Ice Fisherman in Danger On, Well, Thin Ice

By Grace Muller, staff writer
1/29/2013 5:00:42 PM

Unseasonably warm temperatures across the northern United States during fall and winter kept many lakes and streams from freezing ice thick enough for ice fisherman and other winter sports fanatics this year.

"Nobody around here can remember a year quite like this. We've had a really, really warm fall and winter out here, unseasonably so," Tim Smalley, the water safety specialist for Minnesota Department of Resources said. "The ice never got good."

"The old-timers that are out there who remember when it was cold earlier, those days have changed," Jack Sullivan, the director of Science Services with Wisconsin of Department of Natural Resources said. "We're just not going to get lake ice as long as we used to. Over the last century, on average, we're down about 19 days a year in ice cover."

In January, two men died in Minn., in a snowmobile accident on a poorly frozen lake. Another man died in South Dakota in an ATV accident on ice. Both reports identified bad ice conditions as contributing factors.

"The ice conditions right now are very, very difficult at best," Hamlin County Chief Deputy Chad Schlotterbeck of South Dakota said to Keloland Television. "We have lots of open spots, lots of weak ice. We could go from 5 inches thick down to one-inch thick in many places."

Photo by Charles Dawley

What makes good ice? Ice should be thick and clear. Ice looks cloudy and white when it has air bubbles from thawing and refreezing. Clear ice beats white ice in strength because clear ice is more dense. How should you know when ice is thick enough to hold your weight? General safety rules dictate that there should be at least 4 inches of clear ice for people to walk on, 5 inches of clear ice for someone on a snowmobile to ride on and 8-12 inches of clear ice for a car to drive across ice. White ice needs to be twice as thick to hold the same weight.

Smalley suggested that fishermen check with a local bait shop or resort on the lake to find out the latest ice conditions for a lake.

Safety education has made ice sports safer. In Minnesota in the 1980s, "there'd be 15 to 20 people dying each year." Now it's down to around two. "We'll never say the ice is 100 percent safe," Smalley said. "You can find a bad spot even in the coldest winter on record."

Safety On Ice
- Don't go onto ice alone.

- Carry an ice pick so you can get out of the water if you fall in.

- Remember that ice is never totally safe.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' ice safety video