Dick Herfindahl: Be careful when venturing out on the early ice

Published 10:32 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

Woods & Water by Dick Herfindahl

We have been experiencing a freeze-over on most area waters which can make “hard water” fishermen anxious to grab their ice augers and head to their favorite spot. We have all seen (or even been) that guy who ventures out onto thin ice to be the first guy to catch a mess of perch or panfish. Really? Do you like eating fish that much that you would risk your life to put a meal on the table?

Last year someone put their brand new Ranger side-by-side ATV in the channel because the ice was not thick enough to support it. Kind of an expensive way to learn a lesson.

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A friend of mine told me about the time when he and his brother walked out on the ice and were fishing on Albert Lea Lake. They were fishing on about three inches of ice when a truck drove up and the driver got out and asked how the fishing was. Needless to say, they excitedly told the clueless guy that he was driving on very thin ice and that he had better get back to land.

I am not a fan of treading on thin ice, although as a kid I did plenty of it on the slough on North Bridge Avenue. This sometimes resulted in a boot full of water and a wet pant leg. This was pretty harmless fun, but when venturing out on ice over deep water falling in can result in a very different outcome.

When is ice safe?

There really is no sure answer. You can’t judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors — plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.

With ice forming on Minnesota lakes, outdoor enthusiasts may be tempted to get out before ice is thick enough to support foot traffic. The Department of Natural Resources conservation officers have a message — stay off the ice until at least 4 inches of new, clear ice is present.

The DNR offers the following guidelines for new clear ice:

4 inches for ice fishing or other activities on foot.

5 inches for snowmobile or ATV.

8-12 inches for car or small pickup.

12-15 inches for medium truck.

Ice thickness may vary greatly across a single body of water, making it important to check the ice conditions before heading out.

A few interesting facts about ice safety:

New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly‑formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially‑thawed ice may not.

Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.

The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can also adversely affect the relative safety of ice. The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake. In the past, this has opened holes in the ice causing snowmobiles and cars to break through.

Until next time; don’t be in too much of a rush to fish that early ice. Fishing is usually the best on new ice but be sure the ice is safe before you drill that first hole.

Please take some time to honor those who have sacrificed so much for the freedoms we enjoy today. Also, take a little extra time to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, those who served and those troops serving today.