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
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
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
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.