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How Dangerous Is Ice Fishing? (And How To Stay Safe)

Ice fishing provides a very different experience to fishing in warmer climes. This new environment can be very enjoyable, and it’s a very unique way to fish. However, ice fishing is not without its dangers.

Ice fishing is not dangerous if done properly. If common sense is ignored, however, it can be extremely dangerous, and even deadly. The key to remaining safe is to prepare, including using some avoidance strategies as well as understanding what to do if a dangerous situation arises.

If you plan well, the risk of bodily injury while ice fishing is remote, but not completely avoidable. If you are careless or unprepared, the risk of danger grows quickly. But with some planning and by mastering a few skills, ice fishing can be made as safe as any other type of fishing.

Ice Fishing Safety Basics

Walking onto a slab of frozen water in the middle of winter to drill a hole into the ice in the hopes of catching fish is not exactly an inherently safe prospect. In fact, some might argue that between the dangers of cold exposure, the ice breaking, and slipping and falling, ice fishing is anything but safe.

But with a little planning and some common sense, risks can be mitigated to the point that they almost don’t matter. If you keep up on the weather and ice thickness, dress properly and be careful walking on the ice, all the risks above are not eliminated, but much less likely to happen. The hazards are almost entirely controllable by the person ice fishing.

Using Planning To Mitigate Risks

A key part of the sentence above is “almost entirely controllable.” Nothing in our lives is entirely controllable. There is a risk that something could go wrong with virtually everything we encounter. With a potentially dangerous pursuit, like ice fishing, that is especially true.

So, the first basic of ice fishing safety is to internalize the fact that risks will always exist. No matter what is done, ice fishers risk falling through the ice, getting frostbite or hypothermia, falling, etc. The goal is to control those risks, not eradicate them.

Risks Are Controllable

The second basic guideline of ice fishing is that those risks are controllable. While there are some threats that we have no control over, most threats when ice fishing are containable, if the right planning is done and the person ice fishing is competent in applying that common sense.

For example, an ice fisher that goes out in the dead of winter risks frost bite and hypothermia. They can control both by:

  • Wearing proper clothing
  • Having and using access to warmth (in a car, by a fire, in an ice shed, etc)
  • Avoiding risky behavior that increases exposure to the cold
  • Checking with the proper authorities to ensure the ice is safe
  • Monitoring the weather
  • Having an emergency response kit on hand

Preparation Is Key

Another basic of ice fishing that there is no substitute for is sound preparation. All the risks above are manageable with proper planning and in every case shortcuts or sloppy planning can be deadly.

For example, a fisher that ignores the weather can find themselves facing bad weather with no warning. On land that type of situation is hazardous enough. On ice, one hazard, such as a snow white-out, can quickly lead to other hazards.

These include straying onto thin ice trying to get to safety, staying put and increasing the risk of exposure issues or even walking off a slab of ice if part of the body of water the person is ice fishing on is open. If any other factor, like impaired judgment because of alcohol consumption, is present, the chances of getting out unscathed are even further minimized.

You Can’t Overplan

There is no such thing as overplanning or overpreparing when it comes to hazard mitigation. There is no such thing, for example, as an overly stocked first aid kit. You cannot have too much insulated and weatherproof clothes on to avoid exposure to the elements. You can never check the ice thickness too many times.

No matter what the risk mitigation item, action or strategy is, as long as it is sound, there can never be too much of it. What does “sound” mean, though?

Basically, sound means that you’re not overdoing it to the point that the action or item itself becomes risky or even counterproductive. Wearing several layers of restrictive clothing, for example, can lead to limbs suffering from restricted circulation, which can actually induce frostbite rather than prevent it.

Common Sense Is Essential

At the core of every successful ice fishing trip is the role of common sense. It applies to everything we do, but more so when ice fishing. If you lack common sense, you can quickly find yourself in a position that can harm you or even kill you. If you apply common sense from the planning stage onward, you make it much less likely that any of the numerous hazards mentioned will become an issue.

Most Common Hazards

Ice fishing hazards are only slightly different to those of open water fishing, with the addition of extreme cold and ice. Those two elements enhance the risk of everything else and add to them. An open water fisher, for example, will not slip on the ice and crack their head open, but they are susceptible to hypothermia if the weather is cold and wet. Below are some common ice fishing risks.

Ice Thickness And Quality

By far the most extreme danger in ice fishing is ice that is too thin. Ice that is too thin can crack and even shatter, exposing the individual on the ice to extremely cold water. That can lead to hypothermia, drowning or freezing to death.

In fact, a person immersed in the average winter pond, lake or river has only minutes to get out before their cognitive functions are reduced, and only about an hour before they would die. Dying by hypothermia, or drowning in a hole in the ice, though, is only one of the risks of falling through the ice.

Drowning

Another risk is drowning, because the person who fell through the ice becomes trapped underneath the ice. This can happen because of a current or the person becoming disoriented in the initial plunge into the water.

One more risk of falling through the ice is not being able to get out of the water because the ice that collapsed is too thin to support a body. This can happen if there are pockets of brittle ice or if the person that fell in the water is made heavier by their now-drenched clothes. In cases like this, the person becomes exhausted and eventually succumbs to drowning or hypothermia.

Other Ice Risks

The final risk with ice is pockets of brittle ice that can be mere inches away from ice that can support a vehicle. These can be caused by snow insulating portions of an ice sheet or water eroding ice away from underneath. The best way to determine the risk of ice thinness is as follows:

  • Clear Ice – The strongest and can support a human at 4” thick
  • Opaque Ice – Formed when snow freezes over ice, but in some cases, only half formed ice
  • Grey/Slushy – Almost always means there’s moving water underneath and so should be avoided

Thin ice doesn’t just exist during the early parts of a freeze. In fact, the hidden weaknesses in ice are more deadly than the obvious signs ice is too thin.

