The Fish Might Be Biting But The Ice Is Thinning

Thanks to Dan Donarski for another guest blog piece full of safety tips for the avid ice fishers in the light of the abnormally high temperatures of the season.

Unseasonable warm weather has struck the State of Michigan, and it appears that above freezing temperatures will be the norm through the next week. While this has certainly turned on the fisheries from Saginaw Bay to Lake Gogebic, it has also resulted in a few close calls.

A buddy of mine was fishing Saginaw Bay on Saturday, January 17, when he came off the ice he was greeted by the County Sheriff and an air-boat rescue crew. Seems a crack had opened on the bay, stranding a bunch of anglers. Not a good thing. In a good wind these cracks can become virtual islands, and float out into the lake. Even without the wind this can happen, too.

Here are a few tips to keep you safe on the ice this winter.

  • One thing you need to do is always get a thickness report from a local bait shop or resort. It doesn’t do these folks any good to have their customers and guests taking a dip, so they’ll be straightforward. Most will tell you that you’re on your own in the end, too. In other words, no matter how thick they say the ice is the final decision is up to you.

  • Follow the roads out on the ice and don’t stray off them. Not only will this keep you from getting stuck in a snow drift, it also shows where others have gone out and where the ice will be, or should be relatively safe. If you should encounter a white out, it also prevents you from getting hopelessly lost.

  • Speaking of whiteouts, carrying a GPS device is a very good idea and put it on the track mode. That way, whether it be fog, a whiteout, or nightfall, you’ll be able to retrace your route and make it back to shore safely.

Now that you are out on the ice everything’s hunky-dory, right? Maybe, maybe not.

A few pieces of precautionary gear will go a long way to keeping you safe.

Ice fishing hut

Ice fishing hut

  • You really ought to carry a 50 to 100 foot length of rope with you. If you would come upon someone who has fallen through you don’t want to get close to the edge. Throwing the rope to the angler or snowmobiler who has fallen in will keep you away from the dangerous ice and still be able to pull him or her out. A life jacket or ring buoy that you could toss is also a good idea.

  • Having a blanket or a change of clothes along with you, something like a snowmobile suit or coveralls that the wet fellow can change into, will help that person combat hypothermia. In that same vein, a small propane heater with a couple of 1-pound tanks will help do the same thing.

  • Something that you should carry with you at all times in your coat pocket, or tied around your neck would be a pair of small screw drivers, awls, or ice picks (filed down so you don’t stab yourself by accident). If you want you can even purchase specially-made devices that are used the same way. You use these if you fall in.  Crawling back out of the water after you’ve fallen in is no easy task. The ice itself is slippery, and with the water you just put on top of it the ice is even more so. These picks will give you enough grab to pull yourself out.

  • Now, as you are getting out don’t even think about trying to stand up. You should roll your way out of the hole and then roll some more until you are well away from the open water. Rolling distributes your weight across the ice. By rolling you can get away from thin ice. If you tried to walk off you could break through again much easier as your weight is concentrated over your feet.

I’ve been lucky. Some would say I’m even a bit chicken as I won’t drive out unless there is a good, solid, hard, crystal- clear ice layer of 16 inches or better. All I can say is that neither my wheels nor my clothes have ever gotten wet due to falling through. However, I did come close once.

About five years ago, while on Munuscong Bay, I was trucking towards the rock pile. Something didn’t look right in front of me so I slowed down but actually slid right up to a three by five foot section of ice that was barely frozen. All around me the ice was a good 18 inches thick. Not here, not less than a foot away from my front wheels.

Not long before ice skating with my truck a spearing shanty was here. The occupant left the area with the shanty, and left the hole unmarked. Don’t you think it would be a good idea if we marked our spearing holes in some way to prevent an accident? I did, and do. A simple stick with a flag or other marker is all it takes. A buddy of mine uses discarded Christmas trees to mark his.

Don’t be scared of the ice, be respectful of it. Ice fishing is a sport where nearly all are on equal footing. However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The brass tack point is to get home so you can go again.

Dan-Donarski1-150x150Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he's not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.