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Before you go stepping foot on any frozen body of water this winter, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a safe and enjoyable hardwater experience.
By Kierran Broatch
Tags: freshwater
Whether you venture onto the hardwater by day or night, there is safety in numbers.

With Old Man Winter tightening his grip across the Northeast, legions of ice fishing fanatics are preparing to walk on water again. But before you go stepping foot on any frozen body of water this winter, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a safe and enjoyable hardwater experience, especially early on when ice is measured in inches, not feet.

First and foremost, there is really no such thing as 100% “safe” ice. Ice is naturally unpredictable and its thickness can vary greatly, whether from one lake to the next, or even just yards away on the same body of water. Several factors like temperature, wind, precipitation, size of the water body, water depth, currents, and underground springs all play a role in how ice forms on the places we fish.

Ice not only varies in thickness, it can differ in quality as well, which is usually determined by its color and transparency. The strongest type of ice is newly formed clear ice, often referred to as “black” ice. Its see-through characteristics can be a bit of a bug-out for newcomers to the sport, but it’s a great deal stronger than any opaque, white or grey ice (of similar thickness) that you’ll find later in the season as precipitation, melting and refreezing come into play. Most often you’ll find a mix with black ice on bottom and layers of greyer ice on top, so testing it with a tool (discussed below) becomes paramount.

Image courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Every hardwater angler has a minimum amount of ice that they feel comfortable fishing on. For some, when a lake or pond locks up with 3 inches of black ice it’s go time, while others may not be at ease unless they’re standing over a half a foot of hard stuff. For less subjective parameters, the experts in Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources put together some ice thickness guidelines for us to go by. They strongly recommend staying off any ice that is 2 inches thick or less, no matter what the quality is. Their guidelines state that 4 inches of black ice is A-OK for ice fishermen on foot and 5 inches is enough for a snowmobile or ATV. These circumstances change when the ice is of poorer quality, and knowing the difference will come with experience.

How do you know if the ice is “safe” when you live far from the desired fishing destination? Simple; you won’t know unless you go. Online reports or calling local bait shops to see if anyone has been out on the ice is helpful, but they’re not sure proof. Ice thickness and quality are things that you shouldn’t rely on secondhand information to base your decisions upon. Scouting and testing the ice yourself is the only true way to know if it’s fishable, even if it’s a big hassle for weekend warriors like me.

Gauging ice thickness and quality can be done in a variety of ways, but the easiest and safest way to do so is with a tool known as a spud bar, which every ice angler should own. Essentially a metal rod with a chisel on the business end, a spud bar allows anglers to whack or “spud” their way out on to a frozen body of water to determine ice strength. If a good spud bar punches through the ice in less than a few hard whacks, then you shouldn’t go a step further. If the ice holds up to the spud bar trial, you can drill a test hole with an auger to get a more accurate reading of thickness and quality. Early and late in the season, I will spud and drill test holes all the way out to my fishing spots because, as mentioned above, ice thickness and quality can vary due to many factors.

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