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Safety on the Ice, Lessons from a Survivor

A story and advice about ice fishing safety
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This article is about Fish Explorer member Bud Everson, his fishing partner Howie, and an unforgettable trip to the ice at Chatfield Reservoir.

The day started for them at the ponds south of Chatfield reservoir, and then they hit up a potential honey hole in the Kingfisher area of the lake.  The thought was there might be some giant fish trapped in Kingfisher cove due to the summer flooding and subsequent drop to normal water levels.

They parked, looked over the ice and ventured out.  Initially, they were on ice that had been previously fished, as there was evidence of holes having been drilled.  Bud stopped, drilled a six-inch hole and checked the thickness.  It was five inches, but looked a little strange to him.  It looked almost as if there were two separate and distinct layers to the ice, where it had thawed a little in the heat of day and frozen a new layer of snow and ice over the top. But it seemed safe enough so they ventured further out. 

By now, they were beyond the previously fished holes and realized there was no evidence of anyone else being out there. They headed towards the center of the cove, hopefully to thicker ice.  Howie and Bud stopped and agreed they just didn't feel good about it.  Bud turned, picked up his drill, took two steps to the side, and on the second step heard and felt the sound of the ice giving way.

Falling through, Bud instinctively spread his arms, grasped the edges of the ice and prevented himself from going totally under.  He reached into his shirt pocket to grab his picks and stuck them into the ice to hang on. While he hung there, he released one hand, and started shoving chunks of the broken ice back under the edge of the ice, to get it out of his way and stabilize the weakened ice.

Upon hearing and seeing Bud break through, Howie grabbed Bud's sled, turned it around and pushed it over for him to grab with his hand.  Holding the rope and giving a tug, Howie himself broke through. Howie quickly crawled back onto the ice and headed to the shore.  He saw some passersby and asked that they call 9-1-1. They did so as Howie ran back to the safety rescue rope and tire at the beach.  Grabbing the rope he realized that it was too far for him to effectively throw it to Bud, so he went back out on the ice to get closer.  However, the added weight of his water logged clothes made him fall through yet again; this time much closer to shore.  Pulling himself out once again, Howie realized there was just no way for him to rescue Bud by himself. 

He called out to Bud to hold on and that help was on the way.  Upon seeing Howie break through not once, but twice, Bud thought to himself that he couldn’t panic, that hypothermia was setting in, that he needed to control his breathing and reserve his strength. He knew he only had one or possibly two more shots at pulling himself out.  He could hear the sirens in the distance coming closer, and soon the first park ranger was on site taking command of the situation. 

The ranger tried to get to Bud, but he too fell through, and the dive team was sent out.  The dive team eventually succeeded in getting to Bud, securing him with a rope around his torso, and yanked him to safety.  According to Bud, the ranger said that judging by the 9-1-1 logbooks, Bud had been in the water for 45 minutes.

They gave first aide to both Bud and Howie and transported them both to the emergency room for treatment of hypothermia and other related things. Having been in the water the longest, Bud was in the most serious shape.  His core temperature was in the 80's, which is really low.  It is truly a miracle that he didn't suffer a heart attack or lose consciousness out in the water.

The head ranger came to see Bud in the emergency room afterward and thanked Bud for making his job easier by having his safety equipment on him, and equally important knowing how to use it. 

Why am I relating this story to you?  Bud and Howie are survivors of an extraordinary fall through the ice.  Bud expressed his desire that everyone should learn from the mistakes that were made that day, and that his story serve as a lesson to all who ice fish that there is no such thing as safe ice.

Now, we will break down what was done correctly, what mistakes that were made, and what should have been done that would have possibly affected this story.  We will also go over a short list of safety items important to know and have.


What was done correctly? 

  • Bud and Howie fished the early ice together, as buddies.  It is always a good decision when ice fishing to go with a group or at the least a buddy in case something happens.
  • They both carried their ice picks on them to use to crawl back onto the ice in case an event happened, and equally important they had both watched videos and knew how to use them.
  • When Bud broke through, Howie tried to use Bud's sled as a rescue device, extending his reach to Bud without putting himself into danger.  However, in this case, the ice was too compromised for that to be effective.
  • When faced with the situation, Bud did not panic. He remained calm, cool, and collected and recalled all of the safety instruction he knew about falling in icy water.



