The first glimpses of frozen lakes were viewed over the weekend, on some of the first lakes to traditionally freeze, but we have a long way to go before we can safely say that it’s time to go ice fishing. Every year we get a lake or two that puts on a couple of inches of ice before Thanksgiving, but it is the rare year where it doesn’t melt a time or two before putting on its final coat that stays all winter.
Social media is a wonderful thing, and it has been allowing me glances at waters across the upper Midwest that HAVE put on 3-5 inches already, several of which are going to see plenty of walking anglers this weekend, unless an expected warm up does materialize. It is not at all uncommon to see good, walkable ice before Thanksgiving on waters in Northern North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan and even Wisconsin, as long as they don’t see any significant snowfall before it can put on 12 inches or more, then they will be driving trucks by mid-December!
Every year around these parts, and elsewhere, people resort to some really silly ways to “test” the ice … number one being to throw large rocks out onto the ice. Don’t do it! First off, just about every rock you throw out there becomes a hazard, as they rarely break through. Instead, they get covered in snow, or freeze into the ice, so that when an angler DOES walk out and attempts to drill a hole, they can severely damage their auger, and perhaps even injure themselves, on an unseen rock. No rock that you can throw will tell you anything about the ability of the ice to support your weight.
Secondly… “I’ll send the dog out.” Another bad idea, as who is going to rescue Fido if he goes through? Many dogs die each year from crossing thin ice, so please discourage your dog from going out on ice you won’t first go out on. Besides, it is not a fair comparison between a 70-pound dog spreading that weight out on four contact points, and we 200-pound, two-footed humans.
Instead, let’s do it the right way, once you think there might be enough good, solid ice to support you and your gear. The most common guideline stresses that there should be 4 inches of new, clear solid ice for one person to walk on foot. I personally have been on less, and fallen through with more, so each of us has to make that decision EVERYTIME out, if we feel the ice is safe. Around here, with our freeze/thaw cycles, 4 inches should be considered the bare minimum.
Simply, never venture out alone, always use the buddy system and establish a plan before heading out. Utilize a heavy spud bar or ice chisel, and test the ice in front of you as you go. If the spud goes through on the first or even second hit, it is probably time to turn around.
Wear a PFD, or a “float suit” that are all the rage for winter sports now. At the minimum, carry a throwable PFD and a good length of stout rope, heavy enough to throw from a distance. And lastly, wear a set of “ice picks” around your neck, or attached to your coat that you can stab into the ice for grip, if you have to pull yourself out of the water and back onto the ice.
First and last ice can be some of the best fishing, but also the most dangerous time of the year for ice anglers. Never just assume any ice will hold your weight, until you have verified it yourself. Always err on the side of caution and good sense. The fish aren’t going anywhere. I’ll see you on the water!
— Howe is the owner and outfitter of Howe’s Fishing, home of A Able and Mo Fisch Charters. Contact him at 406-257-5214 or at howesfishing.com.