How to determine if the ice is safe enough to go ice fishing

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ice fishing guide
There are more than 100 ice fishing guides listed on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website, all working in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

There are no definitive guidelines to determine ice is uniformly safe to go ice fishing. However, there are some telltale signs of safe and unsafe conditions for ice fishing.

Learn how to determine whether or not ice is safe enough to go ice fishing based on appearance, thickness and other factors that can affect freezing and thawing.

Ice thickness

Ice thickness is one indicator of whether or not ice is safe. The following are suggested guidelines for safe ice thickness for different activities when the ice is new, clear and solid.

  • 4 inches – a minimum of 4 inches thick is considered safe for ice fishing and other recreational activities on foot.
  • 5-7 inches – at 5-7 inches thick, ice is considered safe enough for a snowmobile or ATV.
  • 8-12 inches – 8-12 inches of solid ice (density can be determined by appearance) can support most cars and small pickup trucks.
  • 12-15 inches – 12-15 inches of solid ice will likely hold a medium-sized truck.

Other tips about ice thickness

  • Thickness guidelines should be doubled for white or snow-covered ice.
  • Avoid pressure ridges and areas with a current. Note any inlets, outlets, bridges and culverts.
  • Thickness can vary from one spot to the next. The ice may be 12 inches thick in one spot and only 2-3 inches thick a few feet away. Check the ice continuously as you move away from the shore using an auger, chisel or axe. If the ice at the shoreline is cracked or squishy stay off the ice.
  • Small sheltered bodies of water are the safest. Moving water can lead to unstable ice. Rivers and lakes can be affected by wind, waves and currents, which can warm and break ice up.
  • New ice is stronger than old ice, especially ice that has been affected by freezing and thawing caused by temperature change.
  • Dark ice and dark snow are signs of weak spots.

Appearance

Appearance is another characteristic that can help anglers determine whether or not ice is safe enough to go ice fishing.

Light grey to dark black – Light grey to dark black indicates melting ice and weak density. It cannot hold weight. This color composition can occur even if the air temperature is below 32 F. If the appearance of the ice is light grey to dark black it is not safe and anglers should stay off of it.

White to opaque – White to opaque ice or ice that is milky in appearance is an indicator of water-saturated snow that froze on top of the ice. When that happens another thin ice layer forms, which can lead to the formation of air pockets. This kind of ice is porous and weak.

Blue to clear – Blue to clear ice indicates high density, very strong ice. It’s the safest ice to be on if it’s thick enough. However, it must be at least 4 inches thick to be thick enough to go ice fishing on foot.

Mottled and slushy ice – When ice has a mottled or slushy texture beware. Although it may seem thick at the top these are indicators that it is rotting away at the center and base. There may even be mud, debris and plant matter surfacing from the bottom of the body of water.

Other considerations

  • Ice conditions vary from one lake to the next. Don’t assume a body of water is safe without carefully inspecting the ice just because the ice is safe on a nearby body of water.
  • Find a local source that is knowledgeable about the ice conditions on the lake you want to fish on, such as a local bait shop or fishing guide.
  • Stay off ice with slush on top. it is only half as strong as clear ice and indicated the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.
  • Always assume ice covered with snow is unsafe. Snow slows the freezing process and snowfall can warm up and melt existing ice. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker.
  • Be cautious when the temperature has fluctuated above and below freezing. When temperatures vary widely from day to night, causing ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, ice becomes weak, spongy ice that is unsafe.
  • Ice does not form uniformly, so thickness varies. Check thickness on the ice every few steps and always drill test holes near shore as you move across the ice to gauge its thickness and quality before venturing out.
  • Ice that forms over flowing water can be weak and unsafe. Underwater currents and springs can wear thin spots in the ice. This is also true of ponds that have aerators.
  • Ice around submerged trees and emergent vegetation tends to be weaker.
  • Flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish can affect the safety of ice.
  • You can’t always tell the strength of ice by its appearance, thickness, temperature or whether or not it’s covered with snow. Always be on alert, bring safety gear and take the proper precautions.

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