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Ice Fishing Safety: Tips You Should Never Ignore

There’s a certain breed of angler who waits all year for the coming of winter, whose dreams are haunted by hard water, the steam of breath in the cold air, and numb fingers pulling big fish through the ice.

These ice fishing fanatics know that cold weather brings hot fishing, and they’re already lubing their tip ups, restringing their ice rods, and making sure that their pop-ups are in prime condition.

ice fishing safety

Does that sound familiar?

But as you prep for winter angling, it’s critical that you take the time to consider safety. As the folks at remind us, “On average four or five ice fishing deaths occur in North America every winter, usually the result of a combination of thin ice, too much booze and not enough brains.”

To stay safe and enjoy your time on the ice, a few common-sense tips go a long way.


Ice Fishing Safety Tips

Know the ice

There’s an old saying among ice anglers: “Thick and Blue, tried and true. White and crispy, way too risky.”

This isn’t an old wives’ tale; science backs it up. The whiter the ice, the more air is trapped as bubbles inside it. And all that empty space weakens the ice, decreasing the load it can support and leading to sudden, unexpected failures.

Gray ice is often a sign of melting--and it should be avoided at all costs!!!

Indeed, as the Star Tribune reports, there are many signs of weak ice to watch for. “Ice can lose 40 percent of its strength along a single crack. Ice in areas where two cracks intersect can lose up to 75 percent. Other indicators that it’s time [to] get off the ice or stay off in the first place: Appearance of pressure ridges, water at or near the edges of cracks and areas that are snow covered.”

ice color meaning

That said, as Rick Slatten of the St. Louis County Rescue Squad in Minnesota reminds us, “You can’t judge the strength of ice simply by its appearance, but it’s a good place to start.”

There are ways to be pretty sure, however.

As advises, “The most important thing to remember in regard to ice safety is that ice thickness is not uniform across a body of water. You should always check the thickness of the ice in more than one area if you plan on crossing a body of water or staying on it for a long period of time.”

It’s critical you test the ice thoroughly and in multiple spots. Always carry an ice chisel to check ice thickness, and know how thick the ice needs to be to support the weight you’re considering burdening it with.

minimum ice thickness guideline

Know how to self-rescue

But mistakes happen. And if something does go wrong, and you do break through the ice, keep your head and have a plan!

A sudden plunge into icy water is going to induce panic.

According to experts at IFLScience, you can expect a sudden shock as your body hits the water. “Your body’s physiological response is to go into what is called “cold water shock". The shock causes your respiration rate, heart rate, and blood pressure to increase dramatically, which can cause ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest – basically sudden death.”

What do you need to do?

Relax and slow your breathing down. You’ve got time before hypothermia sets in, and a clear head can save your life.

Turn toward the direction you came from, and begin kicking your legs and pulling with your arms flat against the ice. Get as much of your upper body onto the ice as you can, “swimming” up onto the edge and away from the hole. Then roll your body away from the danger.

ice fishing safety self rescue

These videos give excellent instructions:

Emergency gear is a must

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Falling through the ice is a life-threatening emergency, and basic safety gear like ice picks and a throw rope or bag are musts.

A full flotation suit is a really good idea, too.

Ice picks like Frabill’s 6579 Ice Picks are designed to be worn under your outwear, keeping them out of the way until you need them. But if you do break through, these picks help you grip the ice and pull your upper body up and out. They make self-rescue much, much easier, and only a fool won’t spend just a few dollars against such a predictable catastrophe. 

Check out our guide for the best ice fishing picks available today

Frabill Ice Picks

For rescuing others, however, distance is essential.

If the ice has just been broken by a friend, getting too near can put you both in the water. Instead, stand off and toss something like a Best Marine throw bag

Best Marine throw bag

We’ve reviewed the Clam Icearmor Ascent Float Bib before, and it’s the kind of high-performance bib we can really recommend. But especially when paired with a No products found., you maximize your chances of staying afloat long enough to regain your wits and do something about your emergency.

Clam Icearmor Ascent Float Bib Clam Icearmor Ascent Float Parka

Emergency gear is simply not something you can afford to ignore, and even if you’ve been out on the hard water a thousand times with no trouble, you’re one accident away from dead.

Never fish alone and always share your plans

The buddy system saves lives, and everyone from divers to climbers adopts it because it works.

Never go out on the ice alone. Always bring a partner or two to share the fun, and just in case, to have some immediate back-up if something goes wrong.

Self-rescue works, but it’s a lot easier with help. And don’t forget: getting out of the water is just the first step--you’ll probably have trouble using your hands and will really appreciate the help if you need to start a heater, struggle out of wet clothes, or unlock the door of your truck.

It’s always a good decision to let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back as well.

Auger safety

A powerful, sharp auger is an ice angler’s friend. But it’s easy to become complacent when you’re drilling hole after hole.

Some quick safety tips for the real world:

  • Avoid loose clothing when running an auger. If your jacket or pants get caught up in the blade, you can easily get hurt.
  • Keep the blade covered until you’re ready to start your auger. But remove it slowly and carefully. This sounds simple, but as plenty of anglers can attest, that’s the easiest way to get a nasty cut!
  • Replace that cover ASAP!!!
  • Never run a gasoline-powered auger inside a tent or shelter, no matter how well ventilated.

Never use an outdoor heater inside a tent or shelter

No matter what anyone tells you, using an outdoor heater inside a shelter will kill.

Outdoor heaters are designed for open-air use in spaces like construction sites and sporting events. While they’re fine if you want to keep warm on the open ice, in a tent, they’re a deadly hazard. They produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, a silent killer, and you should never use them in an enclosed space like a tent, vented or not.

That’s why we only recommend indoor-rated heaters that are equipped with low-oxygen sensors. Good options like the Mr. Heater Buddy will keep your pop-up toasty warm, and you’ll live to talk about the fish you caught!

Mr. Heater Buddy Ice Fishing Heater

Save the drinks for telling tall tales at home

Alcohol and ice fishing don’t mix, as tempting as it might be to crack a few cold ones.

Alcohol increases blood flow to your extremities, and though it may make you feel warm, it’s actually helping you cool down.

But most importantly, from sharp augers to dangerous ice, and snow machines to the truck you drive home, drinking just isn’t safe out on the hard water.

Save the drinks for home, when you’re recounting the big one you pulled through the ice!

Final Thoughts

A few common-sense tips can help keep you stay safe on the ice this winter, and we hope this article’s got you thinking about what you can do to avoid accidents.

As always, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below and check out the rest of our ice fishing tips!

About The Author
Pete Danylewycz
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. Whether he's casting a line in a quiet freshwater stream or battling a monster bass, fishing is his true passion.