Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Wil Wegman : Reading Ice Conditions - Stay Safe!

Reading Ice Conditions - Keep On Top! 

Reading Ice Conditions originally printed in Lures & Tours Winter 2011 editions.written by Wil Wegman.

Reading Ice Conditions -for a fun and safe ice fishing season

 By Wil Wegman
 Let’s have a look at how reading ice conditions can help keep you on top this winter - regardless of whether you’re ice fishing Simcoe, the newly opened Kawartha Lakes, Georgian Bay or Bay of Quinte. In almost all cases the mishaps reported each year can be easily prevented.

Which Ice is Strongest? 

Clear or blue ice is the strongest and usually forms at the start of the winter season close to shore and thins as it works its way out. The reverse is true for the end of the season. Ideally at the start, there will be several days and nights of sub-zero temperatures with little wind or snow for the ice to form rapidly. Late in the season, the thicker ice can be further out but is often ‘honeycombed’ – meaning it is filled with frozen slush and air pockets that generally makes it much weaker.

How Snow Affects Ice Conditions

Snow cover actually acts like an insulation barrier – slowing down the freezing process. The more snow cover at the start of the year, the longer it typically takes for thick ice to form. If a layer of early ice forms in December for instance but is followed by heavy snow – then poor ice conditions can result for some time afterwards. Conversely, near the end of winter a layer of snow can actually help protect the ice beneath from the powerful sun so it won’t melt as rapidly. When winter temperatures fluctuate dramatically, ice conditions suffer.

 Dangerous Ice Conditions - Beware! 

Wind and Open Water Could Spell Tragedy

Beware of wind and open water: A few years ago in early January I fished from Keswick on Lake Simcoe during the morning on five to six inches of solid ice. The main lake far to the north was still open and by noon, the northwest winds were howling so badly we elected to get off in a hurry. By supper hour the ice where we had been fishing was breaking up, making us appreciate how dangerous things can be out there if you’re not careful!

Some of the other dangerous ice conditions you may encounter throughout the season include:

  • River mouths: When a river or creek flows into or out from a lake, the area at the mouth can be a critical place to watch out for. Here the current is stronger and the ice underneath will not be as strong. 
  •  Slushy ice: When rain or mild weather partially melts the top layer of snow. When it refreezes too much of this soft ice on top of already thin ice can be hazardous. Pressure cracks: Ice is constantly contracting and retracting throughout the winter and huge pressure cracks may form. These cracks can open up to more than a metre of open water, yet they may also be deceiving and not show any open water at all. 
  • Pressure cracks often form in the same locations each year on big lakes such as Simcoe . Springs: Underwater springs that naturally push water to the surface must be considered. Sometimes, these can be spotted by wet spots on the ice, but not always. 
  •  Ice pies: It is not uncommon for ice to break up and refreeze again throughout the season. Huge chunks of ice, often in the shape of a pie, can be detected through the thicker layer of ice that has formed overtop. Although usually passable in mid-winter, near the end of the season, especially when surrounded by honeycombed ice or currents, these pies can break away. They need to be avoided. 
  •  Major points: Natural points of land that stick out into a lake are also places to pay attention to, especially near the end of the season. 
  •  Wood: The ice around man-made docks and other structures can be weak because they attract and hold the heat from the sun. 
  •  Unmarked holes: Ice anglers may have left a single hole unmarked and these can be hazardous. A real danger, however, is the larger holes or series of holes underneath ice huts. These huts are often moved throughout the course of a winter. Most anglers will clearly mark the holes with branches or a stick, but there’s always the chance you’ll find an unmarked hole.
  • Shoals: Around shallow rocky shoals and small islands, ice can be much thinner than over surrounding deeper water.

Ice Safety Table  

An Ice Safety Table can act as an excellent guideline for winter outdoor enthusiasts. When ice conditions other than rock-solid blue ice are present it is recommended that thicknesses be doubled before you venture out.
  •  4 Inches  - One Person 
  •  4.4 to 5 Inches - Small Group, Walking In Single File 
  •  7 to 9 Inches - ATV or Snowmobile 
  •  12 plus inches  - A Car or Light Truck 

Driving on Ice Precautions

 As you can see, taking out any motorized vehicle requires extra caution. In many cases using a vehicle is not recommended at all. Check with your insurance company as well before you drive out on the lake … you may be surprised to learn that you are not covered out there if you take this risk. Check routes with local clubs and others who travel the ice regularly. When in doubt, be prepared to test ice thickness with a spud bar or hand ice auger at regular intervals. Ice hut operators check ice conditions daily and are ‘the’ experts to call if you are unsure. Check with them or the bait & tackle shop closest to where you want to access the lake.

