It wasn’t like in the movies with a spiderweb of cracks slowly forming beneath my feet, but rather a sharp loud “CRACK!” like a pistol shot. I knew I was in trouble right away. I was 17 years old, playing hooky from school to go ice fishing on the Connecticut River, which flowed near my small Vermont hometown. The pictures of the absolute hog walleyes my buddies had pulled through the ice a couple days before had inspired me, but I had only just set my first tip-up when the ice broke. I barely had time to experience the jolt of terror that pulsed through my body before the world dropped away beneath my feet and I plunged into the frigid water.
As I clung to the edge of the ice by my fingernails, I felt the current pulling at my legs like some conjured childhood monster under the bed trying to drag me under. The cold water sucked away my strength and mental capacity. I was about to just let go–when I got lucky. The water had filled my boots, sinking my legs a few feet deeper into the water where I felt them hit the top of a boulder. With a surge of adrenaline, I planted my feet against the rock, bent my knees and shoved, shooting myself out onto the solid ice. Flopping forward on my stomach like a baby seal escaping an orca, I got away from the hole, clamored to my feet, and retreated to the warm safety of my van parked back on shore.
It was a terrifying experience and one that stuck with me. Though I continued to ice fish on rivers afterwards, from the Hudson to the Missouri, I always took steps to make sure I could do so safely before heading out onto the water.
Scout the River Before Freeze Up While all ice fishing has its risks, fishing on frozen rivers can be exceptionally dangerous. Unlike lakes and ponds where the ice thickness is generally unanimous throughout, a river’s constantly flowing undercurrent makes the ice unpredictable. In spots where the current flows faster, rolls over shallow areas, or is downstream of a warm-water inflow or spring, the ice is will be thinner. These thin spots can be anywhere, often only a few yards away from the safe ice. So, the best way I’ve found to prevent falling in again is by looking over the section of river I plan to fish just before it freezes.
During the often low-flow times of late fall and early winter, the river’s current will generally be flowing at around the same pace as it will be when it freezes over and becomes fishable. Scouting your spots during this time of year can teach you a lot. These scouting missions won’t just show you where to gain access and where to find fish, but it show where the safest ice is likely to be come freeze-up.
Water cools slowly, taking a lot of time and exposure to cold air in order to freeze. In a river this process is even slower because the flowing water is constantly being replaced by warmer water from upstream. For a river to freeze, heat must be lost at a rate that exceeds replacement. This means that the faster the current is flowing, the longer it will take to freeze. For ice anglers looking to fish on rivers, these points of fast flow can be extremely dangerous. So, when you go down and scout the river, the first thing you should look for and memorize are the places on the river where the current is flowing faster or more turbulently. Note where any rapids are, or where the river current is being forced into a tighter channel. These can be spots where the river narrows or where the water is flowing around structure like islands, gravel bars, or large log or rock jams. These areas will undoubtably have thinner ice and should be avoided come fishing time.
Another thing to look for when pre-scouting a river and to later avoid when ice fishing are spots where any smaller creeks or streams flow into the main branch of the river. This is because these small creeks can not only increase current speed but can often be flowing at a warmer temperature than the river you’re fishing. This warmer water increases the temperature of the water into which it’s flowing, making for thinner, more dangerous ice.
Look for the “frog water” or back eddies and other slow water areas that will collect ice floes coming downstream once the bitter cold weather hits. The ice will form there first and continue to develop through the winter. Where such features also create a deep hole, you may have found a good spot to fish.
How to Read Ice On Rivers If you didn’t get a chance to pre-scout the river you are fishing, you can still look it over and note the previously mentioned areas by looking at a map or aerial photo of the river. However, you should still know how to read the ice and know whether it’s safe to walk on. Look at the ice to see if you can spot any cracks, breaks, or abnormal growths and avoid them. As a rule, 3 to 8 inches of clear blue ice is the safest ice to walk on. Ice of this type is generally very dense and extremely strong but should still be treated with caution on rivers. This is especially true when that ice is immediately adjacent to any discolored sections of ice or anywhere near open water. Stay well away from any river ice that shows a distinct color change, such as large white patches or streaks, which can be made from hidden air pockets or overflow beneath the river’s surface. If any section of river you’re fishing has a lot of patches like this, or if the ice color appears to be mottled or opaque, it should be avoided entirely.
A lot of times you can have trouble getting a good look at the color of the ice due to it being covered in snow. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t go ice fishing on the river, you should do so with a lot of extra caution. Venture out onto the ice with a long, weighted ice chisel in one hand and give the ice a whack or two before taking each step. Safe ice will feel solid when hit with a chisel, like you’re hitting a piece of concrete. Unsafe ice will sound and feel hollow and reverberate. Should this happen, turn around and walk back the way you came. The fish aren’t worth it.
The last thing you should avoid when walking on river ice is anywhere in the main current that you know to be extremely shallow. These can be random humps of structure beneath the water like logs or bounders or small sand or gravel bars off islands and will appear as random lumps in the ice. Shallow spots like these can freeze solid, forming a small dam. When they occur in the main current, the constant flow of water around the obstruction can shift and crack the ice around it, forming pressure ridges that can swallow up a wandering angler without a second’s warning.
Fish on River Coves and Backwaters Undoubtedly the safest place to ice fish on rivers is in coves, eddies, and backwaters. These spots usually remain solidly frozen throughout the winter and can provide ice anglers with some great fishing opportunities. Coves are easy to identify. They’ll appear as small, lake or pond-shaped waterbodies, bays or oxbows immediately adjacent to the main river. Coves usually form in spots where years of flowing water has eroded away a section of the bank, allowing the river water to flood in, forming a circular offshoot with a narrow entrance to the river. Coves can be some of the hottest spots to catch any fish species, from panfish to big pike, walleye, and even trout through the ice. Smaller fish use them as spawning grounds and nurseries during the winter, tempting larger gamefish to move in and out of them to feed.
Backwaters, sloughs, or side channels are similar to coves but are usually longer and thinner, created when a section of main river forms its own channel. Often they can go for miles adjacent to the main river channel before rejoining it. Like coves, backwaters can be incredible fisheries because they are used by gamefish for spawning and feeding. They are also usually much safer to fish than the main river because, though they will often have some current flow, it is usually much slower and more stable, making for much more durable ice.
You Can Go Home Again It was my first time ever playing hooky that day I fell through the ice. My parents would have been so disappointed in me if they’d found out. It’s funny, but when I was there clinging to the side of the ice, that was the thing I was thinking about most, their disappointment. Not so much because I had skipped school and risked my education, but because I’d almost died for something as insignificant as a few walleyes.
Being an angler often means doing whatever we have to do to catch a fish. We travel hundreds of miles, spend what is often an insurmountable amount of money on equipment, and above all we take risks. To pursue our aquatic quarry, we’ll head out onto stormy seas, hike boldly into the grizzly-infested backcountry, or step out onto ostensibly thick, newly-formed sheets of ice—all with little regard for our own welfare and often even less for those who care about us. But it is those we leave behind who will truly suffer should we make a mistake. We owe it to them to come home.
Whenever and however you go ice fishing, make sure you do so as safely as you can. Go with a buddy, wear a float coat or buoyant bibs, carry ice picks, and if the ice looks sketchy, don’t risk it. When the worst happens, there won’t always be a lucky boulder there to save you.