It’s early November, and though we’ve had unseasonably warm temperatures in central Alberta I’ve already seen a few brave/desperate souls venturing north for early ice fishing trips. Now, while I admire their tenacity and drive for the first few icy bites, I also feel the need to impress upon you the importance of ice safety, especially in regards to early ice. According to the Red Cross website, 22% of immersion deaths involving ice are fishing related, most of which are preventable by following a few simple safety rules while out on the ice. I’m hoping to highlight a few strategies for everyone to add to their ice fishing routines to help keep our friends and family safe this season.
Assuming that you have had consistently cool weather in your area, its likely that there will be a thin layer of ice coating most of your favourite bodies of water. In some areas farther north there are lakes that already have as much as 2 to 3 inches of clear fresh ice. The recommended thickness for a single person on foot on the ice is 2 inches, however that only applies if the ice is healthy and clear. Ice that has a clouded or bubbled appearance may not be safe to walk on. It is important to always be mindful of where you are stepping as you approach early ice. As you move onto thicker ice, 3 inches is recommended as safe for a group in single file to travel on. Now, even in ideal early ice conditions there are some tools that I suggest carrying with you that can help assure your safety. First up is a spud bar; a spud bar is a long piece of steel with a tapered point on the end, you can often find them at your local fishing shop. It’s a fantastic, simple tool that can be used to physically gauge the strength and thickness of the ice, and can be used as a guide as you set out onto the ice. While moving forward you use the spud bar to “tap” the ice in front of you as you walk, this tests the strength of the ice ahead of you. Typically, you want the spud bar to take 2 to 4 solid strikes to break through the ice to deem it safe enough to continue. This method can be useful through the entire season of ice fishing, as there is no such thing as “too safe” when suspending yourself above deep, cold water on a layer of ice. The spud bar is a multi-faceted tool, also useful as an extra source of grip when dealing with low snow conditions ( we’ve all wiped out at least once and bruised our butts and our pride) or for creating new holes, or opening old holes in ice, preventing the need for a heavy auger at the beginning of the season. I do suggest attaching a decent length of rope to the end of your bar though to prevent your bar from disappearing through the ice to a watery grave.
It is advisable to invest in a set of ice fishing bibs that have floating technology, however we all know that that can be a costly purchase. A simple PFD that you would keep stowed in your boat is a cost effective replacement. Most PFDs are modest enough that they will fit fairly comfortably under your jacket, but it can always be worn over your jacket as well. Either way, it’s a wonderful, simple way to keep your head above water if the worst happens. When a person falls through the ice they typically experience and cold shock response, which often results in involuntary inhalation, which if already submerged in the water can result in death. Having a floatation device on can prevent you from being fully submerged, and give you the time the acclimate and remove yourself safely from the water.
The next tool is an absolute must, especially dealing with early ice conditions; ice picks. While it would be ideal to be wearing a float suit, or even a PFD when getting out the first few times, a simple set of ice picks worn around your neck can safe your life in an immersion situation. The sharp spikes placed in the ends of sturdy handles can provide enough grip to pull yourself to safety, or to allow you to hold on long enough if self rescue is not an option. They are relatively inexpensive, small and lightweight making them an easy choice to have on hand.
A throw rope is another wise investment, and should be kept in your sled all season through. In the event that you or someone in your group breaks through the ice, a throw rope can be tossed safely from a distance and be used to pull someone to safety without putting others in danger.
The last piece of gear that I suggest for safety while on the ice is a pair of good ice grips that attach to your boots. Ice is slippery, slippery surfaces paired with cold boots can yield painful results, and we all want to come home from our beloved fishing trips in one piece. Grips provide you with safety and confidence on the ice, and that extra edge when you are running full tilt chasing flags.
Now that we have covered some tools that will aid in keeping you safe this season, we should also cover some helpful tips and strategies. The first of which being mindful; while we are all eager to get out there and drop a line in, no outing or fish is ever worth your life. If there is ever any doubt about the safety of the ice you are planning to traverse, don’t do it. The risk is never worth more than the reward, and often it’s only a few short weeks before that ice would be safe anyways. Adopting a safety attitude or culture is an important part of being an angler. When planning a day out, it’s wise to keep an eye on the forecast for the day, as ice conditions can change very quickly, the ice you walked out on in the morning will not always be the same as when you leave at the end of the day. Change in temperature, wind and sun exposure can result in fast melting, which could in turn leave you stranded in the middle of the ice. It’s important to always have an exit strategy in the event that something like this happens.
Another great tip is use the buddy system. I know for myself, that while I have gone and enjoyed the solitude of fishing alone, there is something to be said for the camaraderie of fishing with a partner or a group, add in the fact that there is safety in numbers and it’s an easy choice. In the event that you or a fishing buddy falls in, there is at least one other person there to throw a rope, or at the very least call for help. If you find yourself fishing alone though, it’s advisable to share your plan for the day with someone so that they know where you are. Letting someone know which lake you are on, where you walked on and when you plan to be home are all great things to share, in the event of an emergency people will know where to look for you, keeping that in mind it doesn’t hurt to check in every couple of hours either (a Zoleo Satellite Communicator works perfectly for this and you can find them in our store!).
Ultimately, we are all excited to get out there and freeze our finger tips and get our knees wet chasing after our favourite species. Ice fishing is an incredible experience that I recommend to everyone, but there is a certain amount of respect required to enjoy it properly and safely. Be mindful, keep your wits about and make good decisions, your family and friends are counting on you for it. I am looking forward to getting out as soon as the ice allows it and sharing my experiences and catches with you all.