Ice fishing finally, maybe

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

Well, getting toward midwinter and we are, at least, getting ice-making temperatures. Do not take this as a signal to get on the ice. Even if we get below zero nights, ice does not get safely thick instantly. Underwater springs, wells and stumps or limbs near the surface can make ice much thinner than the surrounding area. Windswept snow can hide any traces of the thin ice.

One of the more common ice hazards is a pressure crack. Several years ago, maybe the 1980s, I fished Chautauqua Lake in the narrows between Stowe and Bemus Point with Jim Reitz. A pressure crack extended completely across, very close to the old ferry crossing. It was several feet across the crack where we got on the ice at Stowe, and it narrowed toward the opposite shore.

The day was very cold, made worse by the wind that had grown quite stiff. We were pelted with powdery snow. At some point the crack was covered by skim ice, then the windblown snow built up making the crack disappear.

A young man followed the same route we took onto the ice. He was a pleasant guy, and we briefly chatted about how we had done so far that day. We had not had much luck. The new guy said he wanted to head south, and we cautioned him about the now-hidden crack. Somehow he did not get the message, or would not believe what he did not see.

I was looking right at him when he broke through the hidden crack. I could see his eyes roll back when the shock of the frigid water hit him. Then from the right came my fishing partner. He was in midair when he appeared, hit the ice next to the hole and reached into the water just as the new guy disappeared. Then in one movement he pulled the guy out of the water by the hood on his parka with one hand and slid him onto safe ice. Yep, just like a superhero.

But Jim probably will not be there if you break through the ice.

This brings up the topic of never going on the ice alone. If you get enthused about ice fishing you almost certainly will go on the ice alone. However, it would be crazy to go onto new ice alone. The likelihood of walking onto thin ice is just too great. All of the ice on the bay, or any other waterway, does not form the same. Just look at any lake or pond when the ice is just starting to form. The ice you see along the shoreline might have 5 inches of a head start over ice farther from shore.

The most important use for an ice spud is testing ice before stepping on it. If you are in a group, the lead person should carry an ice spud.

Then there are differences in depth, underwater springs, objects that either protrudes through the ice or are just under the ice. The latter collect more energy from sunlight than the water and thus nearby water does not freeze as well as elsewhere. Stay away from tributaries, even very small trickles.

Lone ice fishers should include two critical safety devices in their gear, a life jacket, and ice spikes.

Life vests are not really so bulky in the context of winter clothing. Worn under a parka, they are good insulation. If you do not like wearing it, it can be taken off once a safe fishing area is located. But please, only do this if other ice fishers are nearby. Most ice fishers will rush to rescue a fellow ice fisher who has fallen through the ice. A huge majority of sportsmen are great folks. A life vest will keep you upright, afloat and breathing until either self-rescue or rescue by others.

Ice spikes are used for self-rescue by jamming them into the ice and pulling yourself out. Try to kick your feet like swimming to give a boost. Carry these where you can grab them easily and quickly. Most sporting goods stores carry ice spikes, or they should. And they are not very expensive, especially considering they are proven lifesavers.

Ice spikes basically are handles with spikes at one end connected by a cord.

Be sure to carry some extra clothes in your vehicle. Even if you do not fall through the ice, sportsmen have a habit of getting wet. In an emergency situation, extra clothes might prevent hypothermia. At the very least, getting into dry clothes sure feels good. A sweat suit is a good choice. And be sure to include socks and a pair of shoes that can easily be put on the feet.

Please be safe out there.