Right now, we are in the middle of another mild, Mid-Atlantic winter, and by the looks of it, it could remain that way. Last year we had the warmest winter season since 1932, which means, it was the warmest winter almost any of us will remember. That was good news for many, with heating oil prices and the wear and tear on the bodies of old geezers like me. But for those who like to fish through the ice, it was bad news.
Ice fishing is not an every year gig in the Mason Dixon region. Most winters, we get skim ice on local lakes and ponds, but usually less than the needed four inches of clear, hard ice that will enable safe foot travel. Hence, most ice fishing for Marylanders involve a road trip to Deep Creek Lake in Garrett County or a jaunt north to colder climes in central or upstate Pennsylvania. Last year you couldn't find 'safe ice' within 150 miles of my home. But I have heard early reports of as much as 5 inches of ice on portions of DCL (Deep Creek Lake). But for starters, let's review the precautions about the sport.
As mentioned, it takes 4 inches of clear, hard ice to adequately support the weight of several anglers. Anything less is dangerous and should be avoided. There is no fish on this planet that is worth my life or yours as the result of a breakthrough on thin ice. Every year, you will read about anglers who made the plunge in order to get some fish in some dangerous regions, and some of these stories have a tragic ending. Don't be one of them.
The way we test ice safely is with two anglers. One stays on the bank with a 50 to 100 foot rope that is tied to himself and the 'tester', who also has it tied to his waist as well. Starting in a shallow bay or cove, the tester heads out and drills holes with an auger every 50 feet or so and carefully measures the thickness of the ice with ruler or an ice ladle that has the inch marks penned on the handle with permanent ink. Simply place the marked end at the bottom of the ice and measure up to the top. As the pair of anglers 'inch worm' their way out on the ice the 'anchor man' always remains on safe, tested ice while the tester ventures to new areas. Once it is determined that the area you want to fish at has safe ice the rope can be dispatched.
Other safety items include ice picks, boot cleats and additional rope for a variety of circumstances. Ice picks are hand held, sharp pointed picks that drape around your neck on a lanyard and deploy when needed. If you fall through, you'll have a minute or two before your clothing soaks through. The picks have plastic handles and allow you to dig your picks into the ice and pull yourself up onto thicker ice in the event you were to break through. They have saved lives.
Boot cleats are exactly that...metal, strap-on attachments that provide a digging-in for your pack boots or Sorels. Often, safe ice may have melted and re-froze to a glassy smoothness that is almost impossible to traverse without the gripping of the cleats. Add a light coating of fresh snow on the ice and you're liable to go down. They come in various styles and sixes, but are an absolute for safety.
Ice freezes inconsistently on many bodies of water, and tidal ice is almost always a dangerous situation in our area. Springs, vibrations from traffic under bridges and wind direction can all play a role in ice thickness and strength. And what is known as 'snow ice' can be dangerous as well. Snow ice is formed when a layer of ice gets snowfall on top of it, and the snow actually melts and refreezes several times, and perhaps over several snowfall events. The result is what appears to be safe ice, but actually is quite dangerous. I have drilled holes through 12 inches of snow ice with only 2 or 3 inches of solid, clear ice at the bottom of the ice layer. This is scary. Snow ice still needs to have a solid base of 4 to 6 inches to support the additional weight of the snow itself, let alone an ice fisherman. Here again, testing the ice is always advisable.
I know that this may seem to be a lot of ink on what should be common sense to most. But every winter there are absolute horror stories that emerge as ice fishermen head out in quest of their favorite gamefish. For that reason, I have devoted this entire column to those common sense safety tips for anyone who wishes to travel north for this wintertime experience. Next column we will focus on other equipment needs and gearing up.