Given the prolonged mild winter, anglers hitting frozen lakes could literally find themselves on thin ice — and in deadly situations.
Two fatal accidents in north-central and northeast South Dakota during the past month — the most recent one last week — occurred when vehicles fell through the ice. In addition, authorities have received multiple reports of vehicles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and a SnowBear ice-fishing recreational vehicle breaking through ice.
Conservation officers haven’t reported such accidents in southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska. However, they urge extreme caution as the local ice remains thinner than normal.
“In terms of ice thickness, the weather has been working against us this year,” said Dan Altman with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.
Altman serves as the District Conservation Officer Supervisor based out of Yankton County. Two major conditions have caused the current ice conditions, he said.
“The conditions came much later than normal to put ice on these lakes,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “We had open water a lot longer than we typically do. It didn’t have the time to form really thick, solid ice. And then on top of it, we’ve had a little mild spell the last few days. It’s been warm during the day, and we’re barely getting down to freezing at night.”
Temperatures have remained mild, with the mercury even getting into the 50s, along with a lack of snow and ice except for recent major storms, Altman noted.
“There just haven’t been the conditions during this period of time that we might normally see,” he said. “The conditions haven’t been conducive to forming thick ice. It’s not cold enough to freeze (for thick ice).”
A similar situation exists in north-central and northeast Nebraska, according to Sgt. Jeff Jones with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“There hasn’t been the weather and time for making thick ice,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “With the warming trends, the ice is getting weak. In areas of northeast Nebraska, the wind is starting to open up some areas.”
In Nebraska, the ice in wildlife management areas (WMA) has to be a minimum of eight inches thick to operate an ATV or snowmobile on it, Jones said.
“With the variation of ice thickness, we encourage people to drill test holds or use a spud bar to test ice,” he said.
Two area wildlife management areas in northeast Nebraska may not have reached the eight inches of ice thickness, Jones said.
Buckskin Hills Lake, south of Newcastle in Dixon County, had built ice thickness of 7-8 inches earlier in the season, he said. However, the thickness of the ice on the small prairie lake could now stand in the 5-6 inch range.
In addition, the ice in the Chalkrock WMA — a 130-acre wildlife area with a 44-acre lake near Menominee in Cedar County — could now stand at 5-7 inches of thickness.
“When you look at areas like Chalkrock where the inflow of water goes through warm springs, the ice may be a little bit thin,” Jones said.
In some areas, ice hasn’t formed at all, he added.
‘Right now (Friday afternoon), I’m out in O’Neill training a new officer,” he said. “We’re out checking some of these lakes, and there’s open water.”
The north-central and northeast regions of Nebraska haven’t maintained the prolonged freezing and even sub-zero weather needed for major thick ice, Jones said.
“We haven’t had long stretches of the cold temperatures in the single digits or teens,” he said.
A formula averaging a day’s high and low temperatures provides a benchmark for determining if the weather has remained cold enough to form and maintain ice, Jones said.
SDGFP has issued the following guidelines for going onto ice.
• Less than four inches of ice — Stay off;
• Four to six inches — Ice fishing via foot travel in single-file lines should be safe, assuming the ice is clear and clean of snow;
• Six to 12 inches — Snowmobiles and ATVs can travel safely on good ice that is at least six inches thick;
• Twelve to 16 inches — Small cars and pickups can venture onto the ice once it is a foot or more thick. However, anglers are generally encouraged to avoid driving on ice that is less than 16 inches thick;
• More than 16 inches — Generally, a medium-sized car or mid-sized pickup can travel safely on good, clear, solid ice.
In southeast South Dakota, Altman hasn’t seen anywhere the 16-18 inches of ice needed to take large vehicles onto the ice.
“If you get to the other parts of the state, farther north, people have been taking full-size vehicles out on the ice, which is fairly common up there. We don’t have that a lot down here,” he said. “I think, in the seven or eight years I’ve been stationed in this area, there has only been one or two years out of all this time that it’s truly proven safe enough to take a large vehicle out on the ice.”
The manner in which ice has formed over time plays an important role in its safety, Altman said.
“We want good, solid ice that has formed for days, not frozen and then melted. We want it to keep solid,” he said. “We urge everyone to use extreme caution while they are out on the ice. You just have to keep making test holes as they out and make sure the ice is solid.”
SDGFP offers a number of tips for safe ice fishing, such as avoiding ice heaves, springs and current areas. Anglers should always check ice conditions and avoid traveling on the ice after sundown, especially on unfamiliar lakes.
In addition, carry ice picks and rope in your coat or pants, always fish with a friend and wear a flotation coat/suit or a life jacket.
Also, let someone know your location, along with when you are leaving shore to fish. It is a good idea to let them know often you are doing all right.
Anglers and others first need to determine if the ice is safe for the intended purposes before going on it, Altman said.
“They shouldn’t take any risks,” he said. “From an agency standpoint, my guys are prepared (for any incidents). We have our equipment with us just in case we have some someone who falls through the ice.”
Jones advised three simple rules when deciding whether to go onto ice and, if doing so, when it’s no longer safe.
“Stay alert, stay safe and use caution,” he said.
Anglers can learn the basics of ice-fishing or pick up a few new tips from experienced anglers at virtual Discover Ice-Fishing clinics in Jan. 16 and 19. Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Fish and Game Association will host the classroom clinics via Zoom. Register to attend one or both.
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.