In February 2017, I wrote a review of the fantastic Frabill I-Float ice fishing jacket. I mention that fact because yesterday afternoon I walked on water for the first time this fall, and of course, I depended on the I-Float jacket (below) to keep me safe and provide peace of mind.
Most state fish and game departments will often state “ice is never 100 percent safe” when talking about walking, skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling or driving on ice. But they know that at some point each late-fall/winter, avid outdoorsmen and women will want to travel on ice, so they typically will provide some general guidelines for winter activities. Check out the illustration below from my home state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Like I said, this is a general guideline. Yesterday (December 10) when I hit the ice with my son, Elliott, we checked the ice often as we headed out in search of early ice northern pike. The ice was smooth and strong, with no snow to insulate it, and it didn’t vary by a half-inch over the half-mile of our walking/checking. The thickest ice we found was 3.5 inches. The thinnest was 3 inches; most of it was 3.25 inches. The reason I can tell you with such precision is I measured it with a tape measure, many times.
So, if the MN DNR recommends 4 inches for foot travel, why did I feel safe on only 3 inches? I’ll do my best to explain.
Someone else had traveled across the ice (out and back), and we followed their boot and sled tracks exactly. And like us, they checked ice thickness repeatedly with use of an ice chisel. I don’t own a dedicated ice chisel, so I carry a heavyweight ice scraper, the same one I use for clearing ice from my sidewalk and driveway.
As a rule, if I slam my ice scraper into the same spot four times and I can’t cause water to seep through the hole, the ice must be at least 3 inches thick. I checked the thickness every 10 yards.
A few other notes about our trip. We walked in single file, not side by side. That way, if I fell in, my son would be safe 20 feet behind me. My I-Float jacket is U.S. Coast Guard approved pfd (personal flotation device), and it has ice picks built in that I could use to pull myself back onto solid ice should I fall in.
Elliott (above) wore a life jacket and also carried ice picks. In fact, for his birthday, he recently received the Frabill Winter Ice Safety Kit (below), which includes the ice picks, safety studs for boots, and a whistle. I, too, was wearing safety studs on my boots.
The lake we fished is shallow, which means it freezes sooner than nearby deep-water lakes. Don’t attempt early ice fishing on deep lakes, or those with current or springs, because the ice will be thinner.
You need to be especially careful around the shoreline, and places were weeds grow to the surface of the water. The sun warms the shoreline and the weeds. While it goes against your instincts, perhaps, the ice is almost always thicker away from shore. And cattails, in part because they tend to gather snow, often insulate the shoreline, resulting in thinner ice.
Finally, Elliott and I wouldn’t have ventured out on 3-3.5 inches of ice in a wilderness setting, or if air temps and wind had been brutally cold. We had no wind, and air temps of about 30 degrees. We could see our parked pickup the entire time, we’d told others of our exact plan, and there’s a busy paved road alongside the lake. In other words, worse case had I fallen in, I would’ve crawled out onto thicker ice, and had a 10-minute walk back to the truck, then a short drive home. The danger of hypothermia or worse was basically zero. The chance of us getting hit driving to or from the lake by a drunk driver was probably higher.
Fact: Every time you step or drive onto the ice, there’s risk involved. But the way I see it, you can’t live life while sitting on the couch, either.
If you’re not experienced in checking ice, and don’t know the spots to avoid, and don’t have all the safety gear required for an early ice adventure, then simply stay off until the ice is a lot thicker. And even then, follow in the tracks of others who traveled safe previously.
Good luck this winter!
Images by Dave Maas