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Boreal Community Media

Experts advise caution before heading out on Northland lakes

Dec 01, 2021 05:35AM ● By Editor
A ice fisherman ventures out on Fish Lake near Duluth.  Photo: KBJR/CBS

By Abigael Smith of KBJR-TV - November 29, 2021

As we turn a corner in the Northland, diving headfirst into winter weather, many are itching to get out on frozen lakes.

Ponds and smaller lakes have already started freezing over, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to go out on.

Tim Wagner, owner of Hi Banks Resort on Fish Lake said he has already seen dozens of skaters and anglers make their way across the icy lake. Though he encourages winter recreation, he said everyone should always be cautious when getting on ice.

“Some of them don’t think, they just go, and that’s not the proper thing to do,” Wagner said.

Wagner stresses people should be educated when deciding it’s a good time to head out on frozen water.

“Always check with your bait shops. The resorts around here are the best ones to ask about ice conditions and they change quite a bit,” Wagner said.

The U.S. Coast Guard Station in Duluth is also encouraging everyone to be prepared.

“We like everybody to make a plan and stick to that plan. Let everybody know where you’re gonna be when you plan on being back,” said Petty Officer Jonathan Dellinger.

Dellinger said ice conditions are always unpredictable and no matter how safe you may feel, you should always use caution.

“Try not to go out alone. And then have a lifejacket and something reflective, so if you do end up in a situation we can find you pretty easily,” Dellinger said.

Wagner at Fish Lake said many find comfort in staying on ice closest to the shore, something he said is a common mistake.

“They like to stay close to shore, and close to shore isn’t always the best thing because of springs coming out right underground right by the shoreline. If you go out you’re better off to stay out away from the shoreline, away from exposed rock piles from the sun beating on them,” Wagner said.

Officials also urge people to always have proper winter weather gear, prepare for changing weather conditions, have proper safety equipment, and above all, have a fun, safe winter.

So far there have been no reports of any ice-related incidents on any Northland lakes.

Click here for more information about how you can be safe on the ice this winter.

Checking ice thickness

Before heading out on ice:

Temperature, snow cover, currents, springs and rough fish all affect the relative safety of ice. Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away. Check the ice at least every 150 feet.

Ways to check ice thickness:

ice chisel
Ice chisel

An ice chisel is a metal rod with a sharp, flat blade welded onto one end. Drive the chisel into the ice, using a stabbing motion, to create a hole. Next, measure ice thickness with a tape measure.

ice auger

Ice auger

There are 3 different kinds of augers: hand, electric and gas. Hand augers are low cost, light weight and quiet. Electric augers are also quiet, but use less manual labor than a hand auger. Gas augers drill through ice the fastest, but are heavier, noisier and generally more costly than hand or electric models. After drilling a hole with the ice auger, measure ice thickness with a tape measure.
Cordless drill

Using a cordless drill and a long, five-eighths inch wood auger bit, you can drill through eight inches of ice in less than 30 seconds. Most cordless drills that are at least 7.2 volts will work, but the type of bit is critical. You need a wood auger bit since they have a spiral called a "flute" around the shaft that metal drilling bits don't. The flutes pull the ice chips out of the hole and help keep it from getting stuck, much in the way a full-sized ice auger works. After drilling a hole, measure ice thickness with a measure tape. Dry the bit and give it a quick spray of silicone lubricant after each use to prevent rust.

tape measure
Tape measure

Use a tape measure to find ice’s true thickness. Put the tape measure into the hole and hook the bottom edge of ice before taking measurement. You can also use an ice fisherman's ice skimmer with inch markings on the handle in place of the tape measure.

Don't judge ice thickness by how easily a chisel or drill breaks the surface. It happens so quickly that it’s easy to overestimate the thickness.

cars in ice
Additional recommendations

Cars, pickups or SUVs should be parked at least 50 feet apart and moved every two hours to prevent sinking.

Tip: Make a hole next to the car. If water starts to overflow the top of the hole -  the ice is sinking and it’s time to move the vehicle.

For more information on ice safety or to request free publications, please contact the information center at:

Phone: (651) 296-6157 (metro area) or 1-888-646-6367 (toll free outside the metro area)Email: [email protected] (link sends email).

To see the original story and read related reporting, follow this link to the KBJR-TV website.