Every year we hear stories of ice fishermen falling through the ice and being injured, sometimes fatally. There are also numerous incidents every year of vehicles falling through the ice, including snowmobiles and ATVs. These are not the only types of hazards on frozen lakes. We also hear reports of snowmobiles colliding with each other, colliding with ice huts, and hitting ice heaves. Some examples from 2015:
January 17, 2015 Cowanshannock PA:
A 56 year old fisherman on Keystone Lake drilled a bunch of fishing holes and then fell through the ice and drowned. Other fishermen noticed he was missing about 8AM.
January 18, 2015 Manawa WI:
A 26 year old male snowmobile rider was riding on a pond, at night with a blood alcohol content of 0.224%. He struck the shoreline at speed.
January 21, 2015 Rock Springs, WY:
A 61 year old fisherman was riding a four wheeler on Flaming Gorge Reservoir when he broke through. Two other fishermen who were trying to retrieve another four wheeler from a breakthrough heard his cries and tried to rescue him with a rope and a canoe but were unsuccessful.
The majority of these incidents are accidental, which also makes them preventable. Be prepared, it can save your life or the life of someone else.
We all get anxious to head out on the hard water, myself included, but before venturing out it’s important to know the condition of the ice and potential problems to look for. It’s not worth risking injury or even death just to be the first person to get their shack to the honey hole. There is an old saying about ice, “thick and blue, tried and true, white and crispy, way too risky”, but there can be issues with ice no matter the color.
When venturing onto the lake overall ice thickness is the first and most important thing to consider. Many factors can affect ice thickness including the depth and size of the water body, currents and springs, water level fluctuations, pressure cracks, changes in air temperature, overflow, and even methane gas pockets.
- 3/16” can support a duck
- 4” for ice fishing or walking on
- 5” for a single snowmobile or ATV
- 8-12” for a small vehicle or pickup
- 12-15” for a half ton pickup
Remember ice is not always consistent across an entire body of water. This is especially true of larger water bodies; therefore it’s prudent to check ice thickness before venturing too far onto the lake. Heading a short ways out and chopping or drilling a hole is a good way to get an indication of the ice thickness. As you move further out stopping intermittently to check thickness is a good idea. Keep in mind on large bodies of water to check more often, on larger lakes I have seen as much as 8” of good ice near shore whilst the middle of the lake is still open. It’s also prudent to travel with a partner or group however when traveling in groups keep a reasonable distance between each other. If a group member breaks through stop immediately, do not rush over to help as you could end up breaking through also, being prepared and having a plan before attempting to help can prevent you from becoming a secondary victim. Try to stick to established travel paths on the lake, generally well used ice roads are proven and packed down allowing better frost penetration and increased ice pack. However don’t become complacent, even on established roads conditions can change day to day. What do you do if you fall through the ice? Here as an excellent video by Uncut Angling demonstrating actual scenarios.
There are other potential causes of problematic ice. Here are some things to look out for:
Methane Gas Pockets
Methane gas pockets are caused by either rotting vegetation or naturally occurring methane bubbling from the lake bed. Methane caused by rotting vegetation is more prevalent in man made lakes where areas have been flooded by dams and the resulting vegetation in the area being left underwater. Methane gas is warmer than ambient air temperatures and tends to drag a stream of warmer water from the lake bottom as gas constantly rises to surface. This creates a bell hole where the gas is escaping the surface, the ice in that spot is continuously washed away from underneath. In snow covered areas the snow pack can obscure these pockets making them difficult to see. Gas holes are more prevalent early in the season and after any significant thaw. Generally these pockets occur in the same areas year over year so if you find a gas hole marking it on your GPS is a good idea. Also if you can safely do so mark the spot with a stick and flagging to alert fellow anglers that the area may be problematic. Often where there is one gas pocket, there will be others.
Springs, Tributaries, and Currents
Most lakes are fed and drained by tributaries and springs. Being aware of these areas makes them easy to avoid. Where water flows ice is prone to take longer to form, and constant flow can continually wash away at ice that has already formed. If you fish the same bodies of water consistently, you will generally know where these areas exist, if you are venturing onto new water, using a map to educate yourself on potential areas you should avoid is a good idea. Lakes that have large volume drainage such as rivers and creeks are prone to underwater currents. Sometimes these flow patterns can run for long distances on a body of water and these underwater currents make ice formation more difficult and can become especially dangerous during early temperature increases and thawing. A very good example of this is Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta which feeds the Lesser Slave River year round through a weir. This lake has strong currents on the south shower which generally flow near the structure where water depths transition quickly from the 10’ range down to 60’ depths. These currents are especially prevalent at the narrowest part of the lake, appropriately known as “The Narrows”, a very popular fishing spot.
