When is Ice Safe for Ice Fishing?

Ice fishing is a great outdoor activity and can be considered up there with snowmobiling, skiing, snowboarding, or other winter activities. As is the case with these aforementioned leisurely activities, there are always risks associated. Ice fishing is not excluded and should be handled with care as an ice fishermen’s safety must be the number one priority.

Ice is safe for ice fishing when it is thicker than 4 inches for a person to walk on. Ice is safer when it is new ice and it is visible or clear instead of cloudy. The advised thickness increases to about 5 to 15 inches when taking a vehicle such as a truck or ATV out on the ice.

General Guidelines for Checking Ice Thickness

The best way to check that the ice is safe enough is to ensure that it is fresh ice and not slushy or snow covered. Ice that has any sort of moving current underneath is not safe because the water can break up or melt the ice.

The best way to check to see if the ice is safe to stand on is to drill a hole to your desired depth and determine if the tool broke through the ice. If it has not completely broken through, then it is safe to stand on or sit on and proceed with fishing.

Levels of Safety in Ice Thickness (Clear Ice)

NOTE: No ice is %100 safe, these numbers are estimates only. Extreme caution should be taken when walking/driving on ice.

3 inches or lessUnstable and unsupportable
4 inchesStable enough for walking
5 to 7 inchesStable for a small recreational vehicle
8 to 12 inchesStable for a car or mid-size vehicle
12 to 15 inchesStable for a truck or large vehicle
Old or slushy iceDouble each of these measurements

Be careful with driving vehicles on the ice because this weight will place pressure on the ice. This may cause the vehicle to start sinking or break up the ice. It is advised to move the vehicle to a new spot on a regular basis.

Old ice measurements are doubled because the ice is less reliable than fresh ice. Old ice may have partially melted ice toward the middle layer and thicker ice toward the top.

Caution needs to taken when fishing on old ice more than it does on fresh ice. If possible, stick to fishing on fresh ice instead of doing so on old ice because it is more susceptible to breaking.

Best Bodies of Water to Go Ice Fishing Safely

Lakes, ponds, or other small bodies of water are going to be the best places to go. Well-known areas are suggested because knowing the layout of the land will maximize the ice fishing experience.

Ice fishing in open areas is better than being close to trees or other foliage where branches could potentially break off. This is a possible hazard that could result in ice breaking from suddenly fallen objects. Also, beware of springs or other conduits that having flowing water because this can break up and melt the ice.

Research and select locations that other ice fishermen are using to ice fish. Talk to them about the most reliable parts of the water where they have seen the ice be the thickest. Measure, measure, measure the ice to know that it is thick enough to stand on.

Do not rely upon where others are standing and make a judgment call based on that criterion alone. Check the area around where they are fishing to ensure that it is around the recommended thickness.

Small bodies of water provide different opportunities compared to larger lakes or rivers. First, ice fishing on ponds or lakes means that it will not be necessary to take vehicles out onto the ice. This reduces the chances of an ATV or snowmobile falling in the water if the ice shatters.

Second, ponds and lakes provide more of an enclosed area that is easier to navigate rather than traveling down river banks.

Third and finally, ice does not freeze evenly across an entire body of water. This means that closer to the edge of the lake or pond, the ice may be thin. Moving toward the middle of the lake provides an increased possibility that the ice is thicker. Rivers and other flowing bodies of water are unpredictable because certain areas might be weaker than others.

Smaller bodies of water that are enclosed by land have a greater surface area. It will be less likely for the water to slowly dissolve the ice away and cause minimal harm to significant ice breakage.

The Most Preferable Time to Go Ice Fishing Safely

Pick times when the ice has freshly frozen over because this will increase safety conditions. Areas where the ice has settled over time and are opaque, causes the thickness guidelines to double. The optimal season to go ice fishing is between late November/early December and late February/early March. These are the times of the year where the temperatures are going to be freezing if not just below.

Check the weather before going as an added precaution to guarantee a safer experience. Warmer temperatures create hazardous conditions due to the ice becoming unstable. Severe weather can be harmful if it changes road conditions or the ice itself.

Remember that ice conditions can change throughout the day depending on temperature and foot traffic. Ice that is in pristine condition in the morning might be unstable by the evening.

The same principle can be applied to the ice not being entirely frozen in the morning is frozen by the evening. The state of water is ever-changing and does not provide a consistent pattern.

Some bodies of water may be completely frozen while others may be partially frozen. The edge of a creek might reach the 4-inch requirement and the middle could be under 4 inches.

It is best to go while the sun is up because it is easier to identify nearby surroundings. Also, the fish should be more active during this time period. Anywhere from just after sunrise to just before sunset will be a good window to go. The feeding times for fish are generally 90-minute timeframes during sunset and sunrise.

The Risks of Ice Fishing in a River

Unlike lakes and ponds, rivers are not just one isolated body of water surrounded by land. Rivers flow for miles and there are bends that change its direction. Rivers have undercurrents that can progressively erode away the ice. River bends are risky areas because the ice will be weaker due to the current.

