Ice Anglers should always be very aware of ice safety, but especially on early ice. A number of people and vehicles in Michigan and the upper Lake States fall through the ice each year. In some cases these incidents end up in fatalities. By following some caution and basic ice safety awareness many of these incidents can be avoided.
Prior to my retirement from the DNR Fisheries Division I received annual phone calls from the media and anglers asking about ice conditions and ice thickness and recommendations for ice travel. The Michigan DNR does not endorse a specific ice thickness guide for ice travel. However, conventional thinking typically follows that a minimum of over two inches of ice are needed for foot travel. On early ice all anglers should carry an ice spud to constantly check ice thickness. That same conventional wisdom has considered a minimum or six inches of ice for light ATV’s and snowmobiles. The DNR never recommends driving auto and truck vehicles on the ice.
Many anglers assume that ice thickness is uniform and that six inches of ice means that it is six inches thick everywhere. My fishing buddy lives on the Crystal Falls Impoundment and measured the ice in a previous year. In mid winter he consistently measured 2.5 feet of ice as he traveled down river and then he measured only three inches of ice in an area with a current. Extreme caution should be taken in any impoundment or flowage with current. Great care should also be followed on waters with significant spring water input. If you venture to nearby great lakes bays anglers should avoid traveling near points and breakwater ends as there is often Great Lakes currents that erode the ice in those areas. Ice travelers on the frozen great lakes and connected bays need to always be vigilant for pressure cracks and ice shoves where shifting ice weakens, forms gaps or pushes up into pressure ridges that can block travel and present other hazards.
Prior to joining the Michigan DNR Fisheries Division I was a Fisheries Biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Ashland Wisconsin. Many anglers fished for lake trout on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior just as they do in Keweenaw and Munising Bays. For a couple trips out of curiosity I ventured out with a small group of Lake Trout anglers that pursued lake trout off Little Girls Point at the Michigan/Wisconsin boundary on Lake Superior near Ironwood. The ice anglers were drawn to that spot because it was just outside of the Wisconsin State lake trout refuge and of course had excellent fishing. The dangerous part was the ice that formed was not locked into place by land form points and islands like Chequamegon or Keweenaw. If the wind shifted and blew to an offshore direction the ice sheet would start blowing out into the open Lake Superior.
These groups of ice anglers would pull small aluminum fishing boats out onto the ice on sleds so they could rescue themselves if the ice blew out. These anglers did this because this spot is a long distance from any Coast Guard Station and they were on there likely own if needed rescue. Of course if the Coast Guard can reach stranded ice anglers by helicopter or other rescue craft you have to leave any snowmobiles, ice shelters or other ice equipment out there when rescued. Venturing out at Little Girls Point onto frozen Lake Superior was interesting although I concluded it was not worth the risk for myself.
In addition to all frozen rivers, flowages, and impoundments a few specific lakes to watch out for in this area where springs keep ice open or thin near shore. Springs can be present in any lake although are often more prevalent in lakes that support a trout fishery. Iron County’s Bone Lake and Paint Lake public accesses are up the impounded outlet stream making both accesses dangerous even in mid winter. This would likely be the case in other lakes where access is gained by traveling up the outlet.
Caution also needs to be followed on large reservoirs where winter draw downs result in shifting ice. Major Hydropower storage reservoirs like Iron Counties 7000 acre Michigamme and 3500 acre Peavy Reservoir are two examples of drawdown reservoirs in the UP. In addition, reservoirs can have open water or extremely thin ice where the streams enter the reservoir. The tail water areas should also be avoided in reservoirs that lead into a downstream reservoir like many of the impoundments. An example of this in the UP is the Menominee River System of dams where one leads into the other over the course of most of the Menominee River. In a few cases in the UP excess mine water is pumped into local lakes making ice in the inflowing water area unsafe. Examples of this are on Lake Antoine near Iron Mountain
All lakes do not freeze over at the same time. The shallower lakes typically freeze over sooner and the deeper lakes and it can be up to two or three weeks later. Large deep water trout lakes like Chicagon and Ottawa Lakes in Iron County are two UP examples. As a result the ice in the deeper water areas of Chicagon Lake is typically not as thick as the ice on shallower lakes in the early part of ice season. Some years we get heavy snowfall on thin ice. This results in slush and “wafer” ice that is typically not as strong as solid ice of the same thickness.
Ice angler can take a few extra steps on ice safety. Ice picks can be made from large spikes and tied together with thick twine, they can be used to pull yourself back up on the ice if you fall trough. You can also buy those ice safety picks at local bait shops and outdoor sporting goods stores. People who venture out on early ice should keep an ice spud and regularly check the ice thickness. It is always good to have a buddy when you venture onto the ice that could help you if you get into trouble. ATV and snowmobilers can also keep a rope with them they could throw to another person with a machine that may have fallen through the ice. If you have questions you can call the Michigan DNR or your local Sheriff Department.