First ice is about getting on a lake that hasn’t been fishable for a couple weeks or even a month. Why wait a few more weeks for six or more inches of ice to form when you could be out fishing? The more you know about safety, ice formation, and the current conditions at the lake, the saner it seems to be out on the ice at the start of the ice fishing season.
The equipment necessary for early and late season ice starts with safety gear. Falling through the ice, while uncomfortable and unsettling, does not have to be a catastrophe. Ice picks, personal floatation devices (PFDs), throw bags, spud bars, and extra clothes in the nearby car should not be left behind. The same can be said for having a small group of experienced anglers with you on each trip.
Lake ice forms in many different ways and knowing your particular lake is vital for fringe-season success. Knowing when ice typically forms on a lake puts you in the right vicinity for planning your first trip. Track weather patterns at the lake (not at the nearby town) and watch for that first cold front where the air temperatures stay below freezing for several consecutive days up to a week. For smaller, shallower waters this is when the first cap will form. Larger deeper lakes require much more time to freeze, so move them to later times on your list. Monitor wind speeds as well because high winds will break up an ice pack or wither it down in some areas. Monitor inlet and outlet flows if possible as changes will affect ice stability and accessibility.
Pick a spot close to shore for your first trip. No need to push your luck and hit the middle of the lake. Pick a spot away from current and exposed rocks as these areas greatly reduce ice thickness and may even create open water on an otherwise frozen lake. Since no one has fished the lake recently any spot has the potential to be a great location for success.
Ice is strongest in the morning; so start your trip early and plan on leaving as the sun warms the air. This shouldn’t be a trip for searching new spots. Take a GPS coordinate from your summer fishing and head directly to the spot. Meandering greatly increases the amount of ice evaluation needed for the day.
Standing at the edge of the lake, ice picks around your neck, PFD on, spud bar in hand, walk out onto the lake. Bang the bar into the ice at least three hard times to check the stability of the surface. In a safe, shallow-water spot drill your first hole to check the total ice thickness. Since one inch of ice can often support a human and ice thickness can change quickly from one area to the next, the ice depth isn’t as important as the spud bar results. But finding eight inches of solid ice will definitely change your perspective on the situation.
Two inches of early ice
Four inches of early ice
Hard, clear, early-season ice is very strong, but pay attention to changes in the surface. Any time the spud bar report changes while walking review the situation. Drill a new pilot hole if necessary. If the ice is cloudy, there was a reason for bubbles to form in the ice or the ice has thawed and re-frozen. Weed lines, shallow water, rock bottoms, and other subsurface changes all affect ice formation.
A warm spell during freezing might dissipate the ice cap forming icebergs on the surface. When these ice flows refreeze they create highly variable ice thicknesses. Watch for color changes, cracks, and small ridges in the surface. If the surface is snow covered, look for edges within the snowpack.
Changes in snow's surface can signal areas of concern
Pressure ridges and major tectonic plate interaction will occur early in the season. Since ice expands as it freezes the pressure in the lake’s surface has to go somewhere. As an ice plate moves it will dive under or over a neighboring plate creating a pressure ridge. Visible ridges may or may not have refrozen into solid edges so cross carefully. If a plate forms a ridge on one side of the lake, it naturally forms a gap on the other. This gap may be open water or may refreeze to thinner thickness than the ice around it. A white stripe with a clear middle line through an area often signals thinner ice from plate tectonics.
In ten feet the ice goes from four to two inches
Some shallow lakes or lakes on the edge of the ice belt experience midwinter instabilities from a long warm front and may completely thaw in a given year only to refreeze a week later. Monitor overnight low temperatures and daytime highs throughout the season and return to morning trips and safety gear as necessary, even in mid-January.
Late ice poses additional challenges. By late February, the daily amount of sunlight increases by five to seven minutes per day, greatly increasing the solar load on the ice pack. The constant freezing and thawing of the ice breaks it down from clear solid ice to a cloudy consistency. Snow and slush on top of the ice hides changes in ice thickness. Eventually, melting water will tunnel through the ice and not refreeze creating structural weakness. Even eight inches of honeycombed ice may not be safe. Bring out the safety equipment and tread slowly. After trusting the lake for months make a conscious decision to fear the ice again.
While walking on the ice follow directly behind the person evaluating it, all the while staying at least twenty feet behind. Tow a sled with a longer rope than usual so it doesn’t become a victim too. The second person is the rescuer; so make sure he is just as prepared as the leader.
Often early and late season ice poses fewer threats than rock or ice climbing in the winter. So get out there and enjoy a great day of fishing.