Alcohol Consumption

For better or worse, alcohol is an invited guest to many water-related activities. While it is almost never a good idea to drink alcohol around water, this is particularly true with ice fishing. Even just a few drinks can impede judgment and physical coordination. While that is manageable sitting on a boat, it can lead to catastrophic consequences in the already risky world of ice fishing.

The most obvious risk is from a person falling on the ice and cracking their head open or breaking a bone. Ice is slippery by nature, so with an additional agent that impedes coordination, falls become much more likely.

Using Dangerous Equipment

Handling ice fishing gear after drinking alcohol is also risky, as some of the equipment is inherently dangerous as is. Running an ice auger after a few beers, for example, is equivalent to asking for an injury. Working an ice fishing hole with hooks and lines pose their own risks.

A third risk is having impeded judgment that leads to walking over thin ice or walking too close to the edge of an ice sheet. Impeded judgment can also lead to hypothermia or frost bite if the person drinking is not aware they have exposed skin or are wearing insufficient clothing because they are inebriated.

There is also a risk that the person drinking becomes disoriented. This is particularly risky if it is snowing and there is an open water edge to the ice sheet.

Leave The Alcohol At Home

It is best, if possible, to leave alcohol alone in the hours before ice fishing as well as the entire time a person is on the ice. Even responsible drinkers can occasionally overdo it and, in an ice fishing environment, overdoing it with alcohol can lead to injury, or worse.

Frostbite And Hypothermia

Frost bite and hypothermia are probably the most common risks associated with ice fishing. In most cases, anglers work fish holes outside and spend lots of time exposed to the elements. This can lead to frostbite depending on how cold it is. It can also result in hypothermia, which, while less grotesque than frostbite, is deadlier.

The risk of hypothermia is often increased by the person susceptible drinking alcohol. People who are drunk tend to ignore the cold, including exposed skin. This can lead to frostbite, especially on the toes, nose and fingers. If it is severe enough, serious injury, including that necessitating amputation, is a possibility.

Carbon Monoxide And Burns

As a hazard, carbon monoxide poisoning usually exists when using an ice fishing shack or spending a lot of time in a vehicle to warm up. Improper ventilation can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. This silent killer can wipe out all who are in the area, often without them knowing they are being poisoned.

Burns can happen anywhere there is fire or very hot materials in the ice fishing process. Some equipment can run hot, and some require fire to function properly. Wherever there is a fire or hot piping, there is a risk to the ice fisher.

Fishing Hazards

Because it involves hooks, knives, lines and ropes, fishing is hazardous by nature. The risks and the chances of injury are fairly high, but the risks of it being a severe injury are low. The fishing party should always have a fully stocked first aid kit available to everyone at all times.

How To Stay Safe When Ice Fishing

As mentioned, common sense is necessary to remain safe when ice fishing. Unfortunately, common sense, especially when one is preoccupied with having fun, can be hard to come by. Below are a few tips to stay safe on the ice.

Testing The Ice

To venture out onto the ice, it must be at least 4” thick. To accommodate a vehicle, the ice must be more than 15” thick. Test the ice about two feet from the boundary of the body of water. Then test thickness about 10 feet out and then 15 and 20 feet out.

After that, test the thickness of the ice every 150 feet unless signs of weaker ice become present. If that happens, testing every 10 feet is a good idea.

Avoid Alcohol

The best advice to avoid injuries or danger while ice fishing is to not include alcohol during the trip. Stop drinking several hours before fishing and do not drink at all when you are fishing.

Frostbite And Hypothermia

Avoiding frostbite and hypothermia is simple. Follow these steps:

  • Dress appropriately for temperatures 20 degrees less than what you expect
  • Wear several layers
  • Take spare clothes along in case your clothes get wet
  • Limit time spent in extreme cold and warm up regularly
  • Have a rapid warming strategy, including the materials necessary to do that
  • Pay close attention to the weather and only selectively ice fish

The best way to teat frostbite, if caught early, is to gradually rewarm the area and monitor it for signs of more severe frostbite. If the frostbite is beyond minor, contact a physician, or go to the emergency room if need be.

Hypothermia is trickier because someone who has it rarely recognizes it. The best strategy to avoid hypothermia or is to limit time spent outside and warm yourself up regularly.

Carbon Monoxide And Burns

Carbon monoxide poisoning is avoided by proper ventilation in any ice fishing shack or vehicle as well as by not using equipment that produces carbon monoxide. Burns are best avoided by using extreme caution around hot equipment and fires.

Fishing Hazards

The same advice that works with warm water fishing also works with ice fishing. Be careful when using hooks or equipment with moving parts or parts that heat up. Use extreme caution when removing a hook from a fish. Follow any directions for operation of any equipment.

Safety Equipment For Ice Fishing

Having the right equipment for ice fishing also helps reduce risks. Dressing appropriately, as well as maintaining safety materials and equipment like first aid, survival and emergency response kits is key. Having methods of rewarming, ice picks, ice claws, throw ropes and working cell phones reduces risks too.

Final Thoughts

If you fish, you know how tough it can be to have to wait out winter before getting a line wet. For some, ice fishing is an alternative that can bridge the gap between mid-winter and ice-out. While there is always a risk of injury, proper preparation reduces most of the risks that are part of ice fishing.