My first ice trip to Lake Erie years back was a real eye-opener. As masses of anglers converged on the shoreline west of Sandusky, Ohio, many looked like part of a search-and-rescue team rather than fishermen. Equipped with survival suits, as in the kind you’re used to seeing the Coast Guard wear, these hard-water fanatics looked as if they were very prepared to go in the drink. As they deployed in the morning hours on top of ATVs, snowmobiles, and even air-boats, you could tell that for a good number of them, there was a clear concern and plan for thin ice and the safety precautions that go with it.
Fast forward to today, where a pair of insulated brown work bibs have given way to specific ice apparel designed with anglers in mind. Pockets are ergonomically located, big enough to hold small tackleboxes, and vented to drain water in the event of a plunge through the ice. Knees and rear-end are padded with neoprene to allow anglers who kneel on the ice even more comfort. Fabric is reflective so you can be seen on a dark night, and it’s ultra-durable for years and years of use. Not to mention, several of today’s suits such as Striker ICE brands have a flotation layer built-in – super comfortable and super safe!
Near Death Experiences
Thinking back to first ice forays, probably one of the most dangerous situations I’ve been in was Minnesota’s Duluth Harbor on Lake Superior. Ice cutters roll through to keep the harbor open for shipping, which results in a continual ebb and flow of ice-chunks, open water, and ultimately “safe ice” that is broken and refrozen on a daily basis. The scariest of propositions is trap-door ice, which is a large chunk that floats off the ice sheet, then wanders back and partially locks up. Step on the end of one, and you drop below the waterline as the other end of the chunk rotates back over the top of you, quite literally sealing your fate.
While heading out on Duluth Harbor in the pre-dawn darkness, an unseasonable rain left the ice jet-black and wet, thus hiding any treacherous ice spots. Everything looked the same. Even with headlamps and ice chisels, one of our companions pushed ahead and literally walked right into open water – a 6-foot gap where ice sheets had separated. Grant was fortunate enough to kick a few times and pull himself up on the far sheet, only to have to jump back into the water to get back on our side. As he pushed off the far ice sheet with his heels, Grant dove forward, plunging the picks we threw him deep into the ice on our side of the crack. Our day was done, as too much had already been risked, though with some flotation I would’ve been much less concerned for our friend.
Special Ice Suit Benefits
From experience I can tell you that manufacturers’ claims stand up to actual lake and pool testing by many individuals, large and small. Thankfully, I’ve not been one of them, though I’ve worn suits from at least three of the floating suit companies on the market. The best part? I didn’t know that what I was wearing had flotation. The suits wore exactly as any ice-designed bibs and jacket I’ve worn before, all for about the same price as other suits in their class.
Another benefit often overlooked is felt during mid-winter, when ice conditions are usually at their most safe. The flotation that’s used in my Striker ICE Predator jacket and bib is exceptionally wind-proof, waterproof and warm. This is most readily apparent when temps and wind-chill are at their worst, or when riding to and from your destination on a snowmobile or ATV.
Within the Striker ICE suit product line, the difference in price (example, jackets from $159 to $269) is feature-driven and warmth-related; all of the garments have the same flotation benefit. In my experience, the flotation layer adds to the garment’s warmth, so I find myself more than comfortable, even in extreme temps, with the Predator suit. In fact, I’m usually venting my Predator jacket because I’m often a bit too warm. Keep in mind that I’m pretty actively fishing, moving and drilling holes, though.
As for keeping you safe on the ice, if you can’t afford both a Striker ICE jacket and a bib, I suggest buying just the jacket. The bibs are nice, but I talked to a guy who went through the ice wearing only a flotation bib and it can be a bit awkward with your lower half wanting to float and your upper half wanting to sink. That said, I use the jacket/bib tandem in different scenarios. Usually when riding out on a machine or spudding onto early ice, I’m wearing both a flotation jacket and bib to keep me warm. Then, depending on the air temp and wind, I typically shed the jacket when hole-hopping and rely on a good, long underwear top and a warm hoodie (below).
With all of the choices presented for today’s ice angler, and the improvements, comfort, and function built-in, there’s no good reason to not look at getting a dedicated ice suit. One thing to be clear on, however, is that floating suits are NOT meant to push the boundaries of safe ice. Rest assured, if a break-through occurs, you’re covered, but these suits are for peace of mind, not careless or reckless abandonment of reason when it comes to staying on top of hard water.
No ice is ever fully safe, and while the suit will float you, it can’t ensure you won’t hit your head, or cut yourself on an auger blade going down. These are real concerns that should still cause you to use caution as the first line of defense against unsafe ice. The hidden floating layer in an ice suit is simply in the background to bail you out should the unthinkable happen.
Images by Joel Nelson