Remaining Safe on the Ice
This is an article about ice fishing safety. I’ve fished through the ice on Saginaw Bay for almost 20 years; my father has fished the bay for almost 50. I’ve learned most of what I know about staying safe from him. Most of the information contained in this article is pertinent to Saginaw Bay, but could easily be applied to many other bodies of water. I’m NOT going to present the common views that are prevalent in our society that ‘no ice is safe’, as I know otherwise and also realize that you probably know otherwise. (Sometimes, being on the ice is safer than walking down the sidewalk.) How you behave on the ice is more important than how thick it is. Also, I’ve found that warnings telling people to stay off the ice because it’s ‘unsafe’ serve the purpose of making people ignore all of them, as warnings of this sort are issued all winter long. I’ve gone out when warnings have been issued more times than not and have never needed assistance; I have rarely fallen in and have never gone for a ride on an ice floe. This article is by no means a complete guide to being safe on the ice, but I hope it helps educate people about things they hadn’t previously considered or thought about. Following these guidelines should help prevent incidents where people need help. In this article, I’m going to present some of the information I’ve learned over the years with examples of real situations I’ve been in. I hope you find it useful and that it helps keep you safe during this and future ice fishing seasons.
The suggestions contained within this article are just that- suggestions. I’ve found they work, as evidenced by the short stories interspersed throughout. I nor this website, accept no responsibility for what happens to you on the ice, whether as a result of this article or not. You are *never* completely safe no matter where you are and no article can make it so.
Factors Affecting Ice Strength
One time, I stepped in somebody’s old fishing hole that had skimmed over with ice, then snow had blown over it. This was at the mouth of the Saginaw River and I went in up to the middle of my thigh. Even with my foot only being a few feet under the surface of the ice, I could feel the current tugging on my leg. If I had fallen through due to the ice being too thin, my entire body would have been submerged and I would have been swept out underneath the ice into the bay before I could do anything. Thankfully, the ice was about five inches thick and I had just stepped in a fishing hole, so I was able to catch myself from dropping the rest of the way in.
I’ve watched people fishing on one and a half inches of ice in 25 feet of water on the Saginaw River. The current took a one and a half ounce jigging spoon down at a 60 degree angle where I was fishing (where there was more ice). This illustrates another bad effect of current on the ice. Current will chew away at the bottom of the ice, thinning and weakening it. It causes the ice to not have a uniform thickness. In the example at the beginning of this paragraph, I was fishing only fifteen feet away from another person. I had a good four inches of ice, but he had under two. Current is not the only thing that can cause uneven ice to form though.
Wind can also affect the ice. I’ll discuss staying safe in the wind later, but it’s possible for wind to cause extremely uneven ice. I was out fishing off Pinconning this past year when there were terrible wind storms. The ice varied from six inches to one half inch. There were even some spots around that had open water. The wind had blown the ice around, breaking it up. Different chunks floated in, some on top of another, then the whole mess had frozen. Where two or more chunks were on top of each other when it re-froze, the ice was thick. Where there were gaps between the chunks when it re-froze, there was very little if any ice. Walking in and out was fun, as you had to zig-zag around where the gaps were, staying on the good ice. I had one foot drop through, but caught myself before I went in past the middle of my boot.
My father told me of one time that he was fishing off AuGres many years ago. They hammered the perch one day under sixteen inches of ice one mile out. Naturally, since the ice was so thick, people were driving their cars out on the ice. The next day, another fisherman who had heard about the fish biting started driving out on the ice with his pick-up truck. Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, the wind had broken the ice off and blown it out, then the open water had skimmed over. To make matters worse, it had snowed about an inch later that night, so the bay was a sheet of white, making the edge of the good ice undecipherable from that of the thin. He drove right off the edge into six feet of water.
Believe it or not, plants do produce heat from their transformation of minerals and sunlight into energy for growth. Also, organic matter undergoing decay generates heat. These factors make areas where there are weed beds much weaker than areas where there are none. When you walk through a marsh especially, be very careful. The plants weaken the ice substantially and when there is a high concentration of plants in an area, the ice will be much weaker than it otherwise would be.
First ice is generally very hard and strong. This is the type of ice that is more likely to support you when it’s thin. Toward the end of the season, the ice becomes soft and rotten. A foot of ice may not be enough to hold a person at this time of year. My father has told me of a time he was fishing on two feet of ice. However, on every step, his foot would sink in between eight and ten inches! The top of the ice had rotted from the sun, warm weather, and the water laying on top, but the ice underneath was still solid enough to support him.
I haven’t fished much on last ice, so I can’t offer much in the way of advice other than to avoid the assumption that, since there’s a lot of ice, it must be safe.
