By Nick Simonson
Every year about this time there are stories in the headlines that have most people shaking their heads. A truck goes through the ice, a towable shack house sinks during an untimely warm-up, or an angler unfamiliar with the elements of a body of water finds himself in trouble. While most of the time the loss is just property, sometimes the end results are much more tragic when sportsmen test the limits of early ice in order to say they were the first ones out there or to get on a hot bite. Knowing those things that impact the quality of early ice and provide hints to weak spots on your favorite water can help you avoid issues this time of year.
Water in motion freezes later and thickens slower than still water. That’s why major rivers rarely ice up completely, and those areas that do freeze up on a flowing water aren’t nearly as thick as that on nearby lakes and ponds. Anything that keeps water in motion – whether natural current, migrating waterfowl paddling around in an open area, or even large schools of bait like whitefish – can impact when and how thick ice forms. Additionally, aerators used on some lakes to prevent them from winterkilling can create a suspect area. The importance of knowing where current and these potential areas of weak ice due to moving water exists cannot be understated, and they should be avoided and given a wide berth when exploring early ice options.
Snow impacts the formation of ice by not only slowing the process down, but also by decreasing the quality of the ice. Snow acts as a blanket of insulation which prevents ice from forming as fast as if it were not covered, and additionally if snow accumulates in large amounts, it can cause significant stress on ice and lower its strength that way as well. Needless to say, if it is warm enough for rain, liquid precipitation can quickly erode early ice and make it weaker and less safe for travel. Any time first ice is followed by either form of precipitation, anglers should take note and proceed with caution.
Wind is another factor that prevents the formation of good ice. On lakes small and big, a few days of strong wind can wreak havoc on newly-formed ice. Generally, once the water body is iced over, wind can’t do much, but in the early days it can break and pile ice on the downwind side of the water, forming a cracked and refrozen surface that doesn’t have the same strength as an unbroken ice formation. On larger bodies of water, wind following a warm-up has been known to crack entire surfaces loose and send them into the main water body, stranding anglers on the shelf in a precarious position.
While this season has been at or below the freezing mark since about deer opener, making for consistent ice formation, ice never freezes the exact same way and what might be a foot thick in a shady bay may only be six inches in the open stretch just out from it. Exposure to more direct sunlight can slow ice formation and fluctuations in temperature can slow the creation of good ice or even melt it. Areas like bridges, sunken trees or waters just off hillsides may be warmer and form ice slower, because the structures draw in and retain more solar heat which is transferred to the ice around it. Additionally, keep a close eye on the conditions – if it’s been cold for a good while, ice will be better – but if there’s been a stretch of days above freezing, or a few shots of upper 40s, make note and avoid the ice where prudent.
In the end, no ice is safe ice. Paying attention to the conditions that impact ice formation or weaken it can prevent some major headaches, or a tragedy. Moving water, changing weather conditions and sudden warm ups are just a few of the elements to take note of in anticipation of weak ice. Just remember that it’s not a sign of weakness if you’re not the first one out there catching walleyes, perch or crappies; so play it safe! Besides, there’s still about a month of hunting left…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Use an auger or spud bar to check ice conditions as you travel out this time of year. Recent warm-ups may present cause for concern going into the holidays as well! Simonson Photo.