COLUMN: First ice is almost here

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Took a drive around the valley this weekend and several of the “first to freeze” lakes had a good coat of ice.

If this weather holds, we should see safe, walkable ice by this weekend on Smith Lake, Rogers Lake and some of the other smaller, shallower lakes. Everyone has a “standard” for what ice they will go out on — some folks won’t even start walking out until there are 8 inches of ice, while the rest of us hit it as soon as we see 3 to 4 inches (or less) of good, clear ice.

The most common “safe ice” charts show us that 3 to 4 inches are enough to support one person walking. (Personally, I have been on 2 inches of good, clear ice and felt fine, and I have been on 6 inches of garbage ice and put a leg through!).

The same chart says you need 5 inches of good ice for ATVs and snowmobiles, 8-12 inches for a car or small truck and 12-15 inches for a pickup. These charts assume hard, clear ice — the milky, bubbled ice that we get around here quite often can hold significantly less.

Now, one thing I must stress is that, 3 to 4 inches of ice around the shoreline can mean significantly less ice once you get out in deeper water. Water that may have springs or even current can build ice significantly slower, so don’t just assume at these early stages that 3 to 4 inches will hold up everywhere. In fact it most certainly won’t. If you are going to be one of the first ones on the ice, follow some basic safety rules.

Buddy up. Don’t walk right next to each other, but use a buddy system with established agreed-upon procedures if someone goes in. Use a “spud bar,” a heavy chisel, to poke the ice in front of you as you walk. If it goes through with one hit, you are about to follow!

Carry rope. A 50-foot length of rope should be carried, ready to throw. The “rope in a bag” systems are cheap and always ready to throw. Wear a personal flotation device. Many ice anglers have invested in the newer “float suits” like being made by Striker Ice, but a standard life jacket certainly fills the bill.

Many anglers feel that first ice is the best fishing of the season and there is much to support this. Many of these fish may not have seen a lure for a couple of months and will still be in that “feed or die” mentality. If you did your homework and scouted late into fall, those fish should be right where you left them in October and early November. But they will be spooky and skittish, as much of their entire world is now covered in clear ice, and they can see you coming.

First ice is also when a good, longer ice-fishing rod can really be important.  Staying 3 to 4 feet back from the hole allows you to be a little bit stealthier and can make a big difference. The Perch Assault rod, designed by Chancy Jeschke specifically for hole hopping and staying back from the hole is once again available from Snappy’s in Evergreen and Zimmer Tackle in Pablo. Or, just use the same 6-foot spinning outfit you used last week!  

I’ll be in St. Paul next week for the big ice fishing show, but Snappy’s 10th annual ice fishing extravaganza will be taking place here in Evergreen. Stop by Dec. 5 to see all the new gear and talk ice fishing with your peers. Have a Happy Thanksgiving; I’ll see you on the ice!

Howe runs Howes Fishing/A Able Charters. Contact him at or 257-5214 or by emailing

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