By Ken Poor

     Ice has started to form on our local lakes and fishermen, anxious for some action, are hoping to take advantage of an early start to the icefishing season. Typically, we don’t have safe ice in Northeast Illinois Southeast Wisconsin until the last week in December, but this year some back channels and small shallow lakes have had skim ice since early November. Warning, skim ice is not safe to go out on.

     Early ice provides the best icefishing action of the season, but it also can be a very dangerous time to venture out on the ice. Last weeks warm days slowed the formation of ice adding to the dangers of venturing out on the ice at this time. Many area lakes, especially deeper ones, continue to report open water or ice less than 3-inches thick. We need a few more days with the temperatures remaining well below freezing especially during the day before the ice will be safe enough for me.

     Here are a few general guidelines for use by winter recreation enthusiasts to lessen your chances for an icy dip or even worse. It’s impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, daily temperature, or snow cover alone. Snow can insulate ice and prevent it from freezing. Ice strength is actually dependent on all four factors, plus water depth under the ice, the size of the water body, water chemistry, currents, and distribution of the load on the ice.

Crappie will often suspend in deep water. Locating them even with a electronics is challenging, without them almost impossible.

     Wait to walk out on the ice until there are at least 4-inches of clear, solid ice. Thinner ice will support one person, but since ice thickness can vary considerably, especially at the beginning and end of the season, 4-inches will provide a small margin of safety. Some factors that can change ice thickness include flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish. By congregating in a small area, schools of fish can circulate warmer water from the bottom towards the surface, weakening or in some cases opening large holes in the ice.

     Go out with a buddy and keep a good distance apart as you walk out. If one of you goes in the other can call for help (it’s amazing how many people carry cellular phones these days). The companion can also attempt a rescue if one of you is carrying rope or other survival gear.

     Snowmobiles and ATV’s need at least 5-inches, and cars and light trucks need at least 8 to 12-inches of good clear ice. Talk to other ice fishermen or contact a local resort or bait shop for information about known thin ice areas.

     Wear a life jacket. Life vests or float coats provide excellent flotation and protection from hypothermia (loss of body temperature). Never wear a life jacket if you are traveling in an enclosed vehicle, however. It could hamper escape in case of a breakthrough. Once you get out of the water roll away from the hole. Don’t try to stand up.

     Carry a pair of homemade ice picks or even a pair of screwdrivers tied together with a few yards of strong cord. Use them as ice picks to pull yourself up and onto the ice if you do fall in. Be sure they have wooden handles so if you drop them, in the struggle to get out of the water, they won’t go straight to the bottom. Also, the picks won’t do you any good sitting in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket or buried in a coat pocket. Use the cord to hang the picks around your neck.

     Early and late in the season take an ice chisel with you and use it to check the ice ahead of you as you walk. Tap it on the ice, listening to the sound it makes as the chisel head strikes. You should hear a nice solid “clunk” as the chisel hits. If you hear a hollow sound, or you punch the chisel through, back away quickly. The ice shouldn’t be so thin that you can punch through in one stroke. If you can, it isn’t safe for you to be out there.

     Avoid carrying your gear with you in buckets especially during early or late ice. Instead use a sled to transport your ice fishing equipment. That way, your weight is spread out and not concentrated in one area. Also, if you do fall through the sled can be used to pull you out of the water.

     Traveling in a vehicle, especially early or late in the season is simply an accident waiting to happen. If you find it necessary to use an automobile be prepared to bail out in a hurry, unbuckle your seatbelt and have a plan of action if you do breakthrough. Some safety experts recommend driving with the window rolled down and the doors ajar for an easy escape.

     Move your car frequently. Parking in one place for a long period weakens ice. Never park near cracks, and watch out for pressure ridges or ice heaves. Don’t drive across ice at night or when it is snowing. Reduced visibility increases your chances for driving into an open or weak ice area.

     Check at the access for signs that indicate an aeration system is in operation on the lake. Aerators keep areas of water open to provide oxygen for fish. The ice can be weakened many yards beyond where the ice is actually open. Stay well outside the fenced areas indicated by diamond shaped thin ice signs.

     Above all, avoid alcoholic beverages. Beer and booze increases your chances for hypothermia and increases the likelihood that you’ll make a stupid mistake that may cost you or a companion their life. Having taken all of these precautions, you’re now going to try your luck at fishing. Walking out on the ice, you hear a crack and break through.   

     Suddenly you find yourself immersed up to your neck in water so cold it takes your breath away. If you think that’s no big deal, try holding your hands in a bucket of ice water for more than a couple of minutes. If you can do it without extreme pain, you are tougher than the average person. Try not to panic. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but if you decide on a plan before you actually fall in, survival chances are greatly improved.

     If you see someone go through the ice, the first and most important thing to do is, alert others to the situation and get help. Stay well away from the person and throw them something that floats such as an empty bucket, boat cushion or cooler. Lay flat on the ice to spread your weight out and crawl towards the person. If you hear any cracking or feel the ice sinking, back up immediately. Use a rope, tree branch, ladder, boat oar or anything that can be slid out on the ice in front of you to extend your reach. If you can’t get to them without putting your own life in jeopardy, keep talking to them, encouraging them that help is on the way.