It is that time of year when the ice is coming in, but not quite safe enough to fish on. Once the ice does start coming a bit more solid, it is time to think "safe ice."
When ice safety is mentioned, most anglers immediately think of ice thickness. This is the first thing that should be checked whenever venturing out. A basic guideline from the Iowa DNR says good, clear-blue ice that is 2 inches will support one individual on foot; 3 inches will support a group of people while moving; 5 inches will support a snowmobile; 7 ½ inches will support an automobile (two-ton gross); and 12 inches will support a heavy truck. My recommendation is to have at least three to four inches before going on the ice with all of the fishing equipment normally used.
The strongest ice comes after a prolonged period of freezing temperatures. Still, there can be weak spots. Snow cover will insulate ice and not allow it to get as thick. Areas with current, such as in a river, will be 15-percent weaker. Routes of repeated travel, warm water discharges and underwater springs will also weaken ice. Ice will be weaker and thaw quicker around objects sticking above the ice, especially rocks and those made of concrete, which warms quicker with the sun. Sheltered ice, as is most often found under a bridge, is normally weaker.
Some warning signs of danger or weakened ice are dark spots, water on top and flowing through cracks, and a honey-combed texture. I’ve found honey-combed ice 6 to 9 inches thick that has broken through, and have heard of as much as 15 inches giving away under the weight of a person.
To check the thickness drill a pilot hole fairly close to shore. Drill other holes further out, and check thickness throughout the day, especially during a thaw. Some anglers have actually waited too long and found their way back to shore had melted to the “danger” point.
People walking together should stay at least 10 feet apart, and one should walk slightly ahead. Single file formations are often best.
It is advisable to carry a rope (at least 30 feet long is recommended) in case one of the parties falls through. If a rope is not at hand, improvise with whatever is readily available. A belt will work, but don’t stand near the break when using it to pull the person from the water. Lay flat on the ice and toss the end to the person in the water. If there are enough people, a human single-file chain can be made to pull the person from the water. Remember, to keep it single-file — too much weight by the break can result in more people breaking through.
Another device, which will help extract a person from the water, is made with two handles and spikes. The two handles slide together and cover the spikes for protection, or have retractable point guards like the ones produced by Frabill, and included in their ice safety kit. This is then draped around the neck with a cord, where it is readily accessible. They should also float in case a pair of the picks has to be tossed to a person.
To extract yourself from the hole take a handle in each hand and jam the spikes into the ice, alternately, to hand walk out of the hole using short reaches in a swimming type motion. Too long of reaches will not only exhaust a person quicker but also make it possible for a large chunk of ice to be broken off, resulting in the loss of a safe edge to use.
After reaching a safe and solid edge continue pulling with the spikes and crawling until safe ice is reached. Never stand up too quickly, as this could result in another break, which many times is much more difficult to get out of.
Once the person is out of the water it is extremely important to get him or her into a warm enclosure, dry clothing and drinking warm liquids (not alcohol) as quickly as possible. Hypothermia will set in quickly.
Never let your guard down when on the ice. As has been said many times on the Red Green Show, “keep your stick on the ice”, which is good advice.