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