Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Frequently check to make sure first ice is safe ice

Fishing on the first safe ice of the season can be the most productive time of the hard-water season for some anglers, but checking ice conditions frequently is an important part of the equation.

Few hard-water anglers would argue that the best ice fishing occurs early in the season. 

For over 25 years, my friend and I never missed a weekend of ice fishing. When cold weather finally arrived around the end of December, others would complain about the freezing temperatures, but not us. With every degree drop in temperature, Bob would look at me and say, “Making Ice!” We both knew we’d soon be digging holes on our favorite lake if the cold temperatures held. 

After arriving at the lake following the first freeze, we would carefully assess the ice situation to be sure we would be safe to venture out. As temperatures drop, water near the surface becomes more dense than the deeper water and sinks until the density is uniform. 

This allows the water at the surface to begin to freeze. This is why large, deep lakes don’t usually freeze over completely. 

For guys like Bob and I, getting out on the ice was important but we never threw caution to the wind. We knew first ice could look solid, but never risked going out without checking to be sure the ice was at least four inches thick. 

We would use our long-handled ice spuds and tap the ice ahead of us to be sure it was solid and safe. This is a critical step to ensure safety, considering this winter’s warmer than normal weather.  

From years of experience, we knew the ice would boom or crack, especially near the shoreline as the ice expanded. This never bothered us, but we were careful while fishing around docks or stumps because of the possibility of fluctuating water levels that could have made shore ice unsafe. 

This was especially a concern when fishing for walleyes through the ice on the Susquehanna River. River levels often rose or dropped daily, so even if the ice was eight inches or thicker, we never went out without a length of rope and a float in our sled.

Inlets and outlets on lakes or ponds should be skirted when walking to your favorite fishing spot because the ice could weaken around these locations as the ice shifts. Anyone venturing out on the ice should remember that ice is lighter than water and that it floats. 

Ice on a river or even a large lake could break away from the main sheet, trapping those unfortunate enough to be fishing there. A while back, I remember several Susquehanna River fishermen being caught on an ice flow when it broke off the shore ice and floated downriver. Fortunately, they were spotted and rescued shortly before the flow hit a bridge abutment and disintegrated. If memory serves, the same thing happened to a group of fishermen on Lake Oneida. Fortunately, they too escaped to fish another day. 

When fishing a river cove or other frozen river sections, be certain to check the ice every time you go out because safe ice today may be a trap tomorrow. Snow cover, sunshine, water fluctuations, shifting currents, and other factors can all affect ice strength. 

Remember, you can’t always tell the strength of the ice by looking at it and that new ice is stronger than old ice, especially if there is snow on the surface of the older ice sheet. 

Ice fishing is a fun winter sport that is enjoyed by thousands every winter, but falling into freezing water is not something anyone wants to do. A few simple precautions will be all that’s necessary to make sure that never happens.

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