Some parts of the river are safer because the water may be still or there is less of a current. However, it is best to always check the thickness of the ice and determine if there is a current flowing underneath. Rivers are not typically calm compared to lakes, ponds, or reservoirs where the water is still.

If the ice suddenly collapses into the river, there is a possibility that an ice fisherman could be carried away. Currents, especially strong currents, tend to flow in one direction and sweep objects along with it. There is potential for someone to fall into the ice, be caught in a current, and swept underwater.

Dangers that Come from Ice Fishing

The most obvious threat to a person ice fishing is the possibility of falling into the water. Suddenly taking a plunge into frozen water without proper clothing or gear is dangerous. The body quickly goes into shock when emerged into freezing water. This can lead to hypothermia or frostbite depending on the temperature of the water.

Getting stranded out on the ice is another danger to be cautious of while ice fishing. If there is an incoming storm such as a blizzard or snowstorm, then it is possible that roads will be closed. Being on the ice during a storm is particularly dangerous because the weight of the snow can break up the ice.

An additional, danger comes from using a portable heater in a confined space. When used over a period of time can lead to carbon-monoxide poisoning. If the gas does not have anywhere to escape, then it will quickly create a toxic environment.

Not having the proper equipment nearby if the ice does collapse is dangerous. Ice is slippery and it is important to use anchors such as an ice pick to get up out of the water. Essentially, take precautions beforehand will reduce risks.

Things that May Affect Ice Thickness

Schools of fish that are underneath the water circulate warmer water as they are swimming. This will wear away the ice layers and cause it to become thinner.

Changing temperatures and weather conditions contribute to melting, freezing, or refreezing the ice. Areas, where the sun is exposed to the water, causes the ice to warm up and melt. A sudden snow, sleet, or hail storm will either erode the ice away or damage certain areas.

Depth of the water impacts whether the ice will be thinner or thicker. Near the place where the water and land meet, the water is not as deep. It will be less than 4 inches and is not safe to fish on. As the water becomes deeper, the ice is more likely to be 4 inches or greater.

Old ice versus new ice is a factor that determines whether the ice will be safe or not. Old ice that has had time to settle and be broken up by environmental or human factors will not be safe. Old ice usually becomes slushy as it starts to be worn away. The same body of water could be a combination of old and new ice.

A thick layer of snow that covers the ice forces the thickness to decrease. Snow acts as an insulator and so it is similar to a large blanket blocking out the winter air. The ice is no longer exposed to the cold temperatures and starts to breakdown.

Once the snow starts to become water, the water melts the ice unless there are freezing temperatures. A new layer of ice will freeze over the already existing ice and add to the thickness.

Precautions to Take While Checking Ice Thickness

Safety is the number one priority while going out ice fishing. Often times, it is a safe winter activity that allows people to go outdoors during cold months.

It cannot be emphasized enough that before gear, vehicles, or equipment other than a drill and measuring tape are taken out onto the ice, it is crucial to check the thickness.

Pulling up the ice thickness guidelines on a mobile device will help to ensure that the proper thickness is reached.

Understand the physical differences between fresh and old ice because they will alter thickness guidelines.

Listen for any kind of cracking and look for changes in ice color as these are clear indicators that the ice is unsafe.

Before moving to a new area or traveling on the ice at all, check the thickness. Ice thickness is not the same throughout the body of water.

Look to see if there is any sort of water movement underneath the ice and then move on. Flowing water is dangerous and it will deteriorate the ice making it unstable.

Have other people close by in case there is an area that is not secure. They can help to pull a person up and out of the water if it does end up cracking. They can also find other places on the water where the ice is thick enough to walk or drive on.

Quick Safety Tips for the Beginner Ice Fisherman

  • Be aware of your surroundings while on the ice

Ice is safe to walk on at four inches or thicker. Ice fishermen travel around to different areas on the ice to go fishing. It is vital to check nearby areas to ensure that the ice is thicker than four inches. It is advised to drill holes at about 150 feet or so out from shore and to measure the thickness of the ice.

  • Bundle up with layers and this includes a reliable life jacket

Ice fishing will be a cold experience and it is important to wear proper clothing. Layers will be helpful because they will provide insulation to keep the wind chill at bay. One of the most important layers to wear is a life jacket just in case the ice is not sturdy.

Falling in without a life jacket can be dangerous especially if the water underneath is deep. This flotation device will provide enough protection to keep the head above water. Wearing layered clothing will help to prevent hypothermia or frostbite from occurring.

  • Avoid areas that are overly congested by people

Ice can only withstand so much weight and if there are too many people in one area, the ice can falter. Spread out and find a less crowded area where the ice is thick enough to safely go fishing.

  • Brush the snow off the ice

Before drilling holes to check the thickness or to start fishing, brush off any snow. This decreases the potential for ice melting because the snow will not be insulating the ice.

Francis Jackson

I grew up in Montana and often went out adventuring with my youth group. We went hiking, camping, canoeing and shooting up in the mountains. I often went fishing when I was younger with my family and it quickly became one of my favorite activities. When I am not doing school or working, I am usually outside enjoying nature.

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