When I was a kid learning to ice fish with my friends, it simply wasn't cool to talk about safety. We all wanted to be tough and unafraid while doing an admittedly dangerous activity. In the years since then, however, I've seen and heard about far too many deaths and near-death experiences to be cavalier about driving around and hanging out on giant frozen lakes.
Even if you're still too cool to think about safety, maybe think about how great it would be save someone else's life if you have the chance. You'd be a local hero. So, to make sure you're ready to rescue your bacon or a fellow angler's, here are 10 tools you need in the sled:
GPS I’m still amazed at how many of my ice fishing buddies have a snowmobile, UTV, or four-wheeler without a GPS. Many outdoorsmen and women have GPS devices mounted on our boats or kayaks that we can move over to these machines come winter. Adding a new power cord and bracket for a few dollars allows you to quickly move the GPS back and forth as needed. If you aren’t super handy or don’t have a lot of extra mounting room in your machine, look for a power cord adapter for a car's cigarette lighter plug to avoid any extra wiring. OnXmaps on your smartphone works great too if you remember to use it and mark important waypoints. An old-fashioned handheld GPS isn’t a bad option either, and they tend to be more reliable than a phone GPS when you leave the paved roads behind.
Hand Compass Most of us rely on technology to help in an emergency. The problem with gadgets and tools is that they break, get wet, or require batteries that often don’t work when needed most. Many moons ago I was in a whiteout with a handheld GPS that was eating batteries quickly and eventually died. A five-dollar handheld compass literally saved the day. Something as simple as knowing which way is North will often get you home—or at least keep you from walking in circles.
Ice Picks You'll notice that most experienced ice anglers usually have spikes with handles draped around their necks out on the hardwater. These are mandatory safety gear and could be the reason you're able to claw your way out if you fall through. But one thing I’ve learned is that when they’re tangled in tackle in the bottom of a bucket, they do about as much good as your buddy who forgot them at home. Keep ice picks around your neck or, at bare minimum, in your pocket. The closer they are, the easier they'll be to use in an emergency.
Throw Bag A throw bag is basically just a rope in a bag that can be tossed to someone who needs rescue from water. Every whitewater raft has one or two clipped in handy places. Typically 25 feet in length, a throw bag rope is strong enough to pull someone to safety even out of a ice crack. If you must fish solo, it’s a good idea to attach one to yourself or even drag it behind you so that if someone is in the area and trying to help, they have a tool to use immediately.
VHF Radio With cell service seemingly getting worse and worse every year, I started carrying a handheld VHF radio for big ice excursions. On larger bodies of water like the Great Lakes, this can be a great way to reach the Coast Guard or even communicate with your buddies when cell service just doesn’t cut it.
Float Suit Just a few years ago, most float suits were bulky and fit poorly on most of us. Nowadays, almost all winter clothing manufacturers offer some type of float suit, jacket, or bibs. While they are not as protective as a true survival suit, they will help you stay above water rather than act as an anchor, which is the case with a lot of common ice fishing clothing. Strongly bouyant outwear designed for ice fishing will keep your head above water so you can get out.
Ice Cleats Often referred to as spikes, ice cleats give you traction when drilling holes or even just walking on glare ice. While many anglers just think of them as a tool of convenience, I found out the hard way that you want a good pair when a sticky situation arises. While helping with an ice rescue, I needed to walk a fairly long distance as quickly as possible several times. When one of my bargain ice cleats broke, it became difficult to assist. Ice fishing is hard on gear and if you use it enough you will quickly discover whether it’s up to the task.
Spud Bar A spud bar is a great way to check cracks for stability or to use when walking and checking the ice thickness in front of you. It's a big, heavy tool to haul, but it's not too hard to mount on a snowmachine with a pair of gun clamps and a bungee. I personally prefer a longer, two-piece spud bar, which I use almost like a walking stick. Many of the shorter versions will give your back a workout when hunching over and checking ice thickness regularly.
Float Plan Some tools don't have to get packed in a sled. Simply telling someone where you're going and when you expect to be back is all you need to help get you rescued if a tragedy occurs. The more detail you provide, the easier you make it for someone to help you out.
Common Sense It’s often said that common sense isn’t all that common. While I don’t know if I can argue that, it’s important to have a lot of situational awareness while ice fishing. Avoid areas on the ice that have springs or rivers channels. The same can be said for large main lake points that can funnel current and cause poor ice quality. Take a buddy or at the very least tell one where you're headed. When ice looks bad, check it before blindly walking or driving over it.
You might never need saving, but everyone thinks that until they fall in. And if that never happens, at least you'll be ready to save someone else with some of these tools.