First ice

Matt DeYoung • Dec 16, 2017 at 7:00 AM

If there’s safe ice across West Michigan, you can bet local anglers will find it. 

That’s the case today as ice fishermen are venturing out on the few frozen lakes and bayous in search of early season pike and panfish. 

John Stillson of Lakeview Marine and Tackle in Grand Haven said Friday that the only safe ice he knows of is on the back end of Bruce’s Bayou. 

“There’s about 4, 4 1/2 inches in the back of Bruce’s,” he said. 

Millhouse Bayou is typically the first to freeze over, but Stillson said he hasn’t heard of anglers heading out onto that one yet. Reports from those living on Millhouse are that several fishermen have headed down to check the ice, only to turn around and leave.

“This all just started Tuesday,” Stillson said. “There were only 2 1/2 to 3 inches (of ice depth) Tuesday, then we got a good 3 inches Wednesday, and the report was 4 inches on Bruce’s Thursday. That’s the only safe ice I know of. I wouldn’t want to send anyone anywhere else. It’s a little bit too soon.”

Stillson said those who have made it onto the ice are catching pike on tip-ups, and also pulling in bluegills and perch. 

“I’ve heard of a 28-inch pike caught (Thursday),” he said. 

One thing’s for sure — safe ice before Christmas is always a welcome gift to anglers. 

“This is the second year in a row we’ve had ice before Christmas, and that’s a blessing and a half, because our ice doesn’t last long,” Stillson said. 

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers the following ice safety tips:

Things to consider before you go out:

• Ice conditions vary from lake to lake. Find a good local source — a bait shop or fishing guide — that is knowledgeable about ice conditions on the lake you want to fish on.

• Purchase a pair of ice picks or ice claws, which are available at most sporting goods stores.

• Tell a responsible adult where you are going and what time to expect you back. Relaying your plan can help save your life if something does happen to you on the ice.

What to know about ice:

• You can't always tell the strength of ice simply by its look, its thickness, the temperature or whether or not it is covered with snow.

• Clear ice that has a bluish tint is the strongest. Ice formed by melted and refrozen snow appears milky, and is very porous and weak.

• Ice covered by snow should always be presumed unsafe. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice.

• If there is slush on the ice, stay off. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice and indicates the ice is no longer freezing from the bottom.

• Be especially cautious in areas where air temperatures have fluctuated. A warm spell may take several days to weaken the ice; however, when temperatures vary widely, causing the ice to thaw during the day and refreeze at night, the result is a weak, "spongy" or honeycombed ice that is unsafe.

• The DNR does not recommend the standard "inch-thickness" guide used by many anglers and snowmobilers to determine ice safety. A minimum of 4 inches of clear ice is required to support an average person's weight on the ice, but since ice seldom forms at a uniform rate, it is important to check ice thickness with a spud and ruler every few steps.

Venturing out on the ice:

• The DNR does not recommend taking a car or truck onto the ice at any time.

• If you are walking out onto a frozen body of water with a group, avoid crossing ice in a single file.

• Never venture out alone without telling a responsible adult onshore of your plans.

• Test ice thickness with an ice spud before you settle on a spot.

• If you are with a group, avoid standing together in a spot. Spread out.

• Wear a life jacket and bright-colored clothing.

• Take a cellphone for emergency use.

• Look for large cracks or depressions in the ice and avoid those areas.

• Remember that ice does not form with uniform thickness on any body of water. Underwater springs and currents can wear thin spots on the ice.

If you fall through:

• Try to remain calm.

• Don't remove your winter clothing. Heavy clothes won't drag you down, but instead can trap air to provide warmth and flotation. This is especially true with a snowmobile suit.

• Turn in the water toward the direction you came from — that is probably the strongest ice.

• If you have them, dig the points of the ice picks into the ice and, while vigorously kicking your feet, pull yourself onto the surface by sliding forward on the ice.

• Roll away from the area of weak ice. Rolling on the ice will distribute your weight to help avoid breaking through again.

• Get to shelter, heat, dry clothing and warm, non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated drinks.

• Call 911 and seek medical attention if you feel disoriented, have uncontrollable shivering, or have any other ill effects that may be symptoms of hypothermia (the life-threatening drop in the body's core temperature).

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