Is Ice Fishing Dangerous? Most Common Injuries of Ice Anglers + Safety Tips


Bungee jumping, parachuting, white water rafting… It’s accepted that all of the above come with a little bit of risk. But what about ice fishing?

OK, so it isn’t quite as adrenaline-fueled, but is ice fishing dangerous? Provided you stick to a few simple rules, no, it isn’t inherently dangerous. Is there any risk? Yes.

But today I’m going to tell you all about them and how you can manage them for a really safe experience.

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Is Ice Fishing Dangerous?

Ice fishing can be dangerous. But it needn’t be.

It’s all about risk management.

The truth is any activity carries risk. Whether that be cooking in your kitchen or going to work out at the gym (I’d rather be fishing). What differentiates ‘danger’ and ‘risk’?

Well, it goes like this.

Danger is a real threat that has a realistic possibility of occurring. Risk is the potential for something to become a danger. By managing and reducing the risk, you reduce the danger.

Get it?

Ice fishing isn’t dangerous… but that comes with a few caveats.

I should really say, “Ice fishing isn’t dangerous, provided you behave safely and responsibly”.

Let’s be honest.

Standing on a flat and slippery sheet of ice in cold conditions above several thousand gallons of ice-cold water isn’t quite as safe as being sat on the bank in summer. But provided you are well prepared, you should actually be pretty safe.

fishermen ice fishing on frozen lake

What Are the Biggest Dangers of Ice Fishing?

The first step to staying safe is to be aware of the danger in the first place. The list I am about to give you isn’t designed to frighten you. By educating ourselves, we can guard against the dangers of ice fishing. I’ll also give you some handy solutions to mitigate your risk.

Here are some things that can be particularly dangerous when ice fishing and how you might want to deal with them:

The Cold

OK, let’s start small. If you are ice fishing, there is an excellent chance of the season and the weather being cold.

If you thought hypothermia was something only experienced by explorers and mountaineers, think again.

Hypothermia is a condition where your body can’t generate heat fast enough to replace the heat that it is losing due to external conditions.

And here’s the thing.

Hypothermia can be fatal. It is also insidious. It damages your mental faculty, so you might not even realize that you’ve got it.

Here are some signs of hypothermia, according to the Mayo clinic:

  • Confusion and memory loss.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Uncontrollable shivering.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Slow or weak pulse.

The answer to avoiding hypothermia?

Stay dry and warm!

There are plenty of options open to you when ice fishing. You will almost certainly need a really great ice fishing suit. You could also consider investing in an ice fishing shelter. To make sure it is really toasty, how’s about an ice fishing heater.

Being slightly less severe for a moment…

Hypothermia isn’t the only danger that the cold represents. Want to know what really stings?

Frostbite!

The good news is that frostbite is really easy to prevent. It tends to affect extremities, such as your fingers.

Here’s my go-to solution…

The best ice fishing gloves I can get my hands on (or in).

angler creating fishing hole on frozen lake in winter

Falling Through the Ice

What worries most people about ice fishing is the thought of falling through the ice.

Before I continue, let me say this.

If there is even the slightest chance of you falling through the ice, don’t go fishing. It really is that simple.

Occasionally accidents happen regardless of how careful you have been. There are a few things that you can do to guard against falling through the ice.

First, buoyancy aids. Pick ice fishing bibs and suits that have built-in buoyancy, that way, you’ll float if you do happen to take a tumble.

Second, make sure that you always carry a pair of ice fishing picks. These are sharp spikes that you can use to get a good grip on the ice and pull yourself to safety.

Falling On the Ice

Most guys don’t get injured falling through the ice. In fact, they get injured falling on the ice.

You know what they say about ice, right?

It’s slippery.

It isn’t so bad with good snow cover, but it is so easy to slip and fall on fresh ice. If your legs go forward, you can risk a severe head injury as you fall backward. Trust me, it isn’t fun.

What’s the best way to avoid slipping on the ice?

Easy.

Make sure you’ve got a great pair of ice fishing boots, and take cleats too! Both will provide you with the grip you need, and as an added bonus, ice fishing boots are super warm and comfy.

ice fishing shelter at night stands on a lake

Burns

Wait, what?

Burns when the weather is cold? What gives?

You’d be amazed at the number of injuries ice fishing anglers receive from burns. It is one of the real dangers of ice fishing. Combine high-powered heaters with enclosed shelters and nylon clothing, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a blaze.

Being vigilant around fires is always vital. You might also want to consider a first aid kit and even stowing a fire extinguisher.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Again this is a hidden danger that so many people fail to think about when ice fishing.

Inhalation injuries are actually common when ice fishing. Carbon monoxide poisoning is so dangerous, and if it affects you, you won’t even realize it! It is caused by breathing fumes given off by burning things… Such as a small gas fire in your fishing shelter.

The danger is that the symptoms are subtle, and when they become severe, it can often be too late. Here are the signs that you might be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning:

  • Dizziness.
  • Blurred Vision.
  • Confusion.
  • A continuous headache.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Shortness of breath.

There are a few ways you can avoid this. If you check my guide on ice fishing heaters, you’ll see electrical options, meaning no carbon monoxide. Alternatively, a good fishing shelter will have vent flaps allowing any toxic emissions to escape.

top aerial view of winter ice fishing tent

Most Common Injuries of Ice Anglers

Think that it won’t happen to you? My friends, you are headed for a fall (perhaps literally). You’d be amazed at the number of injuries and how common they are when ice fishing.

