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How to Be as Safe as Possible on the Ice

It finally feels like winter is here in Upstate NY, as we now start our cars from our windows and continue to get up every morning to scrape off that thick layer of frost. For most people, the sub-freezing temperatures are an unwanted part of living here and begin to limit them to indoor activities, but for winter enthusiasts like myself, the cold presents some incredible opportunities. Community guidelines suggest social distancing this winter and what better way to do that then to try a new hobby; my suggestion is the sport of Ice Fishing.

Just in the last few weeks, our local ponds and lakes have finally become safe enough that we are able to begin ice fishing them. Ice fishing can be a dangerous activity if one does not follow the guidelines in place to ensure one's safety. I recommend visiting the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation website, where they list out guidelines and regulations on the bodies of water in New York. Although finding fish while on the ice is most people’s main concern, I have to stress that your first priority should be weather conditions and safety.

To begin ice fishing and walking on the ice, it has been determined that you need at least 4” of ice. Regardless of how much ice there is, there is never a guarantee that it is completely safe. Depending on various weather conditions, the strength of the ice can be affected dramatically. So before you go out, always make sure that the weather conditions leading up to your trip have been stable, to ensure the ice hasn’t changed or become unsafe. Rain and snow cover are the two conditions I always watch for before I head out. Rain usually doesn’t impact the main ice layers as much, but it can weaken the shorelines leading to softspots while getting onto the ice. Snow cover tends to be the most dangerous as it can hide open spots, cracks, and the weaker ice. Not to mention the fact that the snow tends to insulate the ice, so despite having seemingly good ice making conditions at night, it doesn't mean that the lakes are gaining much ice. Luckily for us this year, the massive snow storm that buried us, melted before the lakes really began to freeze. But as a general rule, try not to walk on any of the sparse snow pockets on the ice.

Keeping up with weather conditions and temperatures are good steps you can take while preparing for your ice trip, however nature and the actual conditions can be unpredictable. With that being said, local sporting goods stores and bait stores have the tools you need to make sure you are being safe while on the ice. The first tool I bring with me on every trip is called a Spud Bar. A Spud Bar is generally a long 4-5’ piece of steel with a chisel on the end. It is used to test the integrity of the ice you are walking on. Basically, you use the spud bar to strike the ice in front of you and the number of times it takes to get through determines if the ice is safe to walk on. For experienced ice anglers, three strikes tends to deem the ice safe to walk on, but I like to advise people to try and be on ice that can withstand four to five strikes. Before I walk to a spot I will always spud my way out there just to make sure I am walking on safe ice, then I drill a hole to ensure the ice is over 4”. Most spud bars have a loop in the top where you can tie a rope to in case it slips out of your hands. I usually tie around ten feet of rope to my spud bar just in case someone ever did fall through.

The two other must have ice tools are retractable ice picks and ice cleats. The retractable ice picks are worn around your neck so if you do fall in, you can stab the ice to pull yourself out. If you do fall through the ice try and make yourself as horizontal as possible when climbing back up to spread your weight out. If you try and immediately go vertical, you will be putting all your weight on the already weakened ice. Ice picks give you that extra grip that makes it easier to pull yourself out. Although snow covered ice is inevitable, right now most of our lakes have bare/glare ice. Trying to maintain balance while running and carrying heavy objects on the ice without cleats is just asking for you to fall and get hurt. By simply wearing ice spikes/cleats you can have traction on the ice and feel stable while walking. You will also have the advantage when racing your buddy to the tip ups that go off.

For all current ice conditions I recommend calling Gary Ingles, owner of “Wiggly Worm Bait Supply”. All the gear I have listed can be found at his shop. Not only does Ingles have the best bait prices in the area, he will also never hesitate to help anyone with fishing spots and tactics. He is open seven days a week 6:00am-6:00pm and may even stay open later if you call him ahead. There is nothing he won’t do to put you on fish.

If you have never been out before and want to experience ice fishing for the first time, I am also currently booking trips for the rest of winter at

Contact Information

Wiggly Worm Bait Supply

NY Route 50, 885 Saratoga Rd, Ballston Lake, NY 12019

Ziehnert Guide Service

(518) 390-0282

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