|Be Mobile, But Be Careful
Ice Safety for today’s modern angler
For more than 30 years, Dave Genz has been helping modern
ice anglers discover the importance of mobility. Move more
and you catch more fish.
At the same time, he stresses that you cannot ignore the equally
important topic of ice safety while you’re out there.
Ice conditions vary from spot to spot on the same lake, and
tremendously from region to region. In certain locales, ice
thick enough to support foot traffic will only remain for
several days or weeks at a time.
If you feel at all uncertain about ice conditions, wear a
life jacket while you’re ice fishing. It never gets
discussed in the media, but what better way to ensure your
safety? We’ve never heard of anyone falling through
the ice and drowning while wearing a life jacket.
“If you have a life jacket on,” says Genz, “there’s
no way you’re going to fall through the ice and end
up on the bottom. Your head will be up, and you can kick your
legs, pull, slide and roll back the way you came from.”
After all these years and all those days of first- and last-ice
fishing, Genz has yet to fall through, other than having his
feet punch through along shore. One of the reasons: he is
religious about walking with a chisel, punching the ice ahead
of himself as he ventures out. If the chisel pops through
with one smart poke, he does the smart thing and retreats.
When is the Ice Safe?
Here are some recognized guidelines for knowing when ice is
safe enough to support various modes of mobility, from the
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:
(Please note that these guidelines apply for clear, solid
ice. If ice begins to form, then a heavy blanket of snow falls
on it, that can hamper overall strength of the ice.)
• Wait to walk out until there is at least 4 inches
of clear, solid ice. True, thinner ice will support one angler,
but ice thickness can vary just a few yards away, from the
influence of flocks of waterfowl, water chemistry and local
• Snowmobiles and ATVs need at least 5-6 inches of clear,
• Automobiles and light trucks need 8 inches to a foot
of good ice. But there’s more to safely driving a vehicle
Keep a distance between vehicles, and don’t follow each
other single file (except when you have to, such as when roads
are plowed out to fishing areas). When ice is only marginally
safe for vehicle traffic, your car or truck makes a wake under
the ice. When the wakes of more than one vehicle collide,
cars following in close proximity can easily break through
ice that safely held the leading cars! Also, no matter how
thick the ice, it’s a good idea to drive slowly. A fast-moving
vehicle can make a big bulge ahead of itself, and the ice
can––it rarely happens, but it can––break
apart in front of the fast-moving vehicle.
Obviously, avoid driving into known bad-ice areas, such as
springs, moving water, and around aerators. Ask about each
lake before you drive on. Also– and this can pertain
to walking as well– avoid expansion cracks, or ‘pressure
ridges’ as they are sometimes called. They are often
easy to see. The ice expands and pushes over the top of itself,
creating layers of broken ice. They can be like trap doors,
especially where three of them converge.
Be prepared to bail out of a vehicle should it go through.
Unbuckle your seat belt, and leave the windows rolled down
if you suspect unsafe ice.
• Any time you’re driving a vehicle or snowmobile,
watch out for the large blocks of ice sometimes left laying
around after large spearing or angling holes are sawed out.
After snow covers them up, they can be impossible to see––another
reason to drive slowly on ice.
(If you cut such a hole, by the way, either force it down
under the ice and off to the side, or break it into little
• Get or make a set of “picks” for helping
yourself onto safe ice should you fall through. Several types
are available at bait shops or through mail-order catalogs.
To make your own, take two short sections (about 4 1/2 to
5 inches) of old broom handle or 1-inch dowel. Remove the
head of two good-sized nails. Drill a hole in the end of each
dowel long enough to seat the ‘unsharp’ end of
the nail. Glue the nails in each dowel and tie them together
with about 2 1/2 feet of cord. It’s a good idea to jab
the sharp ends of the nails into small corks, which will break
apart easily when you start jabbing the nails into the ice.
Wear the spikes around your neck any time you’re unsure
of ice conditions.
All ice is not created equal
Several factors affect how solidly ice freezes on any given
year, according to Sgt. Dave Branley of the Dane County (WI)
Sheriff's Department. Sgt. Branley, with more than 30 years
on the force, has been in charge of patrolling his county’s
waters, summer and winter, since 1980.
“We need about 6 inches of solid ice before we get the
first heavy snowfall on it,” Branley says. “If
ice is just starting to be made and then snow falls on it,
the weight of the snow pushes the ice down and can insulate
it against ever freezing well.”
Your best insurance against getting too far out on unsafe
ice, experts agree, is to monitor local media for updates
on the current year’s ice conditions, and to talk with
local resorts and bait shops, who will know about potential
thin ice areas (you could use a few more ice jigs, and some
maggots or wax worms, right?).
Ice thickness, in and of itself, is not a guarantee of smooth
sailing late in the year. “Travel on ice is always at
your own risk,” says Branley, “and you should
never assume ice is completely safe. But this is especially
true toward spring. I know, the fishing gets great at last
ice, but be careful out there. You look out and one day there’s
a lot of water on the ice, and the next day it’s completely
dry. The ice gets honeycombed and rotten, and eventually you
can poke a 2x4 through 8 inches of ice, which used to be enough
to support a vehicle.”
What if you go through?
Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, things happen. If
you should fall through the ice while walking:
• Don’t panic. Easier said than done, but it’s
fairly easy in most cases to get back up on the ice than you
think. Go back the way you came from (you know the ice was
thick enough to support you back there).
• All that heavy clothing will actually help you stay
afloat if you don’t start flailing away. Kick and fight
to keep going forward; your feet will want to float up and
you’ll tend to fall backwards. If you have picks along,
now’s the time to use them. Get one in each hand and
dig them alternately into the ice and pull yourself forward.
To get onto good ice, roll away from the hole, or continue
to work with the picks, sliding ahead on your belly (don’t
get up and start walking or you might break through again).
• Get to a heat source immediately and get those wet
clothes off! If at all possible, get to a medical facility
to be checked for signs of hypothermia and/or other trauma.
• If you see someone go through, designate one person
to go for help, and another person to attempt the rescue.
Don’t walk right up to the victim and offer them your
hand; that usually results in two people in the water. Build
a chain with anything you can find: a snowmobile suit, hand
auger, your belt, etc. Lay down and extend the ‘chain’
to the victim. Get secure and help pull them out of the hole,
encouraging them to kick hard and stay down.
“We bring a throwable (personal flotation device, or
PFD) tied to a rope,” says Genz, “at first and
last ice. If somebody would go through, you can toss the cushion
to them, and they hold it while you pull them up onto the
Your chances of breaking through the ice are slim, indeed,
as long as you follow these precautions and use a good dose
of common sense.
Note: Dave Genz, known as Mr. Ice Fishing, was the primary
driver of the modern ice fishing revolution. He is captain
of Clam’s Team True Blue, an elite pro staff dedicated
to helping people catch fish through the ice. For real help,
check out www.trueblueicefishing.com.