A study from the U.S. National Institute of Health gives details of the most common injuries of ice anglers.

Want the good news?

Out of the 8220 fishing-related injuries received in 5 years, only 1% related to ice fishing.

Is ice fishing dangerous? According to the stats, there are fewer injuries, but the cause of those injuries is more severe.

Want to know what dangers in ice fishing present the biggest risk? Check out the table below and see how most guys end up injured out on the ice, in order of risk:

Injury Percentage of Ice Anglers Affected
Musculoskeletal (read sprains and broken bones) 45.9%
Minor trauma 35.5%
Major trauma 5.9%
Burns 4.7%
Drowning 4.7%
Cold thermal injury 1.2%
Medical problems 1.2%

It is interesting to note that in terms of percentage, Musculoskeletal injuries were much more common among ice anglers when compared to regular fishermen. The chance of being either burned or drowned was higher too!

Musculoskeletal injuries when ice fishing isn’t just about slipping on the ice. Falling into even a small ice hole or tripping over can be a nasty business.

Dangers Related to Ice Thickness

In light of the above (especially when you consider the increased incidence of drowning), it makes sense to be aware of the dangers of ice thickness.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again.

If there is doubt, there is no doubt!

Falling through the ice is everyone’s worst nightmare. Here’s a quick guide to minimizing the dangers related to ice thickness:

man ice fishing on a frozen lake

Check the Ice Color

You can gain a lot of useful information just by looking at the ice. The color of the ice is often a good indicator of its quality.

  • Clear ice – This is fresh ice that is pretty solid.
  • White Ice – This indicates the presence of air, or thawing and refreezing. It is not as strong as clear ice.
  • Grey ice – My advice? Stay off grey ice. It is normally a sign that the ice is melting and can be variable in quality.

General Rules of Thumb – Recommended Ice Thickness

Listen.

If there is one group of people who know a thing about ice, it’s the Canadians. Based on guidance from Outdoor Canada, here’s a quick guide to how thick the ice needs to be for different weights:

  • 3 Inches or Less – No doubt, keep off the ice!
  • 4 Inches – thick enough for individuals to walk on.
  • 5 Inches – Suitable for an ATV or snowmobile.
  • 8 – 12 Inches – thick enough for a small car or pickup.
  • 12 – 15 Inches – mid-sized pickup or van.

General Ice Thickness Guide

There are a few little rules you need to know to make a good decision when ice fishing. Remember, different depths freeze at different points.

Eddies and currents also change the way that water freezes. Here are a few pointers to assess the danger relating to ice thickness.

  • Ice is thinner nearer to the shore.
  • Currents and flow cause the ice to be thinner.
  • Underwater features like submerged trees cause the ice to be thinner.
  • If you can’t see the color of the ice due to snow or precipitation, don’t fish.

If you happen to fall through the ice, it pays to know how to get out of it. Check out this two-minute video. It could save your life:

How Do You Know if Ice is Thick Enough to Fish?

Look, you will get guys saying ‘check this website’ or ‘it’s the right time of year’.

Here’s what I say.

Check for yourself.

You’ll need a tape measure and an ice auger. Drill holes regularly and measure the thickness of the ice. And by regularly, I mean really regularly. As I said above, there can be huge discrepancies in the thickness of the ice on the same lake, so don’t expect to walk hundreds of yards and for it to be OK.

The times you really need to be careful are in the shoulder months, i.e., the start and end of the season. For utter certainty, be sure only to fish in the coldest seasons (normally January and February).

man waering ice suit and ice fishing on a lake in winter

Stay Safe When Ice Fishing – 6 Top Tips

Alright, guys, I want you to have a great time, and for that reason, here’s a quick rundown of things I normally do when ice fishing.

The below quick guide will set you off in the right direction to staying safe on the ice at all times.

Always Try to Fish in Company

Look, it is more fun when you take a buddy along. Also, it means that if one of you does get into trouble, someone else is available to raise the alarm.

Tell Someone Where You are Going and When You’ll be Back

If you are going solo, make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you will be back. That way, if you don’t arrive on time, they can raise the alarm.

Keep a Mobile Phone Charged and to Hand

This is vital. A mobile phone is your direct link to the (safe) outside world. Make sure it is charged. I also keep mine in a Ziploc bag to ensure that even if I get wet, the phone stays dry.

Wear Appropriate Clothing

Frostbite is painful, hypothermia is lethal. Be sure to dress warmly and wear appropriate clothing. Remember how slips and breakages were the most common injuries in ice fishing? Be sure to wear sturdy, grippy footwear too.

Wear a Floatation Aid

For 99.9% of the time, you aren’t going to need it… Are you willing to gamble your life on that 0.01% chance? Floatation aids mean that if you make a splash, your chances of getting out alive are greatly increased.

Pay Attention to the Ice at All Times

Fishing is great fun, but you need to remember that the ice is a changing environment. Pay attention at all times. If there is any doubt, get off the ice!

Conclusion

Is ice fishing dangerous? Hell no, it’s great fun. As with many outdoor activities, it pays to be cautious and aware of the risks.

Now that you’ve got a great idea, why not head over and check my other ice fishing guides? I talk through some great gear and ice fishing techniques.

What’s your #1 ice fishing tip? Let me know in the comments!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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