Sheriff's Corner: Early season ice is always a safety concern

Law enforcement offers some guidelines to consider when planning your ice travel for fishing or recreation.

Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch

With the current governor issuing “pause” on social activities and establishments, we see lots of people looking for outdoor recreational opportunities and this great fall/winter weather has allowed a variety of these activities to occur. With freezing lakes and early ice, we would like to remind readers about the dangers of early ice conditions.

Recently, our area lakes have been making good ice; however, early season ice is always a safety concern for the Sheriff’s Office and emergency responders in our area. Each year, early ice is different and this year, with the freeze and thaw conditions, we are concerned about early ice activity. We often get calls at the sheriff’s office about ice safety, specifically if ice is safe on a particular lake or location. These are tough questions to answer, as we honestly don’t know, especially since conditions can change rapidly and daily. We do our best to mark known thin ice areas and problem areas that occur, but we cannot mark them all. There really is no sure answer. You cannot judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature or whether or not the ice is covered with snow. Strength is based on all these factors -- plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice and local climatic conditions.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources specifies some guidelines to consider when planning your ice travel for fishing or recreation.

Generally, with good clear ice conditions, the rule of thumb is:

  • 2 inches or less -- Stay off

  • 4 inches -- Ice fishing or other activities on foot

  • 5 inches -- Snowmobile or ATV

  • 8-12 inches -- Car or small pickup

  • 12-15 inches -- Medium truck

Other things to keep in mind:


  • New ice is usually stronger than old ice. Four inches of clear, newly formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially thawed ice may not.

  • Ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

  • Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.

  • The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process. The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

  • Booming and cracking ice isn't necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

  • Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can also adversely affect the relative safety of ice. The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake. In the past, this has opened holes in the ice causing snowmobiles and cars to break through.

In the event that you or someone falls through the ice, first call 911 for help. Resist the urge to run up to the edge of the hole. This would most likely result in two victims in the water. Also, do not risk your life to attempt to save a pet or other animal! We often get calls about animals on the ice or that have gone through the ice and people are wondering what can be done. The DNR has created easily remembered steps to assist someone who has fallen through the ice; called Preach, Reach, Throw, Row, Go.

  • Preach -- Shout to the victim to encourage them to fight to survive and reassure them that help is on the way.

  • Reach -- If you can safely reach the victim from shore, extend an object such as a rope, ladder, or jumper cables to the victim. If the person starts to pull you in, release your grip on the object and start over.

  • Throw -- Toss one end of a rope or something that will float to the victim. Have them tie the rope around themselves before they are too weakened by the cold to grasp it.

  • Row -- Find a light boat to push across the ice ahead of you. Push it to the edge of the hole, get into the boat and pull the victim in over the bow. It’s not a bad idea to attach some rope to the boat, so others can help pull you and the victim to safety.

  • Go -- A nonprofessional should not go out on the ice to perform a rescue unless all other basic rescue techniques have been ruled out.

  • If the situation is too dangerous for you to perform the rescue, wait for help and keep reassuring the victim that help is on the way and urge them to fight to survive.

We want your ice fishing and recreation adventures to be safe, enjoyable and successful. We understand that people are looking to these activities to recreate during the pandemic. That is why we share this information frequently. We want you to share it with your family and holiday guests that may be recreating on our area lakes.
All of us at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and thank you for allowing us to serve you this past year. We want you to have a safe and happy Holiday season.

If you have specific questions that you would like answered in this column or in person, please feel free to contact me anytime using one of the following methods: By email at ; by phone at 218-547-1424 or 800-450-2677; or by mail or in person at the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, 303 Minnesota Ave. W, P.O. Box 1119, Walker, MN, 56484.

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