The Basics and Beyond! Ice is coming late this year…so here are some rules for ice fishing and items to keep you safe


Ice conditions can change quickly and some of the items the author (rt) and Brandon Stanton had with them helped insure a safe day. photo by David A. Rose.

January 01, 2017

The thought of setting foot upon a frozen waterway does not set well with certain people. The only ice they even consider are of the cube variety floating around a glass full of their favorite beverage. Mostly because they are afraid of falling through. And who wouldn’t be.

What those individuals don’t understand, however, is just how strong solid ice floating upon a waterway can be, and as a result, how much weight it can hold without as much as creating a hairline crack.

But just because one has the knowledge of the superior strength of the ice below their feet, doesn’t mean they should gallivant anywhere upon a lake at any time of the year. Ice conditions can and will change at rapid rates depending on the weather conditions, thus thickness and solidity may vary spot to spot depending on circumstances.

Personally, I know staying safe when ice fishing goes well beyond just obeying the rules of ice thickness to keep me from plunging into icy waters; it means protecting me from slips and falls, cuts and scrapes, and so much more.

Understanding Ice

Once a waterway hardens to a skim, it usually doesn’t take long for it to solidify thick enough for safe travel on foot. But the condition of the ice itself is really what determines whether an angler should venture forth or wait until later.

Oddly enough, it’s the ice that is the most nerve-racking to walk on that may be the safest. Clear ice is what I’m talking about. It’s the kind you can see bottom through as you work your way out from shore, as if you were walking on a pane of glass. Ice forms this way during those crisp, clear, windless, bitter-cold nights. And if the temperature stays below freezing and no snow’s fallen on it, it will continue to freeze rock solid.

As for that snow I mentioned, it’s an excellent insulator. Even a light layer won’t allow the sub-zero air temperatures to penetrate and will slow the freezing process. Besides its insulating properties, a heavy accumulation of snow is also heavy in weight and will push the ice down under the surface, allowing and water to seep up through and turn it porous, thus greatly weakening it.

And areas with flowing water nearby, such as near river and creek mouths, as well where springs bubble up from bottom, will always have ice that’s slower to thicken compared their surroundings.

With the all that in mind, there are rules of thumb for venturing on ice that everyone should observe. The following rules are more suggestions and are the bare minimum of clear, solid ice for each category. Snow-covered or white ice (ice either with snow or air bubbles mixed in) should be doubled in thickness for safe travel. If you’re unsure the ice is thick enough to keep you safe, wait a few more days until you’re certain.

Rules of Thumb for Safe Ice Travel

• One to two inches: Don’t venture out. There are too many variables and the ice could be too thin in some areas

• Three to four inches: One person at a time, giving plenty of space to those around you

• Five to six inches: Portable shanties can be used, and you can gather with your buddies

• Seven inches and thicker: Permanent shanties and the use of snowmobiles and quads

• Cars or trucks should never be driven onto the ice

Step, Ram and Walk

When walking onto the ice for the first time of the season, I always use a heavy, metal spud—such as Frabill’s Standard Ice Chile, which is heavier than the average and has unique cutting “teeth”—as I’m walking out. And I ram the chisel into the ice hard, well ahead of me with every single step I take. If the spud goes through, I’ll back step in my original tracks until I’m back on thicker ice. I’ll then see if I can work my way around the thin area, all the while continuing to whack the ice hard with the spud. If not, I won’t attempt to go any farther until later in the week.

Although clear ice is the strongest, it is also the slipperiest. A skip and fall on such an extremely hard surface can injure anyone without hesitation. To keep from having my feet go out from under me, I use Frabill’s Ice Creepers under my IceArmor Onyx boots.

The small spikes on these traction devices are made of tungsten carbide steel. These traction aids stretch over any brand of boot easily, and provide me with the stability to walk on the slickest ice without fear of falling.

Another item I carry at all times is a set of ice picks. Along with ice creepers, Frabill’s Winter Ice Safety Kit come packed with ice picks and a whistle, the later also a great tool for getting noticed in case of an emergency.

Ice picks can be placed in the outer pocket of a parka or, better yet, can be draped around the neck and shoulders if they come attached to a cord. And picks are a must for getting a grip on wet, slick ice to pull yourself up and out. Luckily, I’ve never had to use mine. But they are always with me, nevertheless.

Electronic Aids

Before stepping out onto the ice, I make sure to have two other chief devices with me; both that can help me get to where I’m going as well back to shore safely: a compass and GPS.

As soon as I’ve unloaded my equipment from my vehicle, I make sure I have my pin-on compass attached to the inside of my Clam IceArmor Edge Cold Weather Parka. I then take a compass bearing as to the direction I’m headed, making sure to take note of the direction shore will be once on the ice. I’ll also program my starting waypoint into my Lowrance Hook-5 Ice Machine, in which I have a Navionics mapping program chip installed into the card reader.

The GPS in the Hook-5 allows me to create a plotted trail so that I can follow it back in case a heavy snow fall clouds my vision, or nightfall settles in. The mapping program not only shows me where I want to fish, but can keep me safely away from river mouths and other areas that may be unsafe.

I also carry a cell phone with me in a Plano Guide Series Water-Proof Case in pocket. As you all know, it doesn’t take much moisture for a cell phone to be rendered useless, and a 1449 Plano case, measuring only 6.5″X 4.675″ X 2.125”, fits nicely in my parka’s outer pocket. Great, inexpensive insurance in case I have to call 911.

As Easy As 1, 2, 3

If the ice is thick enough, walking on frozen water’s not a dangerous endeavor. Just remember to use common sense and follow the rules of thumb for safe travel. And use the right gear to avoid slips and falls, cuts and scrapes, and encourage safe travel. Most of all, remember to make ice fishing fun and safe for the whole family.

Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament pro and instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School, who lives in southwestern Lower Michigan. Check out his website at for more information.