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Make sure ice is safe before venturing out fishing

As ice thickens on Wisconsin waterways, anglers are preparing to venture out and take part in one of the most participated winter activities - ice fishing.

Knowing when it is safe to venture out onto the ice, how to travel on ice, and what to do should the ice break are as important as the rudiments of fishing itself.

"There is no such thing as safe ice," says Chris Wunrow, DNR law enforcement safety specialist "and although a lake or river is frozen that does not mean it can be safely traveled."

Tips for anglers and winter enthusiasts

• Clear, solid ice at least 2 inches thick is usually sufficient to hold a single person walking on foot. Better idea is to wait for 3 inch ice and go with a friend who stays 50 feet away. Ice fishing with several friends and gear requires at least 4 inches of ice; snowmobiles and ATVs require a minimum of 5 inches.

• Ice is generally thicker near shore. Check thickness with an ice spud or auger starting from a few feet from shore and every 10 to 20 feet towards the middle of the waterway.

• Lake ice is generally stronger than river ice. Springs, lake inlets and outlets and channels can alter ice thickness.

• Before heading out onto early or newly-formed ice, check with a local bait shop, resort owner, or outdoors store regarding ice thickness or known thin spots.

• Always carry a couple of large sharpened nails and rope in an easily accessible pocket. The nails or commercially-bought ice grabbers can help a person pull themselves out of the water onto more solid ice. The rope can be thrown to another person for rescue.

• If you are alone and go through the ice, take a few seconds to get over the shock. Regain your breathing, kick hard and try to swim up onto the ice. Then crawl on hands and knees or roll to more solid ice. Get to the nearest warm place quickly. If you're unable to get onto the ice, get as much of your body out of the water and yell for help. Studies show you will have about 30 minutes or more before the body is incapacitated by hypothermia.

• Proper clothing can increase chances of survival. A zipped-up snowmobile-type suit can and will trap air and slow the body's heat loss. Once filled with water, however, insulated suits become heavy and hinder rescue. Newer-model snowmobile suits have flotation material built. On early ice it is advised to wear a personal flotation device.

• Refrain from driving on ice whenever possible. Traveling in a vehicle -- especially early or late in the season -- is an accident waiting to happen.

• When driving on ice, be prepared to leave the vehicle in a hurry. Unbuckle the seatbelt and have a simple plan of action in case of ice breakthrough. Anglers may want to leave a window open for an easy exit.

• Often vehicles will establish roads from shore to the current fishing hotspots. Repeated vehicle use may cause the ice to weaken. The ice roads may not always be the safest routes.

• When using a gas or liquid heater to warm an ice shack or tent make sure it is properly ventilated with at least two openings, one at the top and one at the bottom of the structure. Any flame eats oxygen so proper ventilation is required.

A number of lakes in northern Wisconsin will have aeration systems operating this winter. The aeration systems are operated by governmental units or lake groups and cause areas of the lakes to remain ice-free. The systems bubble oxygenated air into the water helping to prevent fish die offs known as winterkill. Lakes with aeration systems will have notices posted at public accesses.

"Common sense is the greatest ally in preventing ice-related accidents," he says, "and that includes checking ice conditions and preparing oneself before venturing out."

Five minutes of checking ice from shore, and systematic checks while going out on the ice, he notes, can make the difference between an enjoyable winter experience and a tragedy.