There exists no fish worth risking ones life for. It may be assumed by many that anytime an angler walks on to a frozen lake that he or she is risking their life. This is not true. Lakes, ponds and bays covered with four or more inches of uniform good ice are safe places to explore and fish when conditions allow.
What are the conditions for safe ice angling? Aforementioned uniform ice thickness of a minimum of four inches is necessary. When guiding I will not lead anglers onto less than six inches of “good” ice.
What is “good” ice? Good ice is uniform in thickness and appearance without large cracks and open water pressure breaks. Good ice can be found on lakes and bays adjacent to open water. The closer you get to open water edges the ice lessens in thickness and becomes unsafe.
Ice sheets on a lake or bay that are subject to warm weather and ensuing run-off caused by swollen creeks and snowmelt can still be safe even when air temperatures hover above freezing for extended periods. While warm air temperatures will begin to erode large sheets of lake ice and will make all areas of the ice sheet near stream and creek mouths places to stay away from, the main lake ice sheet, if thick enough (a foot or more) will remain solid and float strong and intact.
Areas on frozen lakes adjacent to open water or moving water are always places to avoid. The closer you approach these areas the more the risk of weak ice. When planning an ice fishing trip on any lake or bay the angler(s) must be able to identify creek mouths or open water ice edges so they can be avoided while traveling on the ice.
The color of ice and texture of its surface, how it sounds and acts when you hit it with a spud bar or drill a hole through it with an auger, gives the experienced angler the necessary clues as to the quality and thickness of ice.
A spud bar, a long handled steel rod with a blunt heavy blade welded on one end, is a vital tool for ice anglers on ice that is questionable. While walking across the near shore ice the angler hits the ice in front of him with the spud bar. The sound and feel made when the ice is struck with the spud bar relays its thickness and safety to the angler traversing the frozen surface of the lake.
Every few yards you should stop walking and smack the ice a few feet in front of you with the spud bar. If you stab the ice two or three times and the spud bar penetrates the ice to water…Turn around and return on the same path. The ice is too thin or soft.
Besides ice thickness and condition, the other main factor that is responsible for many ice rescues and incidents is inclement weather. A week ago several ice anglers had to be rescued by firemen from the frozen surface of Oneida Lake.
These anglers used poor judgment. They ventured out on the 50, 000 acre snow covered surface of the vast lake with 30 mile per hour wind gusts and wind chill values up to -20 forecasted. Bad idea.
Many rescuers risked their own lives searching for and recovering the stranded and lost ice anglers from a brutal environment of near zero visibility and extreme cold. An environment in which these anglers were not properly prepared to endure or retreat.
While the information here is not inclusive of all the factors and potential dangers incurred when traveling upon frozen water bodies, it does discuss the more important. With 16 winters of providing professional guided ice fishing trips throughout Upstate New York, I tell my guests that the most dangerous aspect of an ice fishing trip with Upstate Guide Service is getting to and from the launch in their vehicle. Leading anglers onto questionable ice is never an option.