What if I were ice fishing and fell through the ice?

By: Katherine Neer

Ice fishing
Ice fishing

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, approximately two million people brave freezing temperatures and frightening wind chills every winter to go ice fishing. Many of these avid anglers take to the frozen waters of the Great Lakes. In the process, they place themselves in a potentially dangerous situation. Most ice fishermen are aware of this and take many precautions to maintain safety. A few of the precautionary measures they take are:

  • Fish with a friend - ice fishing alone is never a good idea.
  • Check ahead - be aware of weather and fishing conditions before you embark on your trip
  • Wear a PFD (personal flotation device)
  • Look for an area with at least 3.5 to 4 inches of solid, clear, fresh ice
  • Notify friends and family of fishing plans
  • Carry safety gear such as augers, screwdrivers, spikes and rope

However, no matter how careful you are, accidents do happen. So what if you do fall through the ice while fishing? Basically, there are two things you need to worry about:


In all likelihood you're wearing some kind of PFD, so you shouldn't sink below the surface altogether. Your top priority is to get out of the water. Whether you're wearing a PFD or not, in water temperatures between 32.5 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) and 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 degrees Celsius), you have very little time before hypothermia will start to set in. Victims have been known to succumb to hypothermia in as little as 10 to 15 minutes. If you become hypothermic, you'll probably pass out and subsequently drown.


Escaping From Icy Water

Drilling the hole to fish disturbs the ice and can be dangerous.
Drilling the hole to fish disturbs the ice and can be dangerous.
Iahulbak I/Dreamstime.com

If you do fall through the ice, try to remain calm and quickly grab for surface ice in the direction from where you came. The ice behind you is stronger -- remember that you just traveled across it. Using your auger or any other sharp object you have, pull yourself onto the ice. Once you're up and out of the water, don't stand up. By keeping your weight distributed evenly over the ice, you have a better chance of not breaking through again. You can either roll or crawl away from the hole. Once you reach safe ice, you're not out of danger yet. You must be treated for hypothermia as soon as possible. Your body temperature will continue to drop as long as you're in a cold environment. Find shelter and dry clothes immediately. You can drink warm non-alcoholic liquids. No matter how tempting, don't drink any alcohol -- it dilates your blood vessels and increases heat loss.

Now let's say it's not you, but your fishing buddy that takes a dive. What should you do? Your first instinct will be to run toward him or her to help. Don't do this -- you'll both end up in the water! Quickly locate the longest thing you have at hand -- your auger, some rope, a pole or a branch will do nicely. Lie down on the ice and stretch the item out toward your friend. After he or she grabs on, pull your friend to safety. If you don't have anything long enough to reach your friend, but there are several people around, form a human chain. Everyone should lie flat on the ice, one in front of the other, holding on to the next person's feet until you can reach the victim. Again, your friend will need to seek first aid for hypothermia.


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