There are many other factors that affect how strong the ice is. Natural springs will affect the ice adversely, as there will be water of a warmer temperature flowing in at the location of the spring. This will weaken the ice from underneath.
Just outside Bay City, there are the hot ponds for Consumer’s Power. This is basically a warm water discharge; Consumer’s Power sucks water in from the Saginaw River near the mouth, uses it to cool their turbines, then spews it out into Saginaw Bay. The ice to the east generally forms late and is softer and weaker than that to the north. The quality of the ice is affected over five miles away. I’m sure other companies have similar discharges that will affect ice formation.
Snow can have an adverse affect on the pace of ice formation and the strength of the ice formed. Snow has great insulating properties, meaning that the cold air might not be reaching actual water if there’s a thick enough layer of snow on top.
Tankers, barges, and ice breakers are also a serious hazard when on the ice. The ice miles away is disturbed when these large boats come through. In the first part of 2002, a man died on Tawas Bay because he was out fishing when a barge came in. The ice broke up around him and he was unable to make it back to shore. They found his body in fifteen feet of water a few days later. In my opinion, breaking up the ice manually for the purpose of shipping should not be allowed. I’ve been fishing a mile off Linwood when a tanker came through the shipping channel of the bay several miles away and could feel the ice shaking where I was. A couple of days later, some people went for a ride because the ice broke off and floated away. If the ice hadn’t been broken up by the breaker, there would have been nowhere for it to float to, as the bay was completely covered with ice at the time.
Rivers and streams when entering a larger body of water will also cause weak ice. Spots where the body of water is slightly deeper than the surrounding water can also cause the ice to be slower to form and weaker. In short, anything out of the ordinary can affect how strong the ice is at any given location.
Making Holes- Spuds VS Augers
Call me old fashioned, but I use a spud exclusively. I find a spud easier to carry and use it as a walking staff on the way out. An auger, especially a power auger, is more off balance and a pain to haul out. (I don’t have a 4-wheeler or snow machine.) Note that I’ll be discussing some of the common misconceptions about spuds and their effect on fishing in this section as well, in order to dispel fears that some of you may have.
The primary advantage of using a spud in terms of ice safety is that you can use it as a walking staff and you can test the ice with almost no effort. You’re already setting the spud down on the ice with each step; just let it fall harder. Learn how hard your particular spud falls- each has a different weight. Get to know how hard you can drop it and not have it break through the ice without your being in danger of falling in. I have been fishing in the dead of winter when the warmest day for the prior weeks was twenty degrees and was walking around when the spud popped right through. If I had been using an auger, I probably wouldn’t have known about the thin ice until either I broke through or I went to make a hole. There was about an inch and a half and two inches of ice- the current had eaten away at the bottom. Further, the ice wasn’t hard as it was covered with a layer of snow.
Many people say that the chopping noise from a spud scares the fish. I’ve been out several times when I would chop a hole and before I could get both lines in the water, I’d be catching perch. This has happened in as little as two feet of water. One time in particular, my father and I were out and he had found a school of perch in a little over two feet of water. I carried my ice sled over and made a hole about ten feet away. He never quit catching fish and I started catching them as soon as my line dropped through the hole. The key is to make your hole quickly; start it and get done as fast as you can. In extremely shallow water, under 8 inches, the fish are affected more by the noise. However, when fishing this shallow, I doubt that an auger wouldn’t scare the fish.
One of the biggest advantages of spuds is that you can make the hole in any shape you want, whereas with an auger, you’re restricted to making round holes with straight sides. Unless I’m fishing in deep water, I usually make a single oblong hole. This way, I can fish with both lines and not expend the extra energy for another hole. I’m also done faster. The biggest advantage to this though is the ability to taper your hole. When fishing in water up to five feet deep, I use barb-less hooks. This allows me to get the fish out of the water, bounce it on the ice, and get my line right back down in the hole; the fish is knocked off by hitting the ice. Most of the time, as soon as the upward pressure is off, the fish is off. If the fish hits the bottom edge of the ice around your hole with the sides being straight, it will most likely come off. However, if you flare the bottom of the hole, the fish will follow the ice up and you can put it on the ice. If I come upon an abandoned auger hole, even if I see fish in the water, I’ll flare the bottom. Otherwise, I tend to lose a significant percentage of the fish I hook. Another thing that happens quite a bit if you use two hooks is that the top hook will get hooked on the bottom of the ice; if the fish is on the bottom hook, you might have time to wave goodbye.
