Safety First When Hitting the Ice

When you're in the newspaper business, there's simply no getting around those bad news type stories you never want to write. Even today as the editor of a niche publication focusing on hunting, fishing and trapping, periodically the news is tragic in nature. Hunting-related shooting incidents. Boating accidents in which PFDs aren't in use.

And, this time of year, ice-fishing accidents involving, typically, hard-water anglers venturing out onto ice that's not ready to be walked upon.

It doesn't have to happen. In fact, it shouldn't. Yet every year New York Outdoor News will publish a couple of stories with tragic endings involving ice fishermen. Maybe they're on foot, maybe they're on snowmobile or ATV or driving a truck out onto the ice. But the consequences of not taking a safety-first approach can be deadly.

With ice fishing season now pretty much kicking into high gear in the Champlain Valley, thanks to a cold snap earlier this month, many ice anglers are taking to their favorite water with one thing on their mind: catching fish. First ice is an exciting time, but let's keep in mind what first ice often means – that you're the first one to test its safety.

Given some of the temperatures we've seen of late (well below zero overnight in most areas and not approaching freezing during the day) anglers may be lulled into a false sense of security when they hit the ice this winter. But keep in mind, some waters are not only ice-covered, they're also bearing a load of snow courtesy of a late-December storm that dumped well over a foot. What that means in many cases is that ice conditions are less than perfect, despite what the thermometer may read. That snow cover creates an insulating effect that may make for sloppy ice formation, the kind that can create problems if you get too anxious to get out there and don't test it thoroughly.

While most state fish and wildlife agencies, including New York's DEC, offer ice safety tips, their recommended minimum ice thickness for safe travel on foot, snowmobile/ATV or small or medium truck is based on clear ice conditions – in essence, perfect ice. And perfect is a rarity in Mother Nature. That's why it's important to know just what kind of ice you're dealing with.

Too, conditions such as current under the ice, or springs within a body of water, can dramatically alter ice thickness. Knowing a body of water intimately is critical when you're walking on the hard water. If you're not sure, go somewhere else where ice fishermen are already out there fishing. Don't laugh. Sure, all anglers want that secret spot all to themselves. But if there's plenty of folks fishing a spot, chances are there's a reason – they're catching fish.

Bottom line: use caution any and every time you venture out onto the ice, no matter what the temperature, no matter what the ice thickness. Ice is never 100 percent safe. Check ice conditions as you work your water out onto a body of water. Use your auger to drill holes periodically to check thickness. Carry those safety picks, the kind now sold with handles and a cord attaching two together. Have them on your person; if you need them, it doesn't help if they're tucked away in a tackle box, and you might not get a second chance.

Ice fishing is a fantastic winter pastime. Fishing can be red hot. And if you take a few basic precautions, it's very safe.

I don't want to write about you this winter – unless you're sending along a picture of a big fish.

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