This truck and angler fell through just upstream of the Bone Lake access site in northeast Iron County during a very cold February a couple years ago. Some ice is never safe. (Ziegler photo)
By Bill Ziegler for the Iron County Reporter
IRON COUNTY— With many people coming home or to their cabins in Iron County for the Christmas holidays, many outdoors enthusiasts want to know if it is safe to go out on the ice.
This is especially the case when there is not enough snow to enjoy other winter sports such as cross country skiing, snowmobiling or snowshoeing. If we don’t get significant snow, ice fishing may be one of the best available outdoor activities this holiday season.
Ice anglers should always be very aware of ice safety, but especially on early ice. A number of people and vehicles in Michigan and Wisconsin fall through the ice each year. In some cases, these incidents end up in fatalities. By following some caution and basic ice safety awareness, many of these incidents can be avoided.
Prior to my retirement from the DNR Fisheries Division, I received numerous annual phone calls from the media and anglers asking about ice conditions and ice thickness and recommendations for ice travel. The Michigan DNR does not endorse a specific ice thickness guide for ice travel. However, conventional thinking typically follows that solid ice should be greater than two inches thick for foot travel. On early ice all anglers should carry an ice spud to constantly check ice thickness.
That same conventional wisdom has considered that greater than four inches of solid ice should be present before taking light ATV’s and snowmobiles on to the ice. The DNR never recommends driving auto and truck vehicles on the ice since most ice conditions vary as you travel longer distances on ice.
All lakes do not freeze over at the same time. The shallower lakes (such as Runkle and Emily Lakes in Iron County) typically freeze over sooner, and the deeper lakes later (such as Chicaugon and First Fortune Lakes in Iron County).
On Dec. 19, I checked the ice depth on those four indicator lakes. Emily and Runkle had just over four inches of ice. First Fortune Lake only had two inches of ice in the deeper sections of the lake. Chicaugon Lake had only a skim of ice in the deeper sections of the lake. This is typical early ice development in the area lakes. At Chicaugon Lake the ice in the deeper water areas of the lake is typically not as thick as the ice on shallower lakes in the early winter.
If we get significant snow, on these relatively thin ice conditions, slush will form. That makes ice less safe, even after it refreezes. The snow cover will also insulate the ice slowing solid ice formation. The ice on the shallower lakes is good solid ice so far, but it would have to be thicker to avoid slush if we get a heavy snow. Rain and thawing can make early ice unsafe quickly. It will take several cold days and nights to offset a rain event to strengthen the ice early in the season.
Many anglers assume that ice thickness is uniform and that six inches of ice means that it is six inches thick everywhere. My fishing buddy lives on the Crystal Falls impoundment and measured the ice in a previous year. In mid winter he consistently measured 2.5 feet of ice as he traveled down river and then he measured only 3 inches of ice in an area with a current. Extreme caution should be taken in any impoundment or flowage with current. Great care should also be followed on waters with significant spring water input. If you venture to nearby great lakes bays anglers should avoid traveling near points and breakwater ends as there is often Great Lakes currents that erode the ice in those areas.
In addition to all frozen rivers, flowages, and impoundments a few specific lakes to watch out for in this area where springs keep ice open or thin near shore, are Camp Lake and Fire Lake in Iron County.
Iron County’s Bone Lake and Paint Lake public accesses are downstream on the impounded outlet stream, making both accesses dangerous even in mid winter. Caution also needs to be followed on Michigamme and Peavy Reservoirs where winter draw downs result in shifting ice. In addition, Peavy often has open water in the Michigamme River inlet at the upper end in mid winter where the river is constricted as it enters the reservoir. The tail water areas should also be avoided in reservoirs that lead into a downstream reservoir like many of the impoundments in the Iron Mountain area on the Menominee River. Lake Antoine has an area where the ice is never safe south of the West boat landing where mine water is pumped into the lake.
Ice angler can take a few extra steps on ice safety. Ice picks can be made from large spikes and tied together with thick twine, they can be used to pull yourself back up on the ice if you fall through. You can also buy those ice safety picks at local bait shops and outdoor sporting goods stores. People who venture out on early ice should keep an ice spud and regularly check the ice thickness. It is always good to have a buddy when you venture onto the ice that could help you if you get into trouble.
ATV riders and snowmobilers can also keep a rope with them that they can throw to someone whose machine has broken through the ice.
If you have questions about the depth of the lake you are interested in ice fishing on, you can access lake depth maps at the DNR fish website – maps – inland lake maps - http://www.michigan.gov/dnr.
If you have more specific questions you can call the Michigan DNR at 906-875-6622 in Crystal Falls.