“TOM’S TOP TEN” FIRST ICE SAFETY CHECKLIST
BY: TOM GRUENWALD
The process begins nearly imperceptibly.
As autumn progresses, daily lows begin steadily dropping, eventually falling below the freezing mark. Observant ice anglers, noticing frost appearing across shaded lawns, roof tops and windshields on chilly mornings, sense pending change and respond by monitoring local waters.
They know what’s coming. Although it takes time, surface temperatures are cooling, and upon reaching that critical point—much like a kernel of popcorn exposed to just the right temperature in hot oil–one exposed water molecule will suddenly pop and swell, instantly transforming from a liquid to a solid…then another, followed by another and yet another as a chain reaction spreads across the surface, forming a sticky, cohesive bonding mass that steadily begins to congeal and strengthen.
The next frosty morning, ice anglers are rewarded with the sight they’ve been longing for: That unmistakable, glassy surface atop a frozen lake; an icy promise welcoming the season ahead.
Given the right conditions and some time, a solid coating strong enough to support the weight of anglers outfitted with gear will eventually form…but just in case an unforeseen rendezvous with a thin or weak spot is encountered, the smartest always have several first ice safety items readily available amid their chosen armament.
Here are the ones included on my checklist.
- Personal Flotation Device
It stands to reason these are required by law when navigating open water, so why not when traversing an unpredictable crust of ice coating an icy bath below?
When negotiating first ice, especially on unfamiliar waters, wearing a PFD is a prudent choice—and note this need not be a traditional, bulky bright orange ‘horse collar’ life preserver. Stylish, warm, comfortable and fully functional U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD’s and float suits are now available from well established companies—and wearing one constitutes a choice that could save your life.
- Ice Cleats
Since first ice is often smooth and slickened by thin coatings of snow, slush or water generated by drilled holes—ice cleats are nearly a necessity.
While cleats won’t provide infallible traction, they’re a good preventative measure against avoiding embarrassing, painful ending slips or worse yet, serious injuries due to a fall.
- Ice Picks
Should the unthinkable happen and you break through, ice picks provide the means to establish a firm grip on the edge of solid ice, ensuring your head remains above water while awaiting help, or provided you’re endowed with suitable strength, the ability to independently pull yourself from the water.
A whistle not only creates awareness by sounding out an attention demanding alarm, but also helps rescuers locate you during periods of limited visibility due to reduced light, blowing snow or fog.
- Rescue Throw Rope
Like a PFD, I’m a strong proponent of seeing throw ropes become more commonly used. Should someone break through, a throw rope can quickly be extended and used to pull victims back to safety.
- Light Source
Bright L.E.D. lights can be used to locate the edge of the ice, or help rescuers find you during periods of low light or poor visibility.
- Cell Phone
A FULLY CHARGED “sport” or waterproof cell phone, placed within a water resistant case and stored in a sealed plastic bag to protect sensitive internal electronics–is strongly recommended. Besides providing a means of communicating the need for help, lighting and GPS functions can be used as critically time-saving measures to direct rescuers to your exact location.
- Bath Towel and Extra Set of Clothes Sealed in a Waterproof Bag
This may seem extreme, but faced with an emergency, having the ability to strip wet clothing, dry off and replace those wet garments with dry ones could easily be an action that saves your life–or that of another.
- Small Portable Hub Shelter and Portable Heater
Although early season temperatures often don’t mandate use of a portable ice shack to provide fishing comfort, they do offer a distinct secondary benefit: Shelter from the elements.
In an emergency, minimal time is required to snap up a small hub style shelter, and most of these can be warmed quickly with even a modest sized propane heater. Compact, lightweight hub models like HT’s 2-Person Insta-Shack fit the bill perfectly.
- Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device
As the ice thickens and you begin traveling further out, consider a Nebulus. These self-inflating rubber rafts provide immediate flotation—and not just for anglers!
Strapped to the handlebars of a snowmobile or ATV, the Nebulus E.F.D. will support your machine–plus as many as three passengers for a load totaling up to 1,000 pounds–potentially saving both lives and the expenses associated with retrieving a submerged vehicle.
Remember, ice fishing success is based on playing the game smart—and that process begins by playing it safe.