I’ve pushed the limits of what is considered ‘safe’ ice for almost my entire life and have never had a problem I couldn’t remedy myself. Several times, when I’ve been going out fishing on first ice, I would see somebody drive up to the end of the road, look around, shake their head, and leave. I’ve fished less than one inch of ice, but the water was only waist deep and there was no current. (Between two of us, we brought home 144 large perch from just under three hours of fishing. This was before the limit of fifty each was imposed.) If you happened to stop while walking, you’d soon be surrounded by a puddle. Two people couldn’t get closer than ten to twelve feet apart without a lot of water coming up on the ice. By the time the ice thickened up, the fish had moved out deeper and scattered.
Fishing on first ice can be a wonderful, almost magical experience, with the ice looking like a sheet of glass and fish willing to take anything you show them. I’ve actually watched schools of perch swimming around under clear ice while walking out to a fishing spot. Please remember, however, that no fish is worth your life. It’s best to know the water where you’re fishing extremely well when fishing on first ice, or go with somebody who knows the water extremely well. I usually go to places I’ve gone previously. This way, I know what the current is like, what the bottom looks like, how well the ice freezes in the area, and so forth. Be extremely cautious when fishing in deep water, water with current, or in water where something adversely affects the quality of the ice.
If You Do Break Through the Ice
First and most importantly- do NOT panic. This is much easier said than done. However, when you panic, your brain stops thinking and your actions revert to those of instinct. First instincts are seldom the best response to a problem, on the ice or not.
Preparation before the trip is the single most important factor in a situation like this. Wear many layers of clothes. The layers closest to your body should be made out of wool. This is because wool will retain it’s insulating properties, even when wet. The outer layer should be something that is somewhat water repellant. The reason for this is two-fold. First, if it starts to rain or snow while you’re out, you’ll be much more comfortable if you stay relatively dry. Second, if you get dunked, your body will warm the water that’s trapped in the layers beneath to a certain extent, extending your survival time. (This is very much like if you get water in your waders in cold weather. If you take your waders off and run back to your vehicle, you’ll freeze your unmentionables off. If you go slow and steady with your waders full of water, your body heat will warm it somewhat, which makes it less likely hypothermia will set in.) What you do during the first few seconds as you’re starting to break through, is the second most crucial factor.
As you start to break through, try to shift your weight onto your other foot, provided it is on solid ice. For example, if the ice is uneven, there may be enough ice to support you for a short period of time under your other foot. Also, as described above, you may have stepped in somebody’s old hole. If the ice is thin everywhere, what should be done next depends on what type of water you’re in. It is important though that no matter what type of water you’re in, after you make it out of the water (if you don’t, you probably won’t care for long), do NOT stand up right away. You’re already wet, and if the ice surrounding the area where you fell in is thin, you have a good chance of dropping through again. Rather, slither across the ice until you’re a distance away from the hole you made. The purpose of this is to spread your weight over a larger area so that the ice has a better chance of supporting it.
Calm, Shallow Water
As you start to fall, try to remain upright as you fall. If your upper body remains dry, you have a much better chance of resisting the cold until you can make it back to your vehicle. Simply climb back up onto the ice (which I admit can be a lot more difficult than one would first think) and get to your vehicle as fast as you can. Your vehicle shouldn’t be a long way off if you’re in shallow water. If you’re in a situation where you can’t get to your vehicle relatively soon, you might want to consider stopping by a shanty or house to get temporary shelter. Hypothermia and death can set in rapidly when you’re wet and outside in cold weather. Thankfully, this is the only scenario in which I’ve ever fallen through the ice.
Calm, Deep Water
If you are in deep, calm water when you fall in, you are in a much more serious situation. Try to fall so your body hits the ice horizontally, as if you were going to lay down on it. Try to lean forward as you fall, so you can see exactly where the ice is and control how you hit to some extent. Falling backwards is a good way to knock yourself out on the ice, as you only have a rough idea where the ice is. (You were standing on it, but are unable to see it if you are falling backwards.) Also, as you fall but before you hit the ice, try to turn your spud horizontal (parallel to the ice), but perpendicular to the direction your body will be. (Your body and the spud will form a cross shape as viewed from above.) The spud will hopefully extend out far enough away from the hole you just made to catch on the edges and prevent you from going through entirely and losing where your hole is. When you fall onto the ice, you will get wet, but you will also tend to stay on top of the ice. Remaining able to get out of the water is more important at this point than worrying about how cold and wet you’ll be on the walk back. (This is a factor, but if you never make it out of the water, it’s not a big one.)
If you are out with a partner, have him throw you a rope or other device that can be used to pull you out of the water. Climbing out of a hole in deep water is extremely difficult, as you have nothing to push against with your feet There are commercial products available that you can also make yourself with relative ease that will aid you in climbing out. These resemble a pair of ice picks attached to a rope, which is then attached to your body. You can use these to gain traction on the ice and help pull yourself out.
