Ice Fishing Safety Tips


by Michael “LOBY” Lobenstein

Visit for fishing tips

Hello again! With the onset of winter and cold temperatures comes the sport we ice fishers can not get enough of.

It is with great anticipation that we await “safe ice” and our chance to practice honing our ice fishing skills during the few months that mother nature allows us to defy logic and “walk on water”.

With the formation of ice a lot of variables can come in to play when deciding when the time is right to “test” the ice for strength. Cold night time temperatures and calm days that stay cool are a prime recipe for the initial forming of ice that is of “good” quality and is safe for fishers to enjoy.

This season has been marked by unusual amounts of snow while the initial ice was forming which is not an ideal situation. Just as snow creates an insulating blanket for plants and ground cover, it does the same in regards to ice. This impacts the type of ice that initially forms and creates the base that will remain in place throughout the ice fishing season.

Heavy snow fell just as the water temps were allowing ice to form and as the snow mixes with the cold surface layer of water, and for lack of a better analogy, creates a giant “slushy” effect. This results in what is known as “white ice”. White ice is known by laws of physics to contain only 50% of the “load bearing” capacity of “clear” or “blue” ice.

Extended periods of “frigid” below zero weather can and do strengthen the ice properties relatively quickly providing additional snowfall does not occur. These conditions leave the ice surface exposed to the cold and accelerates ice formation and thus increases “load bearing” properties and with that “safety” becomes less of a concern.

That statement should always be “qualified” with an old saying among ice fishers. “There is no such thing as safe ice”. It is always, as most things in life that we do without proper study and caution, “risky”.

Currently some of us have sought out “protected” areas that we know form ice first on the lakes we have fished for years. We utilize extreme caution as well as “tools of the trade” to offer insurance to our decision to test ice conditions. These include watching it form and weather related events factored in as initial ice development occurs.

Additionally,  once we decide the time is right, we are equipped with “hand picks” which are rubber handles attached by a long string which is worn across the shoulders. Each pick protrudes from our parka sleeves and a personal flotation device. These utilize a spud bar which is a steel rod with a sharp cutting blade welded to the shaft which allows us to “strike” the ice to check with each step it’s properties and depth.

These are not occasional practices, they are steadfast ice fishing safety rules and practices of the sport. Should ice give way, the picks are used as anchor points to stick in the ice and allow you to pull yourself up and back on the ice.

I personally have been ice fishing for 43 years and have never had to use or utilize these items other than the spud bar because experience has allowed me to know when conditions are favorable for “load bearing” ice.

With that said, I would never enter onto the ice without those items and certainly not “alone”. It should be stressed that having a partner with you that maintains a safe distance and has a considerable length of rope with him has saved many experienced anglers over the years when the “unthinkable” occurs.

There are a number of “identifiable” classifications of ice. These are, Blue or Clear ice, known to have impressive load bearing characteristics and are ideal. “White Ice” which we discussed that is formed by a mixture of snow and slush mixed with open water and then freezing which is known to have 50% less “load bearing” properties than Blue ice. White ice can be of good quality but also more likely has areas where strength and depth can vary greatly from one step to the next. “Spudding” is critical with this type of ice.

The third type is “gray ice” which is generally caused by thawing and refreezing and air being trapped in it’s reformation and absolutely poses the highest risk level and should not be considered safe under any circumstances. In the ICE FISHING world this would be most commonly witnessed as it get later into the ice fishing season.

This article is written in the wake of recent tragedies of snowmobiles and ATV’s having gone through the ice in various areas regionally. It is intended to instruct inexperienced ice anglers and recreational users of the ice, as well as to reinforce what experienced anglers of the ice already know.

Common sense plays the most important factor in “ice safety”. Using it, in conjunction with understanding ice properties and its science, allow folks who enjoy the frozen waterways to make wise decisions before venturing onto the ice.

The great sport of ice fishing is a wonderful way to spend what would be long lazy winters, into a vigorous and rewarding activity. One, that keeps you in shape and allows you to enjoy the great outdoors as well. Just do so “armed” with proper understanding of what you are dealing with and stack the odds in your favor by utilizing common sense and the information in this article.

Additionally, staying away from areas where the sun shines against rock walls or cliffs, areas where currents exist or confluences (areas where two or more moving water systems combine) will help you avoid unstable areas of ice. As the cold settles in and consistent temperatures well below freezing are the norm, the danger level decreases but still warrants caution at all times.

Until next month,

be safe….have fun…. And good FiShIn!



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