As soon as ice forms on Wisconsin lakes and rivers, fishermen begin to appear on the newly frozen water.

Early ice is often associated with good fishing, but it also presents challenges to personal safety, according to officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Knowing when it is safe to venture out onto the ice, how to travel on ice and what to do should the ice break is as important as the rudiments of fishing itself.

"There is no such thing as safe ice," said Bill Yearman, DNR's law enforcement safety specialist.

"Nor is all ice created equal. Four inches of new ice might be safe for walking while four inches of refrozen slush might present a dangerous risk," he added.

Yearman offers these tips to anglers and others who plan to venture onto the ice this winter:

  • Ice thickness varies even on the same body of water. Check ice thickness with an ice spud or auger starting from a few feet from shore and every 10 to 20 feet as one goes towards the middle of the waterway.
  • Lake ice is generally stronger than river ice. Springs, lake inlets and outlets, and channels can alter ice thickness.
  • Before heading out onto early or newly formed ice, check with a local bait shop, resort owner, or outdoors store regarding ice thickness or known thin spots.
  • Whether alone or with a friend on early ice, always carry a couple of large sharpened nails and a length of rope in an easily accessible pocket. The nails or commercially bought ice grabbers can be used to pull yourself back onto the ice should you fall through. The rope can be thrown to another person for rescue.
  • If you are alone and go through the ice take a few seconds to get over the "cold shock." Regain your breathing, kick hard and try to swim up onto the ice in the direction from which you came since you know that ice supported you.
  • If successful, crawl on your hands and knees or roll, dispersing your weight, until you reach more solid ice. Get to the nearest warm place quickly. If your attempts to swim onto the ice are unsuccessful, get as much of your body out of the water as possible and yell for help. Studies show you have about 30 minutes before the body is incapacitated by hypothermia.
  • Proper clothing can increase chances of survival should a person break through the ice. A snowmobile type suit if it is zipped will trap air and slow the body's heat loss. Once filled with water, however, insulated suits become heavy and will hinder rescue. Newer snowmobile suits have flotation material built in and anyone traversing ice should consider purchasing one of these suits. On early ice it is advised to wear a personal flotation device.
  • Refrain from driving on ice whenever possible. Traveling in a vehicle, especially early or late in the season, is an accident waiting to happen.
  • When driving on ice be prepared to leave the vehicle in a hurry. Unbuckle the seatbelt and have a simple plan of action in case the vehicle suddenly breaks through. Anglers may want to leave a window open for a quick and easy exit.
  • Often vehicles will establish roads from shore to fishing hotspots. Repeated vehicle use can cause the ice to weaken. Ice roads are not always the safest routes.
  • When using a gas or liquid heater to warm an ice shack or tent make sure it is properly ventilated with at least two openings, one at the top and one at the bottom of the structure. Any flame eats oxygen so proper ventilation is required.

"Common sense is an ice fisherman's greatest ally," Yearman said. "Check ice conditions and prepare yourself before venturing out. Taking a few minutes to stop at a local bait shop, to check the ice from shore and to systematically check it as you go out can make the difference between a fun winter day and a tragic mishap."