Stepping out on the ice for a bit of angling? Remember these tips to stay safe


    These are rough ice thickness guidelines for new clear ice only, provided by the National Weather Service. Double the thickness guidelines for snow covered or white ice. If the ice has snow or is white in color, the suggested thickness is 8 inches or thicker. (WWMT/Randi Burns)

    Several days of freezing temperatures across Michigan have kicked off one of the state's famed winter sports: ice fishing.

    Because of the extended cold, the ice has formed and the anglers are venturing out on the lakes. The experts recommend ice fishers take a few things with them, good equipment, and strong knowledge of the ice.

    The ice

    The first rule for ice fishing, is to understand the ice: how thick it is, how it got there and how quickly it can destablize. The recommended thickness for venturing onto on frozen lake depends on the activity, and weight. Generally:

    • 3 inches or less: Keep off the ice; it's too weak to hold the weight of a person.
    • 4 inches: Walking or ice fishing can be supported.
    • 5 to 6 inches: This thickness will support snowmobiles and ATVs.
    • 8 to 12 inches: Cars and small trucks can be on ice.
    • 12 to 15 inches: Medium trucks would be able to rest on ice this thick.

    These are rough guidelines for new, clear ice only. Double the thickness guidelines for snow covered or white ice. If the ice has snow or is white in color, the suggested thickness is 8 inches or thicker before heading out to ice fish.

    So what are the ways to determine the ice thickness?

    According to winter sport experts, use a tap measure after creating a whole one of these three ways:

    • Use an ice chisel: An ice chisel is a metal rod with a flat, sharp blade at the end of it; punch the chisel through the ice and measure.
    • Use an ice auger: A few types of augers are designed to drill through the ice; after drilling a hole with an auger, measure.
    • Use a cordless drill: A cordless drill and a specific drill bit will drill through ice quickly; a wood auger bit is needed for this method; after drilling a hole, measure.

    The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reminds those going out on the ice, that no ice is safe, iin part because ice forms unevenly. Still, the department offers these tips for understanding ice safety:

    • Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and is very porous and weak.
    • Ice covered by snow should always be presumed as unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. Snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice.
    • If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.

    The natural resources department also offers advice for those who do fall through thin ice.

    • Stay calm.
    • Don't remove your winter clothing; heavy clothes won't drag you down, but can trap air to provide warmth and flotation.
    • Turn in the water toward the direction you came from; that is probably the strongest ice.
    • If you have ice picks, dig the points of the picks into the ice and, while vigorously kicking your feet, pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice.
    • Roll away from the area of weak ice; rolling will distribute your weight to help avoid breaking through again.
    • Get to shelter, heat, warm dry clothing and warm, nonalcoholic and non-caffeinated drinks.
    • Call 911 and seek medical attention; disorientation, uncontrollable shivering or other ill effects might be symptoms of hypothermia.


    The equipment

    Once the ice question is answered, anglers should consider their equipment; there are a number of things they can take with them to ensure safety.

    "The biggest technology change in the last couple of years has been the ice suit itself," said Randy Vandam, owner of D&R Sports Center in Kalamazoo. "Now, the suits are warm, they're waterproof, they're wind proof, so you're comfortable regardless of the situation. But the number one factor, they float."

    Vandam said he knows several people who have fallen through the ice wearing those suits.

    "They have felt that was a saving factor for them," he said.

    Another piece of equipment suggested are ice picks. These will allow people to puncture the ice and gain grip if they fall through the ice.

    If heading out on the ice without these pieces of equipment, there are other ways to ensure you are staying safe.

    "The buddy system is another key safety factor. Don't walk right next to each other at the same time, follow each other," Vandam said. "A rope would be a good thing to have, relatively 25 foot section of rope or something that you carry with you to help each other out. There's a lot of things you can do, you know, distributing your weight and not fishing too close together. And just don't go out there if it's not safe."

    Vandam said the safest way to determine if the ice is safe to walk on is to follow other people's tracks and be sure you are not the only one attempting to go out on the lake.


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