6 safety tips every ice angler should practice

Updated: February 7, 2019

ice-fishing-on-frozen-lake Photo by Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock

A Cape Breton man is feeling grateful for his friend, who helped rescue him after he fell through a hole in the ice. Tim Parsons was fishing on a frozen lake in Orangedale, Nova Scotia, with his friend Joe Skinner, when he fell through. According to a report by CTV News Atlantic, the hole had actually been cut in the ice by another fisherman, who failed to mark it. When Parsons fell into the icy waters, his friend was in their tent changing out of wet footwear. Lucky for Parsons, his friend heard him call out and acted quickly, rushing to pull him out of the neck deep sub-zero waters with just one sock on.

Thanks to these valiant efforts, this story ended well and both men were warm and dry shortly after. But it was a close call, which is why they wanted to share their story. To ensure you come back safe and sound from your next ice fishing trip, follow these six safety tips:

Never head onto the ice alone

Unfortunately, if you can’t find a friend that’s free to go ice fishing, you might simply have to stay home. According to the Canadian Red Cross, you should always “fish with a buddy” to ensure rescue is an option. Parson’s story is an excellent example of the importance of fishing with friends. Looking out for one another will be even more helpful if you discuss rescue procedures with one another in advance. To help ensure you can perform a rescue safely, there are actually courses you can take online through organizations like Rescue Canada.

Wear a flotation device

Canadian Red Cross also recommends wearing a flotation device, even if you’re fishing from shore. According to Transport Canada, a life jacket is your “best defence” against cold-water shock, as a sudden fall into cold water can seriously hinder your breathing, nerves and muscle strength. In fact, according to the Life Saving Society’s 2016 Canadian Drowning Report, which measured the most recent data from the Chief Coroner’s and Medical Examiner’s offices,  78 percent of victims between the ages of 35 and 64 were not wearing a PFD or lifejacket, and that number jumped to 82 percent for those 65 and up. A lifejacket, which is typically a bit bulkier than a PFD, won’t just keep you more buoyant, it will also provide you with more thermal protection. To better understand the difference between the two and ensure you’re picking the appropriate flotation device, read “5 PFD mistakes you might not know you’re making.”

Always check ice thickness

You should never step onto the ice without first checking its thickness. After all, thanks to climate change, we’re seeing more and more thaws throughout the winter, and when the temperatures are so up and down, it’s hard to know where things stand at any time of year. According to Canadian Red Cross, ice should be at least 15 cm thick for individuals. But since you should always go out with a group, 20 cm is a safer bet. And if you’re taking snowmobiles out, the recommended thickness is 25 cm. There are so many ways to check ice thickness—like with a cordless drill and wood auger bit, an ice chisel, a chainsaw, or even a hatchet—which means there’s no excuse for skipping this step.

Get the right gear

Heading out onto the ice without the proper gear can leave you cold and miserable. It could also be life-threatening. You can spend a lot of time reading gear guides filled with technical jargon. But there are a few important things to know: stay away from cotton, always dress in layers, and pay special attention to your extremities, investing in high-quality gloves, durable wool socks, and boots with insulation and grip. Read “Essential winter gear every adventure-loving Canadian should invest in,” for a more detailed list of what to wear. In the event that someone does go through the ice and you need to perform a rescue, it’s good to pack a few extras as well. The Lifesaving Society recommends carrying ice picks, an ice staff, rope, a pocketknife, compass, whistle, fire starter kit and, of course, a cell phone.

Save the drinks for post-fish

The “why” behind this one should be pretty straightforward. We likely don’t need to tell you that alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, which makes it harder to think clearly, move with coordination, and pull off a rescue like Parson’s. And although alcohol is often thought to make you warmer, that’s simply just a feeling—it actually does the exact opposite. In fact, the Government of Canada recommends avoiding alcohol to reduce your risk of extreme cold conditions, like frostbite and hypothermia, because it “increases blood flow to the extremities of the body.” So even if you feel like you’re warming up as you make your way through the bottle of bourbon, you’re actually losing heat.

Mark your hole

Marking your hole when you’re done isn’t just a polite thing to do—it’s actually mandatory according to a provision in the Criminal Code of Canada. Section 263 of the Criminal Code notes that anyone “who makes or causes to be made an opening in ice that is open to or frequented by the public is under a legal duty to guard it in a manner that is adequate to prevent persons from falling in by accident and is adequate to warn them that the opening exists.” So each time you abandon a hole, be sure to clearly mark it with a large branch or another object that’s clearly visible from afar.

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