Beavers, waterfowl, springs, deep holes are things to notice with the early ice.
But we don’t have to panic.
Every year or so, the dire ice and fishing warnings drop like the temperatures.
Those who enjoy ice should.
Vehicle deaths in the U.S. hit a 16-year high of 42,915 in 2021, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but we don’t seem to be snowed in with the same amount of warnings.
By contrast, ice fishing-related deaths are so rare that no one keeps track nationwide.
But any death while ice fishing is heartbreaking, no matter how rare. Accidents during ice fishing are usually preventable.
I contacted a couple of people who consider early ice a gift from above.
“First ice for hardwater anglers is like opening day of deer season for hunters,” emailed Ken “Husker” O’Malley, the last person I fished with ice on January 30. “Everybody has their gear ready and they’re anxious. waiting for the first ice.”
I understand that analogy.
Panfish, like the one Ken “Husker” O’Malley caught over Christmas weekend in the south suburbs, are one of the main attractions of early ice fishing, which comes with its own precautions.
He recommends 3-4 inches of ice before going out. Officials recommend 4 inches of good clear ice. You could have a sumo wrestling match on 4 inches of good clear ice.
That’s the thing about ice, it’s like people. There are all kinds, from early clear ice to late season punky ice.
This is where prudence and knowledge come in.
Pete Lamar emailed the photo of geese holding a hole open Tuesday, noting, “That’s why I stay off the ice if there are waterfowl or beavers around.”
Geese I knew. I monitored some trying to keep a hole open during the 2013-14 polar vortex, before finally conceding. Lake Shabbona, a nearby ice fishing spot, is known for geese keeping a hole open even when the nearshore areas have half a foot of ice.
But beavers? I hadn’t thought about them.
Know your lake or pond and its critters, springs, deep holes, current areas and flows.
O’Malley gave this list to go out: breadstick, ice picks, ice cleats, launch rope, PFD or flotation suit, extra set of dry clothes, waterproof cell phone case and a pair. “Never do it for yourself.”
On the first ice, he recommended using a spud rod every couple of feet and an auger to check the thickness of the ice every 5 feet or so.
“The ice might be 4 inches where you’re standing, but it’s only an inch or two feet in front of you,” he said. “Learn to read signs of bad ice. Clear ice is better than cloudy ice or honeycomb ice. Underwater springs will have webbed circles. These areas have running, warmer water. These are great areas to fish, but they can be dangerous.”
Dan Coleman, who works at Angler’s International Resources in Palatine, hears stories from anglers who come in.
From his experience (and until now he never entered), he gave these five main points for the first gel: 1. Buddy system. 2. Chop the ice. “Two or three solid taps on the ice so it’s walkable. One tap and then turn.” 3. Stains. “While the first clear black gel can be very strong for walking, it’s best not to test its strength by dropping your body weight or the back of your head.” 4. Ice peaks. “You should always have them on your person around your neck when you go out.” 5. Trust your instincts. “Water pooling on top of the ice or coming out of the holes in an upward fashion is never a good sign. It’s time to go!”
I like “trust your instincts”. It’s also good life advice.
Crappies, like these caught in the northern suburbs by Andrew Bland (left) and Dan Coleman, especially in low-light periods like early morning, are a big early ice draw, which comes with its own precautions.