizable structure that impedes the river’s flow can cause a slack water eddy to form. The relatively slow moving current allows for the build up of ice safe for ice fishing. Islands can and do support the formation of nice ice fishing spots on rivers. Many islands will have one side where the main flow passes. Frequently the water on the other side of the island will go dry up on the upstream end. During the winter the lower end of this cut off river channel can easily freeze and make for some very good ice fishing. Wing dams, and sharp bends in the river can also create conditions which allow a nice thick layer of ice for form. One other circumstance I have just discovered but have to wait for this winter to test are pipelines. I have found a spot where a storm drain pipe crosses the river bed. Along one shore the pipe is acting just like a low wing dam and has allowed the river current to carve out a nice deep. I will be keeping a close watch this winter as the temperatures drop to see if it too develops any fishable ice.

So now that you have located some spots to fish on your river it/s tome to have some fun. Icy winter walleyes behave much the same as late fall eyes. Early morning and late afternoon are prime time to target them. Getting on position early and setting up will allow the water you are fishing to settle down.  Remember you will be fishing in shallow water sometimes just 3 or 4 feet deep, move around quietly, dropping your ice scoop or running around with noisy cleats on can spook fish. Cut extra holes early on so you can concentrate on fishing when the bite gets going. I like to set up tip-ups while there is light enough to see. As the light dims I will pull the tip-ups as they are tripped and begin to jig the  holes I have predrilled.

This 28 inch walleye took a 6 inch chub on a tip-up

This 28 inch walleye took a 6 inch chub on a tip-up

My biggest walleyes have always come off tip-ups. When fishing tip-ups I generally use and 18 inch leader with a small treble hook. If the fish are biting shyly I will switch to a 3 or 4 foot leader of 8 pound test fluorocarbon line with a #8 or #10 treble hook attached. for my tip-p bait I like to use wild trapped shiners and chubs, small 3 to 4 inch baits are fine. If I am using larger baits I up size the treble hooks accordingly, using #6 or #4 trebles. Don’t be surprised if you catch a northern pike of a musky they will be working the same patch of ice as the walleyes.

When it comes to jigging for ices on the river I will ofter use the same bait that accounts for most of my late fall walleye catches. That is , a white 1/8 to 1 /4  oz. leadhead jig with a chartreuse or chartreuse combination, Power Bait twistertail. This gets tipped with a small 2 to 3 inch fathead, shiner, or chub minnow. Try to keep your presentation as small as possible so the fish can easily inhale the whole thing.  The number of hookups will be high and you win’t miss as many tail biters. I’m looking forward to better river ice conditions this winter last years warm temperatures kept me off the river all season. I plan on trying out PK Lures highly recommended walleye lures the Flutterfish and the PK Spoon. I also use Swedish Pimples and Kastmasters tipped with small minnows or minnow heads. after it is fully dark the fishing can continue by lantern light just remember to stay quite and pay attention to where you are walking and what you are walking on. It is best to be with a pal in case of trouble.

Don't be surprised if you hook into a pike or musky when ice fishing for river walleyes.

Don’t be surprised if you hook into a pike or musky when ice fishing for river walleyes.

Ice fishing on rivers for walleyes can be exciting and very productive. Do some homework and play it safe and you can enjoy a new take on hardwater angling.


Ice Fishing Rivers


Ice fishing rivers can be a productive and exciting experience.

Nothing tweaks the senses like getting out on a frozen river for some ice fishing.


Taking advantage of winter’s ice and the hungry fish to be found underneath it was something that came quite naturally to me. Living along the banks of the Susquehanna River it was only a matter of time before I gravitated to it in quest of the plentiful walleyes that dwell there. I quickly discovered that ice fishing rivers can be very productive. I recall the ruckus it caused when I started posting about all the fun I was having fishing frozen river eddies on the North Branch. I was called a lunatic, irresponsible, crazy and worse, those were the days.
My first experience ice fishing on a river occurred when I took a road trip to test myself ice fishing on the St Lawrence River in the Alexandria Bay area. The results of the experience were so positive that I continued to make the trip a yearly event for a half dozen or so years. I explored the Wellesley Island access points many of which are located on state park land and are maintained minimally for ice fishermen. Pike were my fishy targets back then and I had days of catching several dozen of them. Fishing Wellesley Island at Lake of the Isles yielded pike, some monster largemouth bass and perch too. River ice fishing was great fun.
After, ice fishing the St. Lawrence I was ready to test the Susquehanna River and see if the walleyes of January were as hungry and ready to bite as they had been before ice up in December. I was not to be disappointed. The walleye fishing was awesome the fish were fat and willing to bite a baited jig or a minnow dangled below a tip up. Besides the ‘walleye I caught muskellunge and northern pike with an occasional carp or channel cat turning up too. River fishing was a productive and exciting ice fishing adventure. During this period of time I was traveling back and forth from NJ to PA up to several times a week. Every time I crossed the frozen Delaware I found my self wondering if it would be as ice fishing friendly as the Susky. Having fished both sides of the Delaware while chasing shad in the springtime I remembered a few spots the should have nice thick and safe ice to test the Big “D’s” ice fishing. For my first attempt I went up into the Delaware River National Recreation Area on the Jersey side traveling north well up into the heart of the Rec Area. There I selected a large eddy that was always a good shad producer. Once on the ice I found it to be about 14 inches thick and well frozen. I drilled a line of holes along the contour of an island up the back channel keeping at least 7 or 8 feet of water below the ice as I went. It wasn’t long before the flags were flying and I had my 3 walleye limit including one 28″ trophy.
Ice fishing  rivers is riskier than fishing frozen lakes and ponds. This can be attributed to the flowing water found in them. When fishing rivers seek out eddies or other places where the current is reduced by obstructions. Sharp bends in the river will frequently create the slack water conditions required for ice to develop into safe evenly frozen sheets similar to what we find on lakes and ponds. Islands can create conditions favorable to safe ice fishing spots. places where tributaries enter the river can also make sizable river eddies.
The Susquehanna’s North Branch is blessed with a good number of slower moving eddies where ice can accumulate and thicken unhindered by the stronger current found in the main channel. One thing to note if you decide to give riverine ice fishing a try is that many (not all) of the best locations are located adjacent to public boat launches or other public access areas. This holds true on the Delaware, the Susquehanna and the St. Lawrence rivers it must be more than a coincidence and have some basis in the planning of these facilities. If you decide to give river ice fishing a try take a friend bring a rope and a life saving flotation device. Take care getting on and off the ice. Pay Attention to everything while you are on the river, pay attention to wet spots and any visible color variations in the ice. I like to take a spud along. I poke and pry at the edges before setting foot on river ice. If you are shaky about fishing on frozen lakes and ponds then this is not going to be for you. Ideally you should have ice experience and confidence in your ability to read the ice. Ice fishing rivers can be a rewarding ice fishing adventure give them their due respect and you could have your best day ice fishing ever.

If you want to learn more about ice fishing rivers.

Or learn about the sport of ice fishing in general, we are here to be a friend, lend a hand and be a resource in your icy pursuits. Whether you are a beginner or an icy veteran seasoned by many winters spent on our frozen lakes, you will find a warm fire, good friends, and extraordinary tales when you step through the doors of