When I hear the word safety, I think about after-school specials and cartoons from the ’80s. My eyes start to glaze. I’d rather talk about new lures or compare recent bites, but you know what’s worse than being bored? Being dead.
Ice fishing can be dangerous anywhere, but the scope and nature of Lake Erie create uniquely treacherous conditions. Big water isn’t like the ice you might be used to. That said, the ice fishing on Erie is fantastic and definitely worth checking out.
Here are a few things to consider before getting on Erie ice and my suggestions for essential safety gear.
Erie is Different
Shifting Ice Sheets: Unlike many hardwater destinations, Lake Erie rarely freezes over completely. In fact, about 90% of the lake remains open most winters. That might sound bad, but it still can leave you with more than 900 square miles of frozen water. All ice moves, as anyone who’s been out on a cold, groaning morning can tell you, but in situations where you have ice extending out into open water, the speed and frequency of that movement increases. We get a lot of pressure ridges and cracks, and the conditions can change rapidly. This is not the kind of ice fishing where you set up with a case of beer; you need to be hyper-vigilant about your surroundings.
Ask the Locals: While we’re probably not going to give coordinates to our hottest spots, we don’t want to see anyone get hurt in our backyard. Before heading out to fish, stop by some of the local shops and a DNR office to ask about the ice conditions. Who knows—they might even take pity on you and give a clue about the bite.
Watch Your Weight and Go Slow: I know that some other famous lakes have ice highways where you can drag an Ice Castle behind your one-ton pickup. This is not one of those lakes. Snowmobiles, four-wheelers, and UTVs are the biggest vehicles you can take out on Erie, and some years it’s not safe to drive those. Again, check local conditions. Even if the ice is in good shape, that doesn’t mean you can just strap on your goggles and pin the throttle. I have a sled that will do 80, but I never go above 20 mph and usually keep it closer to 10. Your fancy snowmobile will get a whole lot less fancy if it falls into a crack and sinks to the bottom.
Essential Safety Equipment
Spud Bar: Depending on your age and where you’re from, you may call this an ice chisel. Regardless of the name, a spud bar allows you to check ice thickness and test its ability to hold weight. Any time you’re heading out from shore, check first. If a quick poke with a spud bar breaks through, chances are the ice won’t hold your weight either. Also, be sure to stop and check areas near pressure cracks before proceeding over or past them.
Ice Picks: These simple but effective tools come in various forms. I like the ones that I can clip around my neck. If I were to break through, I could easily and immediately find them and use them to drag myself back up onto the ice. Having a pair in your pocket won’t do you much good if you can’t get to them when you really need them.
Carry a GPS in Addition to Your Phone: It’s easy to get lost in the woods and even easier to get lost on a lake while ice fishing. Even a very small lake can get confusing fast in a whiteout, and Erie is not small. Too many people rely on their phones’ GPS capability; this is ordinarily fine…except when it isn’t. Phones only work when you have battery and service unless you downloaded a navigation app and its maps in advance. Consider adding a simple GPS to the handlebars if you are using a snowmobile or four-wheeler. Otherwise, keep one in your pocket and bring spare batteries. On larger lakes like Erie, you should also consider carrying a handheld VHF radio and flares to help people find you quickly in an emergency.
Creepers: Ice is slippery. Sliding around on ice without creepers—tracks, treads, boot chains, whatever you want to call them—makes it much more difficult and time-consuming to travel, even when going short distances. If you’re walking, a pair of large spike-style creepers are a must. If you are primarily riding on a machine, a smaller-spiked and less aggressive tread is typically best.
Throw Bag: More often associated with whitewater rescues than ice fishing incidents, throw bags are one of my most essential pieces of safety gear—but ice fishermen rarely carry them. A throw bag allows you to toss a safety line to someone who has fallen in without getting yourself close to the unsafe ice. Look for models that have at least 50 feet of sturdy rope. A buckle, snap, or carabiner allows you to attach the line directly to a machine or even yourself for easy access. Having a throw bag at the bottom of a bucket covered in fishing lures and hooks will not help in an emergency. Any time ice quality is unknown, pull out a throw bag and have a fishing partner hold the opposite end as you walk out. That way, either one can pull the other out if the situation goes south.
Life Jacket/Float Suit: It’s amazing how many anglers give you an odd look when you bring a lifejacket ice fishing. A full-sized PFD isn’t the most comfortable thing to wear all day on the ice, but it’ll keep you afloat if you fall through. Don’t use the automatic, self-inflating kind, as they will not work in cold weather. If you want a slimmer option, use one of the manually inflating belt floatation devices.
Float suits used to be bulky, uncomfortable, and hot and had to be completely buckled up to be effective. In the last few years, however, ice fishing clothing manufacturers have upgraded floatation jackets and bibs to solve many of these problems. In addition to being comfier, modern float suits are self-draining. This is key because the added water weight trapped in clothing makes maneuvering very difficult once you break through.
Common Sense: Sadly, it’s not all that common. Slow down, pay attention to your surroundings, and think things through. Always go with a buddy, and always let someone know where you’re planning to be and when you plan to return. Look at weather reports and avoid big lakes when the forecast calls for heavy winds. Strong winds often cause pressure cracks on larger lakes. On Erie, these can open hundreds of yards of water, trapping you and your equipment. No fish is worth your life.