Tis the season for that age old question - "Is the ice safe yet?" The correct answer is "No, ice is NEVER safe". Even if the ice is a foot thick in one area on a lake, it can be one inch thick just a few yards away. It's impossible to judge the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, daily temperature, or snow cover alone. Ice strength is actually dependent on all four factors, plus water depth under the ice, the size of the body of water, water chemistry, currents and distribution of the load on the ice. Here are a few guidelines to help lessen your chances for an icy dip - or worse.
- Wait to walk out on the ice until there is at least four inches of clear, solid ice. Thinner ice will support one person, but since ice thickness can vary considerable, especially at the beginning and end of the season, four inches will provide a margin of safety. Some factors that can change ice thickness include flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish. By congregating in a small area, fish can cause warmer water from the bottom up 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 are carrying rope or other survival gear.
- Snowmobiles and ATVs need at least five inches and cars and light trucks need at least 8 - 12 inches of good clear ice.
- 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. It could hamper your escape in case you break through the ice.
- Carry a pair of homemade ice picks or even a pair of screwdrivers tied together with a few yards of strong cord that can be used 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.
- Avoid driving on the ice whenever possible. Traveling in a vehicle, especially early or late in the season is simply "an accident waiting to happen".
- Be prepared to bail out in a hurry if you find it necessary to use a car. Unbuckle your seatbelt and have a plan of action if you do break through. 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 of time weakens the ice. Don't 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 point 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 areas indicated with thin ice signs.
- Above all, avoid alcoholic beverages. Beer and booze increase your chances for hypothermia and increases the likelihood that you will make a stupid mistake that will 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, your chances for surviving are greatly improved.
For information on ice conditions contact:
Otter Street Fishing Club - 233-6101
Jerry's Tavern - 231-7380
Fox River Bait & Tackle - 233-7409
Captain's Cove - 582-4757
Wendt's on the Lake - 688-5231
Payne's Point Bar - 725-9303
Waverly Beach - 733-9721