Staying Safe on the Ice

Ice fishing is a blast, but there is no need to risk your life to enjoy that excitement. Every time I venture out onto the hard water, I take numerous precautions to ensure my day won’t go south quickly. Even with the 10+ inches of ice we currently have in my area, there is no excuse for being unprepared. Ice forms unevenly and can have irregularities hidden by snow.

As I watched North Woods Law last night, Warden Eric Blanchard mentioned something that struck me particularly deeply: “There are no fish in Maine worth risking your life for.” Even though he was in the great state of Maine, this message holds true for the entire world. Fish will always be here, but we may not if we make stupid decisions in order to stick another sharp metal object in some poor creature’s mouth.

Not all trips out on the ice must be a big risk, though. It’s simple and easy to follow some guidelines to keep yourself and others safe.

First off, take a look at the image at the top of the page. This picture displays many of the things I do to keep myself safe every trip, not only to protect myself in the event that I did fall through, but also to stay warm and out of the elements.

Perhaps the most obvious piece of equipment I use are the picks dangling around my neck. This lifesaving device utilizes retractable spikes that are normally hidden by spring-loaded guards. When you jam the picks into the ice, the spikes come out and grip the slippery surface. The picks are on handles connected by a stretchable cord, making them easy to access and use in the case of an emergency.

The reason the picks are so important is because of the texture of the surface of the ice. If you tried to pull yourself out of the water using your hands, there wouldn’t be any friction, which, according to my physical science teacher, means no work can be done. The picks give you a solid purchase on the ice, allowing you to hoist yourself up and out before any major damage can occur. Luckily, I haven’t had to test them out myself, but there are numerous accounts of people’s lives being saved thanks to these handy tools. And at just $10, there truly is no reason not to get yourself some.

The next pieces of gear in the photo are the nitrile gloves I am using to hold the fish. These aren’t so much about safety on the ice as they are about preventing frostbite and remaining comfortable.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, as soon as you get your hands wet in the winter, it’s just about game-over until you can get your hands warmed up. These gloves help mitigate this by keeping water from touching your skin. By wearing these thin gloves under a pair of warm mittens or wool gloves, you have the perfect finger-warming tag-team. Before you grab the fish, quickly wet the gloves to protect the delicate slime coating.

Now we get to some of the more obvious, but maybe overlooked, aspects of what I wear and use.

The jacket in the picture is one of two jackets I regularly wear when ice fishing. This one is puffy, but not very waterproof or wind-resistant. It keeps me warm, but does little when a front rolls in. When used in conjunction with an outer shell; however, I am quite comfortable in all scenarios. The one I wear is a relatively cheap and helps make for a great day of fishing.

Obviously, a hat does a great deal to keep you warm, but did you know that a good pair of wool socks and winter boots help just as much? Most people know that we lose a lot of heat through our heads, but a little known fact is that keeping your feet warm is even more important. Because of homeostasis, heat leaves our feet to warm the freezing ice beneath us. To prevent this from happening, there are a few things you can do. First, always have at least one pair of dry wool socks on, if not another pair of thinner polyester socks beneath them to wick away any sweat. In addition to the socks, wear a good, sturdy pair of winter boots (preferably waterproof). Too many times have I seen friends show up wearing a brand new pair of sneakers only to have them ruined by the slush and slime, not to mention being freezing the entire time.

In addition to the things you can see in the picture, there are a few other things I like to have with me.

I just recently started bringing a throw rope with me after learning how to tie a harness with it from a friend’s dad. The rope, usually kept at the top of my sled for easy access, can be a crucial tool when helping someone that has fallen through the ice. The first rule of helping someone is to not put yourself in danger. By standing where you know the ice is at least thick enough to support your weight, you can toss the rope to the person in trouble and haul them out. It isn’t foolproof, and ice picks work much better, but it will help in the most dire situations.

I always like to have crampons on my boots to prevent myself from slipping. I know people that haven’t as much foresight, and have suffered a concussion as a consequence. In addition, they help a lot to gain traction when using hand augers.

The final piece of gear I bring is usually only for when the ice is just barely safe enough to go on. During these times, I wear a life jacket just in case something were to happen. I know that there are float suits on the market sold specially for ice fishing, but I’d prefer not to spend upwards of $200 when I have a perfectly buoyant multi-purpose life jacket sitting at home.

Ice fishing can be dangerous, but when the correct precautions are taken, it doesn’t have to be. I’ve made the most of the decent year for ice we’ve had by getting out as much as possible, but I’m always make sure not to push my luck by heading out on the thin stuff. Even when there isn’t safe ice, there is always fishing to be done (hint: take a look at you local stocked trout rivers). As I continue to fish this year, I’ll have to make sure not to get too comfortable on the thick ice and to continue to check the thickness each and every time I’m out.

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