With winter in full-swing, we cabin-crazed Hoosier anglers are making a beeline to the nearest frozen pond in hopes of landing something- carp, turtle, old tire, anything – to stave off the winter blues. However, there is a major danger lurking we always disregard: thin ice.
Winter puts a new perspective on an old fishing hole but ice can be exceptionally dangerous. Each year on average, several people in Indiana fall through thin ice and drown after becoming unconscious in the frigid water.
Hoosier ice fishing is a hit or miss affair most years but 2018 is shaping up to be decent. Unfortunately, each winter we hear of victims who didn’t heed the danger and drown while trying to be the first or last person on the ice each season.
Always remember the number one rule of professional rescuers: “No ice is safe ice”. Even a strongly frozen lake can have thin or weak spots due to springs, water level fluctuations, current, inflow from drainage pipes or a myriad of other factors. Never completely trust the ice.
Before venturing out, try to determine the thickness and condition of the surface. Ice that is two inches thick or less is simply unsafe. Four inches of clear, hard ice is usually considered the minimum for a lone angler.
When looking at the ice, try to determine its composition. While most ice is white on top, there should be a layer of hard, crystal-clear ice somewhere underneath. This is the layer that should be measured when considering the thickness of the ice. Any ice that is cloudy or white throughout is suspect until proven otherwise.
As you stand on shore, look for open water areas as they sound a major alert to the presence of thin ice. Rivers are notorious for this condition and ice over flowing water should never be trusted.
If you suddenly find yourself in the water, there are a few things you can do to survive. First, remember the Personal Floatation Device that you could be wearing but is probably sitting in the garage at home. While most anglers don’t wear them, PFD’s provide a great deal of warmth while fishing and will help save your life in an ice accident.
If you suddenly find yourself in the water, concentrate on remaining calm and staying at the surface. Bulky clothing will help you float, as will catching air underneath a parka. Panicking will only tire you out quicker and your thrashing will help purge your clothing of air, causing you to sink.
Do you best to stay horizontal at the lip of the ice. Prudent fishermen carry ice picks in a sheath around their neck to pull oneself onto the ice during an emergency. A sheath knife, fishing pole or even fingernails can be used though not as effectively.
Once stable in the water, try to kick and then push yourself onto the ice with your legs, while pulling with hands. As you leave the water, roll away from the hole onto thicker ice. This ‘kick, push, pull, roll’ sequence should be accomplished in one rapid but fluid motion until successful.
Quickly rolling will also save you if the ice starts to break but you haven’t yet submerged.
Suddenly breaking through the ice from a standing position will sometimes put you underneath the surface of the water. A helpful tip from internationally-known water rescue expert Butch Hendrick is to swim upward the dark spot, not towards a lighter area as common sense would suggest. Hedrick says that people often swim toward a light-appearing area only to find that it is the ice layer, rather than the darkness which is actually the open water of the hole.
A good tool used by rescue agencies but adaptable to any ice angler’s kit is a simple eight-foot pole with a small loop of rope on the end. Such a pole can test for thin ice, be placed across a hole when falling to prevent complete immersion or extended to unfortunate companions who are now treading water. A common ice spud or even an auger could similarly be pressed into service.
Keep in mind that many ice rescues involve people who were trying to save their dogs or other animals that were trapped on the ice. Dogs retrieving thrown sticks are a common cause of drowning as panicked owners irrationally try to creep out across the ice to help their pet. We know Rover is important but keep things in perspective.
Rescue of anyone fallen through the ice is best accomplished with a rope thrown to the victim or some type of long pole. Trying to personally reach the victim or making a human chain will most often result in multiple victims.
Above all, in any ice rescue situation, the most important thing to remember is three numbers: 9-1-1.