First Ice: Early Hard-Water Fishing Safety

We stood in the trees near the shoreline, waiting for sunrise. The morning was frigid and windless. A few feet beyond, lake ice folded against land. As far as I could tell, we’d be the season’s first ice anglers; it was early December and a week-long cold snap had hardened my favorite local lake. In a month’s time the lake would be dotted with shanties, alive with the echoes of power augers and snowmobiles, but this morning it was empty and silent.

“Not much competition out there,” my buddy Steve said.

“Just how we like it,” I replied.

I fought the urge to walk out in the half-light to set our tip-ups and get on with fishing. It would be safer to wait for the sun. We’d be able to spot rings of weaker, discolored ice that indicated spring holes or sub-ice rocks, signs that (with fear of sounding dramatic) might save our lives. In daylight we could also identify and avoid dangerous pressure ridges that form when two ice sheets smash together. Such ridges have swallowed snowmobiles and four-wheelers—ice anglers at any time of year should steer clear. In other words, waiting for daylight would help us avoid a very chilly morning swim. Still, knowing we’d soon be fishing atop virgin ice made it hard to wait around.

Frozen leaves littered the snowless ground. As I glanced out over the lake’s black, other-worldly ice, I became more aware of the solid earth beneath my cleat-studded boots. I held the ice chisel—four feet of cold steel with freshly sharpened blade—over my shoulder as one might rest a rifle. We were hunting big, early-season northern pike, and the chisel would aid in digging pike-sized holes for tip-ups. Far lighter and stealthier than my power auger, the chisel reduced unnecessary bulk and weight. Most importantly, the chisel would allow me to check ice thickness on our long commute.

Steve opened the bait cooler which he’d dragged behind him in a plastic sled. “They look pretty happy,” he said of our two dozen golden shiners. “At least for now.”

“If they only knew what was coming for them,” I said. The lake before us held some real giants, 20- to 30-pounders, and we hoped to tangle with one. Pike tend to bite well the week or two after the lake seals up. I felt opposing internal forces: hopeful excitement at our chances of landing a big pike and nervous anticipation about having to navigate early ice.

I ran my hand over the throw rope bag clipped to my belt loop. Steve had an identical bag clipped at his side. A rafting guide by summer, he pulled clients from river rapids with a similar set-up—also making him a natural choice as my early-season ice fishing partner.

Finally, the sun crept up through trees on the eastern shore. We waited another five minutes and then our patience ran out.

“Why don’t you go first,” Steve said. “I’ll hang behind on the same line.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll chisel every 50 feet or so and signal back to you.”

“Deal,” he said. “Let’s stay dry this morning. I’m more of a warm-weather swimmer.”

“Just be ready to chuck me that rope if I make a splash,” I said, half-jokingly.

“Don’t worry,” Steve said. “I’m pretty accurate.”

I pulled my banded ice picks from my pocket, made sure they were fastened together tightly, then strung them around my head like a necklace. As a last resort, I could use them to pull myself back onto solid ice.

My cleats crunched on first contact with the smooth lake ice. I had done this dozens of times before—being one of the first anglers on the lake each winter—but still I felt familiar butterflies. I chiseled a hole 20 feet from shore: three inches of strong, black ice. Most experts agree that three inches of solid black ice (which is generally stronger than whiter, air-bubbled ice) will safely support adults on foot. Five inches of black ice supports a snowmobile. If I’d chiseled two inches or less, I would have turned around immediately—since ice thickness varies spot-by-spot in early season, one shouldn’t push his or her luck. I gave Steve a thumbs-up and he stepped out, dragging our bait and tip-ups in the sled. The sound of the sled dragging over glare ice gave me a charge of adrenaline—a Pavlovian reaction that triggered memories of tripped flags, spinning spools, and massive early-season pike rising from the depths.

I walked 50 feet or so and then chiseled another hole. The ice ahead appeared clean and sturdy; no ridges or folds, no discolored or wet spots or signs of open water. In the morning half-light, the ice appeared black as the night sky, so hyper-clear as to be nearly invisible underfoot. It gave me the odd sensation of walking not on a solid surface but through space. Every once in a while, I stepped over fissures and bubbles and even less often I’d spot small ridges where ice segments had fused together in their freezing. In such spots, I eyeballed thickness without chiseling through. Consistently I found three inches of strong ice, plenty to support two grown men. I chiseled methodically every 50 feet, even though we had nearly a half mile to cover to reach our fishing spot.

About halfway there I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. My cheeks were cold and my eyelashes frozen, but the rest of me was plenty warm. Steve stayed 20 yards behind me to offset our weight. He kept in line with my chisel holes so he didn’t cross ice I hadn’t already tested. He glanced around cautiously as he walked. I realized he was a good early ice fishing buddy not just for his throw-rope prowess, but also because he was attuned to his surroundings. He trusted his instincts and, on past trips together, wasn’t shy about communicating them to me.

There was something to be said for our shared awareness, the attentiveness we paid our gut reactions—to what we felt as we walked out on the frozen lake. We held shared responsibility; if I fell in, I compromised Steve’s safety, and vice versa. I felt nervous on the early ice, sure, but also confident in our agreed-upon safety system. I knew the lake well, and we’d been blessed with the visibility of glare ice; snow-covered early ice presented even more safety challenges. My nerves, I believed, were a healthy reminder to stay alert, a kind of internal defense against complacency. All the preventative plans and safety equipment might not save us from 34-degree water. Our attentiveness was our most vital safety tool.

I rounded a small island and saw my fishing spot a few hundred yards away. There were no augered holes anywhere in sight. The sun crested the trees and the lake ice shimmered. I felt charged to rush out but fought against the feeling. I knew the bottom changed within the next 100 yards, from 5 feet of water down to 30 feet. Shit was getting real. If I floated a hat out here, I wouldn’t find my footing.

The ice sheet we’d walked out upon seemed to jam up against another at the drop off. There was no distinct pressure ridge, just a color change and a minor crack line. The second sheet was a bit lighter in color; I’d seen a similar pattern in previous years. Out in deeper water, unprotected by the cove we’d entered from, the lake was more susceptible to wind and waves. Both forces directly impact formation and solidity of ice.

“Careful at that color change,” Steve called, as if reading my mind.

As I approached the color change, I chiseled more often, every few feet. Cautiously I made my way onto the new sheet of ice. To my relief, the ice thickness stayed consistent; at or around 3 solid inches. We kept to our system. After another half hour of chiseling and checking we reached the fishing grounds.

“We’re gonna get a big girl today,” Steve said, catching his breath.

“I think so too,” I said.

I chiseled the first pike hole of the year while Steve rigged a tip-up with a lively golden shiner. Aside from a few resident eagles piping from the tops of shoreline pines we were alone on the lake. It was a good feeling. My nerves from the walk dissipated, though I kept the throw rope bag clipped for the rest of the day, just in case.

When the first flag tripped a half hour later, we fast-walked to it. As we approached, I noticed water in the hole bobbing from the weight of our steps. We peered down at the spool which turned steadily. Just then, the ice beneath us cracked and settled.

“Yikes,” Steve said. “That’s a little scary.”

I took a few steps back to distribute our weight. The ice held and the spool kept spinning.

“You’re up,” I said. Steve protested as he always did, but I insisted.

He waited a while longer, allowing the pike to swallow the bait.

“If it’s a good one I’ll tend the spool,” I said.

Steve lifted the tip-up and set it gently on the clean black ice. He pulled line hand-over-hand until it tightened. With a quick upward sweep, he set the hook on the first fish of the season.

Feature image via Sam Lungren.

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