The ice fishing season is here. We are at early ice, so proceed with caution if venturing onto the ice - it very seldom freezes uniformly.
You should have 4 inches of good clear ice to be on the ice (foot traffic only). Because there may be 4 inches in one location close to shore, does not mean that it is the same all over. Check with an ice chisel or spud as you move out on the ice to the edge of break lines.
Areas with current should be avoided now as well as neck down areas, or areas of shallow gravel or rock. Shallow areas with emergent weeds can also have thin ice areas with thicknesses varying only feet apart.
Make sure you do not get in an overcrowded area in this early ice season, as the ice can sag or break with concentrated weight over a small area. If the ice is sagging, water will flow out of your ice hole and flood the area with water. Flooded areas will break down, thin, and weaken the ice even more.
Spread out. It is tempting for others to crowd in on an area they know fish are getting caught. Don't be that person. Look for another area with similar structure to avoid crowding an area.
Wait with snowmobile or ATV travel on the ice until thickness is a consistent 5-6 inches in areas that are being traveled. Depending on cold temps and snow cover, it will probably be another week or more before cars or small trucks/SUVs will be ready to travel on the ice. Thicknesses should be a minimum of 8 inches and lean more toward 10-12 inches for them, especially due to the fact that most times others are driving or parking in the same areas.
If we get some of the snow that is predicted, keep in mind that can change some of the ice thickness recommendations. Snow acts as an insulator on the ice and slows freezing and ice development down. The snow also adds additional weight that can create sagging and slushing. Always pay attention to the conditions. If flooding and slushing progresses while in an area - move. Ice thickness needs to be a minimum of 12-15 inches to support medium sized trucks and SUVs, and we are probably two weeks away from those conditions.
No doubt you will see some anglers push limits with ice thicknesses, and they may even pull houses out before it is reasonable. Use your good judgement and don't just follow the leader - the leader may be acting a fool!
The early ice bite is usually pretty good, and social media gets people excited when they see someone post pics from an early ice trip. This past week has had some anglers that got out on 2-3 inches, and leads others to assume that it is OK to jump on the ice anywhere.
All bodies of water are different in the development of ice conditions. Know your lake of choice. Check with bait shops and/or full season resorts, and check ice conditions for yourself. Take ice picks, rope, flotation (throw cushion, life jacket, kneeling pad) with just in case you need to get out of the water.
The resorts around Red Lake, always a very good early season ice bite for walleyes, have announced that they will be letting anglers out for foot traffic only starting Friday the 16th. Most years Red Lake ices over earlier than we do in this immediate area due to the colder conditions just those couple hours north of us.
Enjoy the ice season, but make good decisions. The early and late ice can always be a little unpredictable.
(Laabs owns Brad Laabs Guide Service in Detroit Lakes)