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Leier: Always put safety first when venturing out on the ice

Heading into mid-December, ice conditions are unpredictable on many North Dakota waters in any given year.

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Avoid cracks, pressure ridges and slushy or darker areas that signal thinner ice. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Even with extreme drought, North Dakota continues to enjoy “the good old days” of fishing, no matter the time of year. Based on a historical comparison from as recently as the mid-1980s, when there were 150 or so managed lakes on the landscape to 400-plus now, North Dakota anglers have many fishing opportunities that support strong populations of walleyes, perch and/or northern pike.

From Wahpeton to Williston, Reynolds to Reeder and everywhere in between, ice anglers are wishing for winter to hurry up and arrive, because heading into mid-December, ice conditions are unpredictable on many waters in any given year.


As such, we've sort of trended back toward square one when it comes to early ice safety reminders. With that in mind, here are some guidelines from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department:

  • Snow insulates ice, hampering solid ice formation, and makes it difficult to check thickness. Snow also hides the blemishes, such as cracked, weak and open water areas.

  • Avoid cracks, pressure ridges and slushy or darker areas that signal thinner ice. The same goes for ice that forms around partially submerged trees, brush, embankments or other structures.

  • Ice thickness is not always consistent and can vary significantly even within a small area. Ice shouldn't be judged by appearance alone. Anglers should drill test holes as they make their way out on the lake and use an ice chisel to check ice thickness while moving around.

  • Daily temperature changes cause ice to expand and contract, affecting its strength.

  • The following minimums are recommended for travel on clear-blue lake ice formed under ideal conditions. However, early in winter it's a good idea to double these figures to be safe: 4 inches for a group walking single file, 6 inches for a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, 8 to 12 inches for an automobile and 12 to 15 inches for a pickup or truck.

  • If someone does break through the ice, call 911 immediately. Rescue attempts should employ a long pole, board, rope, blanket or snowmobile suit. If that's not possible, throw the victim a life jacket, empty water jug or other buoyant object.

  • To treat hypothermia, replace wet clothing with dry clothing and immediately take the victim to a hospital.

These tips aren't meant to scare anyone away from going on the ice, but it is still a time of year when we all should thoroughly assess ice conditions before venturing out.
Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at


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Doug Leier

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