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Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Ice Fishing in Warmer Winters

Record warmth in December and the beginning of January in many parts of the country has led to lake ice that’s far less solid than most years. In the past, the ice could be as thick as twenty-four inches.

This year, in many areas, it’s less than four inches thick.

Child holding a small crappie caught under the ice.Pin
Photo Credit: Canva.

According to Advancing Earth and Space Sciences (AGU), ice must be at least 10 cm or four inches thick to sustain a human’s weight.

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In recent weeks, numerous accounts of fatalities and near-drownings were reported in many northern states. Michigan, which boasts 11,000 inland lakes, has had many. On January 21st, a 59-year-old Saginaw, Michigan man died after falling through the ice when fishing. Six people were rescued from Devil’s Lake, ND, after falling through the ice on January 22nd. 

In the first weeks of 2024, there have already been four fatalities in Minnesota, along with numerous injuries.

It’s even worse when you add gear. Ice fisherman generally haul all of their gear out onto a frozen lake using a snowmobile, utility vehicle, or even a pickup truck. That requires ice of at least five-inches deep to support a snowmobile or utility vehicle and 8-12 inches for a small pickup truck, according to the New York State Department of Conservation (NYSDEC).

The NYSDEC also states that the depths refer to only clear ice on non-running waters, not slush or white ice (ice formed from fallen snow), which can be 50% weaker. In other words, on slush or white ice, the minimum depth for a human should be eight inches thick or more.

Dangerous Waters 

Be aware of moving water, such as inlets or outlets. Ice quality and thickness can be even more unstable and unpredictable in these areas. Rising or falling lake and pond levels are also a factor due to rain and melting snow. According to CBS News, twenty people were stranded on an ice floe (a large, floating sheet of ice) on Lake Erie on January 22nd.

Since cold temperatures didn’t hit most northern states until mid-January, the lakes and rivers have not been cold long enough to develop such a thick ice layer. Scientific American explains that the problem is that people look at the calendar, not the weather. In other words, when fishermen generally go out in mid to late January in a specific region, they do so because they assume that everything is safe.

With the current global warming predictions, people must consider that their recreational activities may be increasingly limited on frozen waterways. The study from AGU determined that with a 1.5°C increase in global air temperature since the start of the 20th century (1900 – 1929), the duration of safe lake ice will shorten, on average, by 13 days. This rate increases substantially with a temperature change of 2-3°C, which is a projected possibility.

What Does This Mean for Local Economies?

Many northern localities rely on the ice to sustain their economies. Ice fishing alone brings in $11 billion to Michigan’s economy yearly. Ice fishing promotes the development of roads and amenities, such as restaurants and hotels, which, in turn, creates jobs in local economies. 

These fishermen buy bait and tackle, fill their vehicles with fuel, and buy fishing licenses, all of which contribute to their local economy.

There are local festivals and fishing derbies in many towns around the Great Lakes. People come from all over the country and even the world to participate in the fishing derbies and stimulate local economics.

Benefits of Ice Fishing for the Environment

Ice fishing benefits not only local communities but also the environment. Sustainably harvesting species of fish can sustain the health of populations. Harvest laws specifically preserve the most sizable of the species, the breeders, and the smallest of the species, all of which are an essential part of the food chain. The small fish provide food for larger species such as smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, northern pike, and muskellunge. 

Safety tools for ice sports

The quality of the ice can vary drastically, even within small distances. Use a “spud bar,” a heavy metal rod with a sharp, flat blade welded onto one end, to test ice thickness and density regularly; stay away from the shoreline; although counterintuitive, it is always weaker near the shore.

Always use the “buddy system” when venturing out on the ice. Going out alone can be very dangerous. Similarly, let family or friends know the destination and expected return time.

Wear a flotation device. Even experienced swimmers are ineffective in a hole in the ice, especially when factoring in water temperature.

Ice picks or claws are handheld, spikelike tools worn around the neck. They are used to pull someone out of the water if they fall through the ice.

In critical situations, a well-prepared companion can throw a safety rope with a floating device attached to someone in trouble.

Ice cleats or spikes attach to the boots, providing better traction on slippery ice and reducing the risk of falls.

A whistle or air horn is useful to signal for help in dangerous situations.

If unsure, a great alternative is to hire a reputable licensed guide. Skilled guides can find the catch, thoroughly monitor safety conditions, and assume control in emergencies. 

What Species Are Available in the Winter?

A fisherman can harvest many species of fish in the winter. Perch and panfish, such as bluegills and sunfish, are widely available and abundant. Even a beginner can catch a meal. 

Salmonids, like Atlantic salmon, brown trout, and lake trout, are popular species to ice fish for. Some of the most delicious — walleyes and crappies — are readily available through the ice.

Why Harvest Fish in the Winter?

Fish harvested in the winter generally taste better than fish caught in the summer. Their flesh is firm, and the fish are less stressed due to fishing pressure, making them taste better. 

Ice fishing is a fun hobby and family activity that can help get the kids off their cellphones for a few hours on the weekend. 

It is also a great way to reduce the family’s grocery bill. With fresh-caught fish in the freezer, a quick meal is easy any day of the week. 

Ice fishing can be great exercise. It can be strenuous in certain conditions; for instance, if the snow pack is deep, it’s challenging to walk through. Savvy fishermen often move to different areas to locate schools of fish, drill holes in the ice each time, and battle the bone-chilling winds, which increases physical exertion.

Adapting Ice Fishing Practices to a Changing Climate

Ice fishing is an age-old practice, handed down from our forefathers, that can be fun and rewarding. It can put food in the freezer, which lowers the family grocery bill. It’s a fun family activity to pass on to future generations. 

But there are precautions to take. Be careful and use common sense. If there is any doubt about the quality or thickness of the ice, or if there have been considerable variations in the weather, it is best to err on the side of caution and stay off the ice.

As temperatures rise and ice conditions become increasingly unpredictable, adapting a smart ice fishing strategy is essential to keep everyone safe, including first responders.

This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

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