Maybe it’s the solitude. Maybe it’s the adventure. Maybe it’s the stark simplicity. Maybe it’s because of all of these but it’s certain that I love to drop baited lines through holes in the ice. I do so as much as winter temperatures allow, frozen lakes remaining always a prerequisite. In southwestern Pennsylvania there are no guarantees of a hard-water season at all but my love and passion for the sport of ice-fishing keeps me trying.
Love and passion, however, are known to make men push the boundaries of caution and restraint. Now that ice is forming, even here in one of the least icy parts of our state, I’d like to write on a topic I’ve never addressed before: ice safety. Like so many things we learn well, this has been learned the hard way and I speak on it from a perspective of direct experience, not to mention the tales of hundreds of other ice afficianados, mixed with just a dab of choice science.
I was moving as fast as I reasonably could on this particular February day, trucking along across an unfamiliar part of eastern Presque Isle Bay, Lake Erie. This wasn’t the part that other ice fishermen thronged to for perch and, in fact, the few ice huts that could be seen were only distant specs. I was walking through deep snow. When the westerlies swept across the bay, polishing most of it to an icy veneer, this is where the snow was deposited. The temperature was eleven degrees but there was slush underfoot. I pulled a sled behind me as I made for the nearest shipping channel buoy.
The slush deepened and there was a sucking noise every time my boot lifted now. The whole lower portion of the boot was immersed with each step and I knew it would be a day of wet feet – not a comfortable scenario but one I’d survived many times before. I was far from shore now and was certainly over one of the deepest parts of the bay. Then, suddenly, one leg was under to the knee. Momentum carried me forward one more step and this one sunk a whole leg through. As I sunk to the rib cage, I thrust my body forward, splaying my chest and arms out across the deep snow. I managed to wrench myself 180 degrees, straining back in the direction I’d come. There was, of course, nothing to grip so I kicked, sunk in my elbows and heaved. Slush compressed below me and I heaved again.
It sounds dramatic and harrowing but I’d describe the whole thing as serene and surreal – also, quick. I was out in a few seconds, wiggling my way back the way I’d come, chest in the snow, sled line around my ankle. Regaining my footing, I fumbled around on the sled for something – my ice spikes; safety devices for pulling oneself back out again and better worn around one’s neck than left on the sled.
Sitting atop safer ice half an hour later, jigging smelt and thinking about the whole thing, I knew I was fortunate to be alive but not just fortunate. I’d envisioned a fall through the ice for many years, anticipating and reviewing just what to do so that when it finally did happen, I acted more with instinct than with a procedure; less panic and more calm, quick motions.
“Ice safety” principally means not falling through the ice in the first place. Maybe I could just leave it at that: Rule 1: Don’t fall through the ice! It would be nice if we could keep it that simple but all fishermen go to great lengths to pursue the quarry they imagine swimming below and ice fishermen often push the boundaries, one step at a time, onto more and more negligible ice following the reasoning that “I haven’t fallen through yet. Why would the next step be any different?” Again, I speak with the voice of experience here and I’d be the greatest hypocrite on the lake to speak of other stupid fishermen taking stupid risks. I often describe it as “crappie greed” and crappie greed sent me through the ice of Lake Erie once again just a couple of years ago – this time all the way to the bottom. An invigorating story for another time.
So why listen to the guy who keeps falling through the ice? Well, I’m still here to write about it so I did something right.
Don’t fall through the ice. The most effective way to not fall through is to check the ice repeatedly as you’re walking to your spot. Start as soon as you step onto the ice, drilling or punching a hole immediately over very shallow water and using your hand or the slusher to measure. Here in Pennsylvania, I’d advise doing this every time you step onto the lake, to start with a baseline idea of ice thickness. Of course, a crowd of other fishers is pretty good clue also that you’re going to be Okay but…
Ice is not uniform across a waterbody although much of it will be. At least a few factors affect ice non-conformity. The primary factor seems to be time of ice formation. The longer an area is frozen, the thicker the ice will be, all else being equal. I do most of my ice-fishing, by far, on Lake Arthur of Butler County, PA which is an impoundment with long bays typical of hill country impoundments. The bays are more shallow and more sheltered from wind than the main lake basin and so freeze first. Normally, the very sheltered sub-bays freeze on a still, cold night. Soon thereafter the bays freeze then the lake’s shallower end, then the whole lake. This means that the back ends of the bays will usually offer the thickest ice, gradually thinning as one moves out onto the main lake. Yet, once a thin layer of crusty snow covers all this, it all looks the same.
And, by the way, no, the pressure cracks in the ice do not divide thin from thick sections. Also, you will not normally hear a noise that tells you you’re getting onto thinner ice (sometimes you will, but don’t count on it). Usually, the first noise you hear will be the one you make as you plunge.
Guidelines are often offered something to the effect of: 3 inches to hold a person, 6 for a snowmobile, 12 to drive on. Often these are about right and leave a margin of safety but, unfortunately, it’s not really that simple and I wonder how many terrible accidents have occurred due to blind faith in uniform ice standards. I’ve fallen through the ice twice and both times, I fell through more than fifteen inches of ice.
