After the fall hunting seasons, we start the inevitable push towards what’s next, and for anyone a shade north of the Mason-Dixon, to find ice first and get ice-fishing. Not just any run-of-the-mill outing on hard water, but fishing on that very first layer of hard and clear ice. With fish in most parts of the country that have essentially been “rested” through much of the fall and a renewed lake biology from the turnover period that allows most species to remain with bait in oxygenated shallows, you’ve got a recipe for fish that like to cooperate. Still, with the ice just forming on many lakes, our excitement to partake in the early-ice bonanza is put at direct odds with the simple fact that no ice is completely safe, especially given the different variations in first ice often on a single body of water. Here’s how to maximize the early ice period, and stay safe doing it.
First ice fishing is the stuff of legends, yet it’s a tenuous subject this whole walking on water thing. Ice fish long enough and you’ll come to know stories of or experience for yourself some unsafe ice conditions, and quickly understand that it can be not only dangerous but deadly.
Still, there are safety precautions you can take that greatly enhance not just your survivability, but your confidence in finding fish while also staying above the sheet. In terms of equipment, it’s a heavy ice chisel and strong arms that never stop delineating safe boundaries on the ice you plan to walk. Picks are nice, but in a break-thru emergency, a level-headed buddy and a rope are far more essential. That said, many ice deaths involve either anglers that can’t swim or ones that never come up from the initial plunge. For that reason, there are a good number of companies that make floating suits that are both functional for fishing and protect you from the unthinkable. However, the best tool you have to avoid a first-ice-fall-thru is what’s between your ears.
Conventional wisdom has it that a few calm nights with lows in the single digits will lock up all but the largest lakes, with most of those water bodies following in coming weeks of increasingly colder weather. Fortunately and unfortunately, it’s not that easy. The bad is that daytime highs, fetch (length of water over which a given wind direction has blown), lake elevation, moving water, and nearby substrate, along with other factors, all have a role to play in determining when any lake will ice up. Those above variables are also good, meaning that if we know the factors that inhibit lake freezing, we can seek out lakes that buck that trend.
To find safe ice first then, you must seek out the many small natural lakes and ponds that were created near glacial recessions. A simpler interpretation would be lakes that tend to be in lower-lying areas. As cool, late-fall air sinks into these low, small, and wind-protected depressions at night, you have the perfect conditions to create “first-ice.” Lakes in these locations freeze even faster if surrounded by heavy tree cover, have small fetch, are somewhat stained or have color to the water, and are predominantly mud-bottomed. Clear and rock-lined or bottomed lakes often store and retain solar radiation better, making them among the later ones to finally form ice.
Lake ice conditions are highly localized, and often reports from bait shops, internet forums, and social media are highly unreliable as they focus on those larger fisheries where businesses that depend on them are more developed. It just so happens then, that tiny gems can hide in the shadows of these larger lakes, and because of their glacial origin are typically in areas that are littered with other water bodies that have good fishing opportunities. Quite often, I’ve been fishing on very safe ice for weeks while open water exists on larger lakes within a few miles of the ones I’m targeting. For that reason, take what the area gives you, rather than trying to force your way out onto a favorite lake that just isn’t ready.
I’m looking for 4” of hard, clear, measured ice that’s consistent across the area I’m fishing, to support my own weight and the weight of a small sled and gear that I drag out. By measured, I mean actually taking a tape, ruler, or marked-off ice scoop to physically determine the exact thickness. Too many first-ice-fascinated anglers are careless with this step and over-estimate the actual ice thickness. Though I know with good quality ice I don’t need 4”, there can be a great deal of variability, even on these small lakes from the shoreline to the middle of the lake. Pockets of timber or weed growth, along with springs and moving water can dramatically alter ice conditions not just in a bay or a finger, but across distances measured in mere feet.
To truly get the best of the first-ice period, resolve to travel light, travel with a buddy, and travel on foot. Never walk onto ice un-tested by a serious stab with your heavy ice chisel, and keep the kiddos at home. The name of the game is to manually map out the good ice by hand, and it’s difficult for children to understand that while where you’re standing may be perfectly safe, the ice only a football’s throw away may not be. Stay mobile, and don’t be afraid to start the hunt for ice earlier than most, provided you follow a few simple safety steps on your way to first-ice glory.