Deep Water with a Current
The worst of the three is when you fall into water with a significant current. This is because the current will tend to move you downstream. Also dangerous is the fact that the current isn’t visible from the surface, as there’s a sheet of ice on top of the water. In summer, you can wade a river or stream and instantly identify the locations that have the strongest current, but this isn’t possible when ice fishing. If you are fishing a river where there is current and you suspect the ice might be thin, either stay off the ice or test the ice every step with your spud.
When breaking through, your first priority should be to keep the location of your hole. The best way to do this obviously is to keep part of your body above the ice. If you know the ice is weak, you can tie a rope around yourself and again to a fixture on shore beforehand so you have something to pull yourself out with. I can’t offer much more advice on this, as I’m uncomfortable about ice fishing on waters with current and have never broken through on such waters.
Going for a Ride
Even though this isn’t strictly breaking through the ice, this is something that happens several times each year, so I’ve included this in this section. I’ve never gone for a ride personally, but I know people who have. This often happens in the first part of the year, when the bay isn’t frozen all the way across. Wind is usually the cause of these massive ice floes breaking off and floating out, but other factors can play a role too.
Keep in mind that ice will form pressure cracks as a normal part of freezing. This is because water expands as it freezes. (This is also why ice floats and why any life at all exists on this planet.) The expansion will press outwards and the ice will break to relieve the stress built up over a distance. When ice goes out, it will most likely leave at one of these cracks instead of break fresh, as it takes a lot of force to form a crack in the ice of this magnitude. Think carefully and take the circumstances into consideration before crossing any large, open cracks.
When an ice floe gets out into open water, the waves will tend to break it up by moving the ice up and down. While ice is strong as a sheet, it’s also brittle and doesn’t like to flex too much. Once the ice is broken up into sufficiently small chunks, it will no longer support your weight. It is important to get off the moving ice as soon as you know it’s moving.
A couple of things can minimize your chances of being caught in this situation. If there is an east wind, either go somewhere on the west shoreline or go somewhere on the east shoreline where an island, peninsula, or other land mass locks the ice in. When you are able to see the bottom, you can detect ice movement by watching the pattern of sand, rocks, and weeds on the bottom. If you see them change, you’re moving. Something else along these same lines is to tie a highly visible weight to a rope and lower it down a separate hole when you start. You can use this as something to mark the bottom instead of the patterns of weeds, etc. Leave a slight amount of slack in the rope, but let the weight rest right on bottom with the rope as close to vertical as possible. If the rope goes taught, either you’re moving or the weight is. Another similar event is when your fishing line suddenly starts drifting off to one side (without a fish moving it).
If you do get back to a crack and it’s wide open, you have a few options. First, if the water’s not too deep and you’re not too far away from your vehicle, you can jump in, walk to the shore ice, climb up, and continue. I do NOT recommend this option, as it’s exceedingly cold and dangerous. The water might be deeper than you thought, you might trip on something in the water, you could get hypothermia, etc. The option exists though. A better alternative is to find a spot where the crack isn’t open. Much of the time, an ice floe will simply rotate on a pivot point instead of blow out to open water. A mile down the shore, there might not be a crack. I’ve heard tales of people being convinced that they need rescuing before searching for a place that the crack isn’t open. One time in particular, seventeen out of a couple hundred people were rescued by helicopter; the rest made it off on their own. This is a call each person must make for himself though. If I’m not in immediate danger, I think I would try finding a way off on my own. However, many people do not share this opinion. That’s their right and I hold nothing against them for it. It’s better to lose all your equipment and any fish you may have caught than your life.
- Watch for weak spots. Weaker ice often looks different than strong ice.
- Carry a spud and test, test, test.
- Watch out for weedy areas. Weeds produce heat and the ice is weaker around them.
- Watch the bottom. If it moves, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY!
- Use your brain when evaluating the conditions and decisions. Never let a desire for fishing incite you to do something hazardous.
- Keep your eye on what direction the wind is from, the speed, the topography of the area, and the condition of any cracks you cross.
- Keep in mind that no number or size fish is worth your life.
- Learn when you make a mistake so you don’t repeat them.
- Wear wool clothes a few layers out from your body. It retains it’s insulating properties when wet and, after your body warms up the water soaked in between your body and the wool, the water will also insulate you from the cold.
- Watch the temperature. While it may not be warm enough to melt the ice, it may very well weaken it substantially because soft ice is much weaker than hard.
When the ice is questionable:
- Go only in waters you or somebody you’re fishing with know.
- Remember to go out only as far as you can make it back if you’re wet.
- Exercise extreme care if you go in water over your head or in a current.