It’s about quality of ice even more than quantity of ice. Ice exists on a whole continuum from glassy, clear and black to slush. Glassy, clear and (usually) black is nice. I’ve fished on two inches of this stuff. It comes with some experience but you can feel it with a hand auger or chisel as well. Again, it’s more like chipping hard glass, not sticky, gummy wet stuff. Once we’re a week or two into the season though, the ice is likely to be multi-layered, depending on just what the weather’s been. Just plain all cold produces the good stuff – glass. A hard freeze and then warmer weather produces a glassy lower layer and then milky, bubbly and slushy stuff on top. Snow on top is also not good for the ice, the more the worse; take the story above as an example. This insulates the ice below from the cold night air temps and creates a surface that begins as crystalline snow and morphs into slush and then ice as one drills down. Not only is such a surface relatively dangerous, it’s also one the more uncomfortable situations for fishing.
Don’t trust milky, white ice the way you would black. Be very cautious at the lake’s outflow and any inflow – ice is bound to be thinner. You are usually most likely to break through the ice at the edge for two reasons: First, especially in the late-season, sun affects the shallows more, striking rocks along the shore, warming and damaging the ice. Then too, especially in a reservoir with variable water levels, ice may be lifted and separated from the shore or cracked as the level drops. This being the case, I’ve often had fine days of fishing after crossing to good solid ice on a board from shore. Be careful but you don’t have to give up on a lake with water showing around the edge.
Another good rule of thumb: Don’t get too close to trees, pilings or anything else sticking up through the ice. These are heat sinks that can cause a ring of unsafe ice. This was in play last time I fell through.
So, now let’s suppose you’ve ignored all the above warnings, it’s too late and your all the way through, alone, over deep water.
First and foremost, above all else, don’t panic! I’m very serious on this point – it makes the difference between life and death in this and many other survival scenarios. Know when you go through that this is an unusual state to find yourself in but there’s no reason to believe you’re going to die. If you’re someone who’s simply panic prone, maybe don’t ice fish by yourself or only fish when there’s solid enough ice for cars to drive around on.
If you’re extreme, hardcore and an elite survivalist, I actually have a strange recommendation you probably won’t hear elsewhere: Practice falling through the ice into cold water. Do a polar bear swim in a setting with friends and safety equipment handy – in the coldest water you can find. Or, if you’re able, go ahead and break though some thin ice, again in a controlled setting with friends and extraction gear, maybe an inflatable life jacket. Having conquered this scenario and having learned that you will not die upon contact with cold water, you’ll be far more prepared to face your first accidental plunge with calm and composure.
There is a point on which I differ with most ice safety experts. Most experts also make much of the calmness factor but perhaps take it too far. I often see the advice to grab onto the edge of the ice and take some deep breaths, maybe waiting a whole minute to gain your composure before attempting a self-extraction. I believe that in my own personal experiences with icy plunges, I’ve survived because I’ve moved quickly. I already had the procedure firmly in mind and I acted almost instantly. My winter clothes did not have time to become truly, fully soaked, which would have weighted me down far more, pulling me toward the bottom. Better to have your plan of action rehearsed and move swiftly and calmly.
Something else you might consider long before you find yourself needing to dig in elbows and vault back out of a frigid lake is physical fitness. It’s hard to imagine anyone training year-round for ice self-rescue but it’s worth thinking about that most who die falling through seem to be older and over-weight (though there might be a strong bias in the ice-fishing community toward these conditions). If you are athletic, there’s no reason to think that your plunge is going to be anything more than an invigorating polar-bear swim.
Getting down to nuts and bolts, here’s exactly how you get back out again, given a complete lack of gear or opportunity for rescue:
- Move calmly and swiftly, spreading your arms wide as you drop through to catch yourself at armpit level, if possible.
- Turn back in the direction you came from (you know that that ice held you up.)
- Use your elbows to push yourself up and forward, giving a strong swimmer’s kick with your legs.
- Do the same again, attempting to get as much of your body out across the ice as possible.
- If the ice breaks again, as it often will, just keep attempting to repeat this same pattern
- Rest if necessary, holding onto the edge of the ice and treading water gently with your legs.
- Of course, go ahead and attempt to make noise and otherwise signal if there are other people within sight or hearing.
Just a few final words about some gear that may also help you out:
- Ice picks – These should be carried on a cord around the neck and are useful when there is no snow or very little of it on top of the ice. In such conditions, it’s very difficult to gain purchase with your hands as you try to move yourself and, obviously, spikes can be a very desirable thing.
- Heavy rope – Carry this on your sled. It will be useful if there’s anyone else around to help you out. It should be tied to the center of something throwable or a stout rod of some kind which the person who’s gone through can grasp like bicycle handlebars while someone pulls the other end of the rope.
- If you’re really off the beaten track while ice-fishing, carry a watertight kit in your sled for starting a fire almost instantly – something that will both light immediately and continue to burn long enough to ignite some wood. Also, have a few items of dry clothes along and don’t wear your coat while pulling the sled along to your fishing spot – leave it on the sled, high and dry.
Hope that helps. I could have spent a lot more time here on the horror stories I’m familiar with in these scenarios but it’s not necessary. Everyone knows the potential consequences of stupidity, panic and unpreparedness.