Ice Picks, courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife



Now let's look at what went wrong

  • Bud realizes that looking back on it, he and Howie were much too close together.  His estimation was around six to eight feet apart. 

  • When Bud first heard a funny cracking sound, he thought it was two layers of the ice moving, but instead it was the ice settling and sagging before breaking. 

  • They had ventured onto an area of the ice not fished before, without prior knowledge of the water, whether there may have been springs nearby, flowing water, or other anomalies that could affect the ice condition and thickness.

  • They did not use a spud bar to test the ice, as they were moving out upon it.

  • They had not seen the lake daily, did not know where the ice had capped first, how the winds had blown recently, and where currents flowed, They did not have an idea how the ice laid exactly.

  • They had no real idea of the routes that previous fisherman had used getting on and off the ice. After drilling their test holes, they should have stopped when they felt uneasy with what they were seeing in the ice. But 65 years on the ice without incident had made Bud complacent and too reliant on his own judgment to properly assess the dangers.


Spud Bar, courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

In talking with Bud, we went over several items of safety for others out on the ice as a result of this incident.  Here are Bud's thoughts on this based on 65 years of ice fishing.

1. Always ice fish with a buddy.  You never know when help might be needed. In the event that one of you falls through, your partner should FIRST CALL 9-1-1 to report it and activate emergency response.  This can shave minutes off the rescue. Do this before attempting to help your partner who has broken through.

2. Always carry your ice picks whether you are going out to just check the ice, or for a day of fishing.

3. Watch videos on ice safety, take a class such as Nate Zelinski's ice fishing school on how to get out of the water if you fall through, and learn how to use your safety items.

4. Carry a PFD on your sled.  Whether it’s a throwable cushion with a rope attached, or even a five-gallon bucket with a lid attached that can be used as a PFD in an emergency.

5. Most sleds have two holes in them to mount the towrope.  Take and put eyebolts in those holes and attach clips to your rope to attach it to a sled.  That way, if the situation arises, you can unclip the rope and attach it to the PFD to throw out to someone in need.

6. Take your time when going out on the ice.  It’s not a race to get out there.  Observe the conditions, the cracks, and the lay of the land, so to speak.  If you see cracks, new or re-frozen, observe them, and determine whether the surrounding ice is stable or not.


Ice Ridge, courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

7. You can use your sled as a bridge, to distribute your weight more evenly on the ice if you find yourself in a dangerous situation.

8. ALWAYS wear a PFD. Inflatable, regular, or even one of the brands of floating ice suits on the market.  They are expensive, but are they really expensive when weighed with the cost of your life?

9. Never carry your car keys in your jeans pockets.  When you do get out of the water, your first need is to get out of your wet clothes and get warm.  Pockets will freeze shut, zippers won't work, etc.  Keep a spare set of keys on the car or around your neck for quick and ready access.

10. ALWAYS carry a spare set of clothes in your vehicle to change into in the event that you fall through.

11. Always carry and use a spud bar to check the ice thickness as you are walking out on the ice.

12. Check the local conditions of the water before going.  Fish Explorer is an excellent place to do this.  Check forum posts and more importantly lake conditions reports found on the lake pages for potential dangers before going.

13. Discuss with your buddy the plan if something should happen. Where your vehicle keys are, share local ranger numbers, etc.

14. Learn to read the ice through watching videos, talking with experienced ice anglers, and using common sense.

Here are some links to helpful videos on ice safety:

How to use ice picks to self rescue or get onto the ice,

Basic Ice Safety and equipment and how to use it

Testing the ice safety for walking


Ice Thickness Rule of Thumb, courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Thankfully my friends, this incident turned out well in the end.  I shudder to think of the loss of my good friend had things turned out differently.

Ice fishing is a fun, enjoyable part of fishing that gives every angler an opportunity to fish parts of a lake they may not otherwise be able to. It is fun, and can remain enjoyable if we all, first and foremost, take the time to learn about ice safety.


© 2024 John Stevens
About the author, John Stevens:
I love to fish. I fish Cherry Creek Reservoir and Aurora reservoir primarily from shore, Cherry Creek mostly at night. My main target is the ever elusive Walleye, but I have caught many other species as well. My forte is research ! I believe that the more that we know our prey, their food, habits, patterns... the better we can be as fisherman.