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DNR offers tips for ice fishing safely

An ice fisherman enjoys the sunshine and warmth on a sunny morning on the Lake Superior ice on Munising Bay in Alger County. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

ESCANABA — This winter, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officers have assisted numerous anglers who’ve fallen through thin ice. DNR Public Information Officer John Pepin advised anyone who plans to go onto Lake Michigan to learn safety precautions before heading out.

Though the department does not have firm statistics at this time, Pepin confirmed that in some parts of Little Bay de Noc, conservation officers received almost daily calls for assistance over a period of weeks prior to temperatures dropping below zero.

Pepin cautioned that the department always operates under the assumption that no ice is 100% safe. He added the precautions are the same whether a body of water is large or small and people who brave the ice do so at their own risk.

Michigan conservation officers may let anglers know of hazardous areas during their patrols, but the DNR does not have staff specifically allocated for warnings.

Though the DNR doesn’t determine ice safety, it does provide safety tips for people looking for ice thick enough to fish, walk on, or drive snowmobiles or off-road vehicles.

The safety tips can be found by searching the term “ice safety” on the state’s website michigan.gov. In addition, the DNR may issue press releases to make people aware of areas that have become problematic. The public information officer also suggested that anglers can often get information on ice conditions at local bait shops.

Among the safety tools listed on the state’s ice safety webpage are a lifejacket, a two-way communication device that reliably receives a signal, and ice picks or claws.

While there is not a reliably safe “inch-thickness” for ice, two tools can help test ice thickness. A “spud” is a chisel-tipped long-shank used to chip a hole in ice that’s not very thick. An auger can be used like a hand drill to make holes in the ice. It looks like a corkscrew and has a cutting blade.

Another way to gauge the strength of ice is by its appearance. Weaker ice has a milky appearance, while the strongest ice is clear with a bluish tint. If the ice has slush on top it is not safe, as slush means the ice is not freezing from the bottom.

Due to the insulating effect of snow, ice ­covered by snow should always be considered unsafe. In addition, existing ice can be melted by a recent snowfall.

Becoming familiar with the state’s safety precautions is particularly important because some facts may be the opposite of what one would expect. For example, ice weakens with age, and a quick drop in temperatures can create cracks in ice in a matter of hours.

In addition to safety information, the state website provides instructions on what a person should do if they fall through the ice.

First on the list is to remain calm. Panicking not only interferes with clear thinking, it often makes breathing rapid and erratic, increasing the risk of hyperventilating and passing out.

Clothing should not be taken off. Most people assume that clothing will weigh them down in the water, but the DNR says this is not the case. Even wet clothing will help insulate against the cold.

The DNR recommends a person who falls through the ice turn toward the direction they came from, because that’s likely the location of the strongest ice. Ice picks or claws can then be used to dig into the ice while kicking the feet to help propel the person forward while pulling up onto the ice.

Once out of the water, the person should remain lying down and roll away from the area of weak ice. This will help distribute weight to prevent breaking through again until the ice is thick enough for a person to stand.

After returning to safety, it is important to get shelter and change into dry clothing and drink warm, non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages. Should the person be disoriented, shaking uncontrollably or experiencing other signs of distress, calling 911 is advised.

As temperatures climb back into the double-digits, Pepin reminded anglers that anyone fishing on the ice should make safety their first priority.

“After a period of recent sub-zero temperatures, ice has thickened on several bodies of water. However, warmer temperatures are forecasted to return. We want to remind anyone planning to get out onto lake ice to remember that ice conditions can vary greatly on any body of water and can change frequently. What might have been safe ice yesterday may not be today. Test ice with a spud or stick, avoid river mouths and take additional safety precautions to remain safe,” Pepin said.

Caroline Carlson can be reached at ccarlson@dailypress.net.

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