"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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What Is Safe Ice?
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres

That cold snap we experienced last week created what the outdoors community refers to as "safe ice" in the northern tier counties and threatened the same for the central part of the state.

Indeed, though we have yet to hear about it, there may have been some ice-fishing opportunity on smaller, shallow ponds of the central counties.

And while hard-water anglers still were trying their luck in the north last weekend, those unseasonably warm days thwarted ice fishing in the central part of the state, not to mention the south.

However that may be, Old Man Winter officially arrives Sunday, and that means that sooner or later central parts of the state--and if we are lucky, the south--will be blessed (subjected to, if you prefer) with the opportunity to judge the ice on standing waters (maybe even rivers and streams) as being "safe."

In the real world, there is no such category for ice, until you have been on it and off again safely.

Well, some will tell you, ice must be clear and four inches thick to be safe. What a perfectly idiotic thought.

True, clear ice four inches thick probably will be safe, but four inches of clear ice is no more safe than the conditions that surround it.

I have fished on a lot of ice that was no more than an inch thick--so thin, indeed, that it wavered under my weight with each step. I also have been wet a few times.

Then again, I have fished on ice that was a foot or more thick and remained dry, although even thick ice can have moments of concern for one's safety.

Take, for example, a sub-zero day some years back when I sat on my five-gallon bucket tending some ice rods at about the middle of one of those long Monroe Reservoir bays.

The ice was clear and thick. It was a beautiful day for fishing. What I, and numerous other anglers, didn't know was that the water was receding below the ice.

Out of the proverbial "clear-blue sky" came a sound so weird and threatening that my heart must have stopped. Far toward the entrance of the bay to the lake, the ice had settled down onto the water and this created a crack that traveled with great speed, and a frightening sound of many decibels, as it traveled the length of the bay. I likened it to the sharp, continuing crack of a rifle on thin air.

I could hear it coming for what seemed an eternity, but I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. My time was either up, or it wasn't. I fancied that this thick cover of ice might open up and swallow everything on it.

But as this sharp, splitting noise crescendoed and the crack shot between my feet at the imagined speed of a swept-wing jet, I realized that I had witnessed and heard a natural phenomenon that I (hopefully) would never again experience. 

It was frightening. But it also was a learning experience.

For example, it taught me to respect, and be suspicious of,  ice--thick or thin.  And putting those frames of mind into play over the years has taught me to do everything I can to avoid a frigid dunking, but to always be prepared for such an eventuality.

No matter how thick or thin ice may be, I pick a shallow spot for those first uncertain steps. Then, while still over shallow water (less than waist deep), I spud in a hole to see how thick the ice is.

Of course, this does not eliminate potentially dangerous situations. Thus, I put my piece of broom handle (with the clothesline rope attached) crosswise in the hole I have drilled. As I advance toward the spot I will fish, I pay out clothesline and tie it around my waist before I spud in my first fishing hole. If there are solid objects on the shore, I tie to them instead of placing my brook stick in the shallow-water hole.

I have never had to pull myself out with the clothesline, but I have been happy to have had this rig a few times. I like the feeling my safety line offers every time I rig it.

If ice is borderline for any reason, an even better safety measure is to push a light, flat-bottom boat ahead as you go out over deep water. Such a boat will serve the angler well as a vehicle for carrying gear and a comfortable seat while fishing through holes near the boat.

The boat--with anglers inside--can be moved by pushing against the ice with an ice spud.

It is wise to avoid spots on the surface of ice where water may be standing or melting is obvious. Such spots often occur at places were there are springs below and warmer water is weakening the ice.

Another good safety measure on ice is to merely watch your step when moving about. Ice that freezes on calm nights can be as slick as glass. A fall could bring about several problems, not the least of which can be broken bones or severe bruises. Then, of course, ice may well be strong enough to support a 200-pound man, but if the same 200-pounder loses his balance and comes crashing down, it could break. I have seen that happen.

Not all problems of ice-fishing safety are related to conditions of the ice. The edge of an ice spud must be as sharp as grandma's favorite butcher knife, and the steel blades of an ice auger may make your barber's straight razor look dull. Watch your feet when using the spud to make holes, and keep those auger blades covered when not in use.

So what is safe ice? 

In the final analysis, safe ice is not measured by its depth, but rather by the depth of caution in the angler.

All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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