Ice Fishing Personal Safety Precautions

 Here are a few personal safety preparations:
  1.  When in doubt, don’t travel on ice; especially alone. Night travel is not recommended simply because hazards clearly visible in the day are not at night. The dangers of traveling on ice while under the influence of drugs or alcohol are so obvious that they don’t even need to be discussed here. 
  2. A set of ice picks are great insurance to have out on the ice ‘just in case’; to pull yourself out of the hole.  
  3. Consider investing in a good floatation suit. These buoyant snowsuits are not only warm but will also keep you afloat should you go through. They can also help keep you remarkably dry if you tighten the straps around the legs and arms. Recent popularity has made the cost competitive with, if not less than a good snowmobile suit. 
  4. Carry a throw rope to make it easier to pull someone out if you have to – or to be pulled out yourself if needed. I make my own by using the same throw rope I have in the boat, but instead of a light buoyant float I use a small orange plastic bottle filled with a bit of sand to give it enough wait to throw to a potential victim. 
  5.  If you are fishing away from civilization, carry a lighter or water proof matches to build a fire afterwards. Pack a lightweight emergency blanket and a change of wool socks too. 

Falling Through … What To Do! 

image Wil Wegman -Through the ice
Ice Fishing - Wil Wegman demonstrates What to Do
 In the unlikely event that you do go through, the best piece of advice is to STAY CALM! Thrashing around like a wild man will only weaken your energy level and lower your chances for survival. Plan to go back out the same way you came. You’re done fishing for the day bubba so don’t even think about trying to get out the way you were heading because the ice could very well be unsafe there. The odds are better that the ice is safer where you came from – it got you this far, right? I have been fortunate enough to have taken a certified on-ice safety course and as part of the program we actually had to jump into a cut out hole in the ice and then get out by ourselves. Here’s what I found made getting out as easy as 1-2-3:!
  1.  As soon as you fall through – tell yourself to stay calm while you turn around and ease your way over to the ice you were just standing on. You can tread water just like you do in the summer. Keep on-lookers back so that they don’t go through themselves and make matters worse. 
  2. Grab your ice picks from around your neck and jab one of them hard into the ice a couple of feet in front of you. I recommend that first jab is with your right hand if you’re right handed and vice versa if you’re a lefty. 
  3.  Now, begin to flutter kick (dolphin style) – as you allow your body to become more horizontal in the water as opposed to vertical. Almost think of it like you would want to ‘swim your way out of the hole. Pull your body with your one pick a short distance onto the ice as you kick and then jab the other pick out in front to pull yourself all the way up and out with your other hand. Try and get a knee or leg up on the ice as soon as possible to make this manoeuvre even easier. Once you’re up – don’t try and stand up right away … pull yourself all the way out; roll or crawl well away from the potentially weak ice and then get up. From there, empty your boots of water and then obviously get to a warm vehicle or indoors as quickly as possible. Or, if in a remote area, start a fire immediately when on shore, and treat for hypothermia if required.
In a lot of respects, ice safety is just a matter of common sense. When good ice conditions are present, traveling on frozen water can be extremely safe and enjoyable. We certainly don’t want to scare ice anglers away from all frozen lakes or rivers.

Fishin’ during the hard water season, can be some of the best fishin’ of the entire year. The goal however is for anglers and others to become more aware of the dangers involved so that you can prevent any mishaps from occurring and are prepared properly just in case they do. Having a healthy respect and understanding of all that wonderful frozen water will only make your ice fishing that much more enjoyable … and safe!
Hope to see you on top of the ice this winter! 
~ Wil

About Wil Wegman:

image wil wegman ice fishing
Wil Wegman Outdoor Writer
Wil Wegman, award-winning outdoor writer and former editor of Bassman Magazine, is an avid angler - competing in bass tournaments during the summer and ice fishing events - like the Canadian Ice Fishing Championships during the winter. His articles have been published in most Canadian and several US outdoor/fishing magazines. As a rep with HT Enterprises, Wil offers ice fishing seminars across Southern and Central Ontario, and can be reached through his Focus on Fishing site. Visit LuresAndTours Wil Wegman Celebrity Angler Showcase Page for more information.

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