Stay Safe on Late Ice! Tips for Angler Safety


Fishing late ice is usually productive and comfortable.  The Wisconsin winter doldrums are firmly in the rearview mirror.  The warm temps and longer daylight mean less bulk to stay warm and less gear to lug around.  The fish also tend to start moving off the deep open water and into more accessible and easy to fish areas.  Late ice means good fishing, but late ice also means sketchy ice.  Fortune indeed favors the bold, but unsafe ice is no joke, and dangerous conditions can occur rapidly in the warming late winter months.  Being aware of your environment and weather can help you navigate outdoor enjoyment, angling success and ice safety.

Every angler who has been on the ice and discussed conditions has heard a litany of Farmer’s Almanac type tales of how to determine safe ice.  I’ve had conversations with folks that include the phrase with “I’ve seen EVERY episode of Ice Road Truckers so I know what I’m talking about!”  

In full disclosure, I also have a few little checks for safe ice conditions that perhaps were a bit on the superstitious side (I’ve seen a few episodes of Ice Road Truckers myself).  In order to ensure the most accurate information, I contacted an expert in the field of Ice Rescue.  Training Officer Howard of the Stevens Point Fire Department was kind enough to discuss late ice dangers to anglers.  He also passed along some advice and tips to stay safe on the late ice. 

Late ice can be a warm and productive fishing time, but stay safe by paying attention to your environment!

What to Look For

The first indication of weak ice is air temperature over a period of time.  If Wisconsin catches a lucky late February break and temps soar over a period of a few days, the ice will begin to erode.  Temps that stay well above freezing during the day and only dip to near freezing at night can create unsafe conditions.  Ice erosion will occur and create soft spots, especially in areas with even a little current like seepage springs or river sloughs.  

Ice thickness is not always the best indicator.  According to Training Officer Howard, warming trends can ‘honeycomb’ the ice.  This means the melting and refreezing ice has lost its original core strength.  The ice can be the same thickness according to your auger, but will be much less strong.  The six inch safe ice you were working on in late December is NOT the same ice you’re working after a long warming trend in February and March. 

This doesn’t mean that if temps hit mid 30’s you should stay off the ice, but it does mean you should make sure of ice strength in shallow areas before moving to deeper spots.  Make sure you have safety equipment along on your expeditions.  Investigative checks coupled with gear preparation before venturing out to the main lake will increase your chances of staying safe.

Must-Have Equipment and Understanding Location

The prepared angler is the safest angler.  Training Officer Howard recommends anglers always carry ice picks and a throwable object like a rope if fishing late ice.  Of special note, he adds that anglers need to be keenly aware of where they are on the lake or river.  Accurate and exact locations of any ice emergencies are immense help to rescue workers.  When you fish, keep track of directional locations.  Informing emergency responders of the specific launch you used to access the ice as well as compass directions can reduce response time and help with an organized rescue.  

If you’re going to fish that sketchy ice, another important piece of safety equipment is a floatation device.  Most outdoor chain stores carry a lightweight and easy to wear device for around 100$.  That might seem like a healthy bit of change, but that single piece of equipment can be the difference between life and death.  

Ice Emergencies

In the unfortunate event you fall through the ice, Training Officer Howard explains there are a few key steps to increase chances of a successful rescue.  “Keep your head above water and avoid a full submersion.  If possible and if it’s cold enough, put your wet jacket sleeves on the ice shelf and keep them as still as possible.  The jacket may freeze to the ice and allow you to hang and wait for assistance.”  

Self-rescue is the first step in the ice emergency response.  Using ice picks or any other method you can, drag yourself up and onto the ice.  Slide or military crawl back to shore and find a way to get warm as soon as possible.  

If you can’t self rescue, avoid full submersion and have someone in your party or a bystander call for rescue.  Use an exact location to assist rescue workers.  If you are a bystander and see someone go through, encourage self-rescue as you make the contact with emergency responders.  Do not attempt to rescue the person who has fallen through unless you have a reachable item like a rope or a long stick to help pull the person out.  

Safety Guidelines and Tips

-Water level drops near the shoreline can reduce support for the ice from the water underneath

-Keep windows open and doors unlocked when driving on the ice

-Do NOT drive a vehicle on the ice between the speeds of 15-25mph.  Go faster or slower.  Those speeds create a ‘resonant frequency’ and may cause the ice to fail

-Dry cracks (No water seeps through) on the ice are fine.  Wet cracks, with water present, indicate that the ice has faults.  It should then be twice as thick as usual to determine safe usage

-A large temperature fluctuation (more than 30 degrees) over a short period is dangerous, and you should stay off the ice for at least 24 hours to ensure safety

Catch Fish and Be Smart

Late ice is a great time to catch many species of fish in Wisconsin.  The weather is usually agreeable.  The extra daylight hours allow for more time to catch.  The crowds are often less.  However, flavor those fishing expectations with a pinch of safety and a dash of common sense to make sure this season isn’t remembered as the one you fell through the ice.  Stay safe out there, and always pay attention to your environment!

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