When its finally cold enough, how to stay safe on the ice

Union photo by Ashley Duong

Because of warmer weather, conservation directors and officers anticipate ice fishing and ice skating will not be available for southeast Iowans, unless a cold spell comes over the region.
Union photo by Ashley Duong Because of warmer weather, conservation directors and officers anticipate ice fishing and ice skating will not be available for southeast Iowans, unless a cold spell comes over the region.

With the lack of a polar vortex this year, southeast Iowans may not have as many opportunities to go ice fishing or skating. In years with cooler weather, ice sports and activities prove to be very popular with residents of the region, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Dan Henderson as well as Jefferson County Conservation director Shawn Morrissey.

Morrissey noted that with most of January and February to come, there may still be opportunities for a cool spell to come over the region, which would allow for ice fishing and the ice related activities.

For those interested or waiting for that cool spell to come over the area, Henderson and Morrissey reminded fishers and skaters to use common sense and to stay off ice that is 2 inches or less in thickness.

“Four inches or more is what we consider good ice fishing ice,” Henderson said. For snowmobiles or ATVs, Henderson said thickness should be at least 5 inches, and should be 12 inches for a car or small pick up to drive over. Ice needs to be 12 to 15 inches thick to support a medium sized truck.

Henderson explained that most ice fishermen can use their augers to cut several test holes at the bank or the edge of a frozen lake or river in order to figure out the thickness of ice. Generally speaking, thickness increases the further into the body of water a person travels, which means a decent thickness at the edge will mean solid ice further in a frozen lake.

The conservation officer also noted that there are many visual cues a person can use to determine whether ice is safe to venture out on or not.

“If it looks dull and cloudy or is honeycomb ice, that’s not good,” Henderson said, explaining that honeycomb ice is when water freezes for several days, but thaws and refreezes, causing air pockets to develop in the ice. Good ice will have “a shine to it” and will “look nice and solid.”

“If you have to walk over water or walk in the lake to jump on ice, it’s not a good idea, make sure solid all the way to the bank,” Henderson warned.

Morrissey added that any visuals that show the ice is sagging means it’s not safe.

“Late in the season, some fishers will sit on ice and water is coming up through the top of the hole and on top of the ice. That’s a sign that the ice is sagging — it’s getting rotten. That’s not good, you should get off the ice,” Morrissey said.

Despite what movies would have people believe, both the conservation officer and director also explained that hearing cracking is generally a good sign.

“It means the ice is growing,” the officer noted.

“It may sound spooky, but cracking can happen as ice is getting thicker,” Morrissey added.

Once on the ice, there are several things people can do to avoid accidents. Both Morrissey and Henderson highly encouraged people not to go out on ice alone.

“Don’t go ice fishing alone. Always go with someone. Never go snowmobiling alone. If someone can see you, then they can do something to save you,” Henderson said.

Handy items to have on-hand to prepare for any unexpected falls through ice include rope and ice awls. Henderson explained that if a person decides to go ice fishing alone, it’s a good idea to tie a rope to a tree. Having ice awls ready in pockets will allow ice fishermen to use the small picks to grip and pull themselves back onto good ice should a fall through the ice occur.

“If someone happens to fall through ice, their clothes get wet and it’s hard to pull themselves onto good ice. They’ll keep slipping because they have no grip, which will tire them out quick. It’s good to have ice awls. People wear them around their neck and use them to pull themselves up back onto the ice,” Henderson said.

Should a person fall through ice, Morrissey encouraged a person to stay calm and “not panic.”

“If you fall through, feel your feet. If the bottom is close, try to sit there and wade, and as soon as you can, try to pull yourself onto good ice and holler for help,” Morrissey instructed.

Other useful items and tools or items that are helpful to have in a crunch include water repellent bibs and coats as well as a life jacket.

Both the conservation officer and conservation director noted that ice rescues are uncommon in southeast Iowa. Henderson explained that as a state, Iowa sees less than half a dozen ice rescues each year, but reminded people to stay alert and use common sense.

“No ice is 100 percent safe,” Henderson reminded.

“It’s always important to take precautionary measures,” the conservation officer added.

“In my ten years, I haven’t had any ice rescue that we’ve done yet. I’ve found out after the fact, but it’s not real common because people do have common sense. But I have seen some real crazy things. I’ve seen people walk across open water to get to frozen ice. I’ve seen people who have fallen in, and are right back out there the next day. For the most part, people are pretty smart,” Henderson continued.

Morrissey added that with the current weather has meant it “hasn’t been a good year so far [for ice fishing]” and other ice sports. Current temperatures have made it impossible for people to partake in those activities because popular spots have seen little to no ice.

“I don’t think it’s going to be safe this there. Down here there’s really no ice right now … it’s going to take a change in the weather,” Morrissey said.