Overflows, Cracks, and Pressure Ridges
Even in the coldest of winter’s ice does not remain static. Ice is constantly shifting and moving causing cracks, pressure ridges, and overflows. Cracks and pressure ridges are generally easily visible and avoided, but they can still present a problem depending on conditions. Traveling in the dark lessens visibility and after a heavy snowfall cracks can be filled with fresh powder making them difficult to see. It’s important to travel slowly and deliberately and pay attention to what’s coming ahead. One of the most consistent causes of accidents on the hard water is people traveling at a high rate of speed, especially on snowmobiles or ATVs. If you are over driving your ability to see what’s ahead you are traveling too fast, hitting a pressure ridge or crack at high speed can be devastating and negotiating around the hazard may not be possible if you arrive too quickly at it. Overflows can be caused by large amounts of snow early in the season or thawing of ice under snow. Heavy snow load puts hydro-static pressure on the lake forcing water up. Depending on the time of year there can still be good ice unde
r and overflow, but getting stuck with a vehicle or ATV can be a challenge, and exhausting.
There have been instances reported of snowmobilers hitting ice shacks, shorelines, and other snowmobilers. Unfortunately a lot of these accidents result from people being under the influence of alcohol. Ice fishing is a fun social activity, sometimes we all like to partake in a few beverages while on the lake. This generally isn’t a problem if you are staying overnight in your shack or have someone sober to drive at the end of the day. If you do have a few beverages heading out for a rip on your sled at midnight isn’t a good idea, stay in your shack or arrange someone to give you a ride. Also if you are a shack owner take the time and spend the few extra dollars to make your shack more visible. If you paint your shack use bright colors. Stick on reflectors are extremely inexpensive and should be applied on all sides of your shack, both top and bottom. Reflective DOT tape is also a good idea.
I have a good fishing partner who stayed late in his shack one Saturday on a large lake in Northern Alberta. The wind had picked up, and the strong wind and swirling snow created a near whiteout with very little visibility. He and his girlfriend packed up and headed out, he was confident he could make the trip to shore. Somewhere on his way back he lost his bearings and sense of direction, they spent 45 minutes driving in circles in extremely cold temperatures, unable to find the shore. Meanwhile he could not get his GPS to work on his cell phone, and their fuel situation was getting critical. He started to panic and desperation set in. Luckily he ran upon an ice shack, they broke in and got a fire going and hunkered down until morning. A situation like this could turn tragic very quickly. Sometimes if you have shelter it’s better to stay put until conditions improve. We have all heard a similar story, that’s why it’s so important to be prepared. Here are some things to consider having available when venturing out.
Appropriate clothing – Warm clothing including gloves, socks, boots, and caps. There are many companies that make survival style ice fishing apparel, some with flotation built in. One might also consider a full change of clothes in case you get wet.
Food and Water – Usually guys bring food and snacks on the lake, but it doesn’t hurt to throw a few granola bars or extra water in your vehicle or in your pockets, you never know when you may have to spend an unintended night on the lake.
Heat Source and Extra Fuel – Packing a portable heater, blankets, candles, flashlight, and extra fuel is a good idea.
Other Accessories – Rope and hand ice picks for pulling yourself out are a good idea. Rope can be used to keep you a safer distance from the hole if someone in your group falls through.
Special Consideration for Children
A lot of people enjoy taking their little ones out for a day of ice fishing. The same fishing partner who nearly perished in a whiteout had taken his daughter out for a day. It was a good day, the sun was shining, and the fishing was good. His daughter was quite young, perhaps 3 or 4 at the time, and very slender. They were walking back to the shack when he heard he scream, he turned around to see her up to her armpits in an 10” hole someone had drilled. He rushed over and pulled her out, she was soaked and freezing; he got her back to the shack and got her dry and warm. Open holes can be especially hazardous for small children. I like to take my kids out and ensure they wear a life jacket all day on the lake. Not only does the life jacket expand their size to prevent falling down a hole, it can also help them stay afloat should we fall through. When on the lake keep a close eye on your kids so they can have the most enjoyable and positive experience possible.
Tight lines and stay safe!
About the Author
Paul is an avid outdoorsman who grew up pioneering and fishing countless Alberta lakes with his father and friends. When he's not enjoying the outdoors he spends his time designing and building custom ice shacks and trailers.