By Doug Leier
It’s not written in any expert ice safety advice column, but I’ll always remind hard-water anglers how valuable experience can be. If you’ve never tried ice fishing before this pandemic impacted year, with all the cancellations of activities and events, now might be the time to pick up a new hobby or renew an old winter pastime.
I was sent my first ice fishing photos in late October. The angler had walked out on 3 inches of pretty good ice, and while it’s never something I’ll advocate the fact is I’ve seen safer ice this past October than I have at times in late February.
It proves the advice that there’s no such thing as 100 percent safe ice no matter the month. I’ll hedge my bets that in North Dakota we’ll typically have safer ice in mid-February than mid-October and the suggestions remain to always check ice conditions and never assume, even having been on the same ice a few days earlier, that the ice conditions have not changed.
So, whenever that next real winter cold wave arrives, and it surely will, here are some guidelines from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department:
• Snow insulates ice, hampering solid ice formation, and makes it difficult to check thickness. Snow also hides the blemishes, such as cracked, weak and open water areas.
• Avoid cracks, pressure ridges, slushy or darker areas that signal thinner ice. The same goes for ice that forms around partially submerged trees, brush, embankments or other structures.
• Ice thickness is not always consistent and can vary significantly even within a small area. Ice shouldn’t be judged by appearance alone. Anglers should drill test holes as they make their way out on the lake and use an ice chisel to check ice thickness while moving around.
• Daily temperature changes cause ice to expand and contract, affecting its strength.
• The following minimums are recommended for travel on clear-blue lake ice formed under ideal conditions. However, early in winter it’s a good idea to double these figures to be safe: 4 inches for a group walking single file; 6 inches for a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle; 8-12 inches for an automobile; and 12-15 inches for a pickup/truck.
• If someone does break through the ice, call 911 immediately. Rescue attempts should employ a long pole, board, rope, blanket or snowmobile suit. If that’s not possible, throw the victim a life jacket, empty water jug or other buoyant object.
• To treat hypothermia, replace wet clothing with dry clothing and immediately transport victim to a hospital.
These tips aren’t meant to scare anyone away from going on the ice, but it is still a time of year when we all should thoroughly assess ice conditions before venturing out.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to connect with an angler with some recent experience to draw from. If you’ve never been on a particular body of water, an experienced angler may draw on past experience, knowledge and wisdom as to where inflow or springs create thin or unstable ice conditions. Based on their years of experience, they may know a good back bay or ridge with safer ice and an early bite. It could be life-saving advice that may just lead to catching some fish.
Featured Photo: Winter anglers should be aware of ice thickness, areas of moving water, and have a plan and tools at the ready for rescue. NDG&F Photo.
Leier is an Outreach Biologist with the NDG&F Dept.