Let's be careful out there. These are the watchwords for anyone who wants to venture onto South Dakota's icy lakes.
Ice fishing experts will readily tell everyone that lake ice is never completely safe to venture out on foot, on a snowmobile or other light vehicle. Even on thick ice -- 12 to 15 inches -- the occupants of four-wheel-drive vehicles need to watch for ice heaves, obstacles if a vehicle hits them.
The seesawing of temperatures, at or above freezing during the day and below freezing at night, across South Dakota has led to uneven lake ice development. Cody Symens, Lake County GF&P conservation officer, called the current ice conditions on local lakes "dangerous," describing the ice thickness variations as ranging from open water to about 10 inches thick. Symens said lake ice could range from a safer thickness to stand on to treacherously thin just by moving several feet.
According to Symens, Lake County hasn't yet seen the dangerous accidents that have occurred in other areas of eastern South Dakota. East River has tallied as many as 20 breakthroughs involving pickups, all-terrain vehicles and utility-task vehicles.
Outdoors experts generally agree that ice should be 4 inches thick for an adult to walk out on a frozen lake. To drive a snowmobile onto a lake, a safer thickness runs from 5 to 7 inches. Larger vehicles need about a foot of ice; for a four-door sedan, it should be 8 to 12 inches thick; and large pickups need 12 to 15 inches of ice.
Sobering news originated from Lake Poinsett last weekend when a grandfather and grandson drove an ATV through the ice and died. Authorities in the Lake Poinsett area (in Hamlin and Brookings counties) reported that another vehicle and an ice-fishing shack had fallen through the ice the same weekend.
Officials with the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department have advised outdoor enthusiasts to check conditions before venturing out on a frozen lake. Outdoorsmen can check internet social media and/or inquire at local sporting-goods stores. As a rule, fishermen and other recreationists are told to always venture out onto the ice with companions.
Winter anglers and other recreationists also need to consider the quality of the ice. Clear ice serves as the gold standard. Ice that looks "milky" isn't as stable as clear ice. Experts advise doubling the thickness-safety standards for lake ice when milky or white ice is present on a lake. Symens said some lake ice in the Lake County area has developed "dark ice" spots that typically appear as the late winter months move into spring.
SDGF&P officials also advise outdoorsmen to avoid any lake ice that is covered by snow or slush and to watch for cracks or changes on ice surfaces.
Symens said that anglers should always wear a lifejacket or flotation suit. GF&P officials advise that recreationists carry other equipment:
-- Ice picks that hang around a person's neck and are clipped to the clothing. (Don't keep the ice picks in a coat pocket.)
-- Safety rope 50 to 100 feet in length.
-- A cell phone or two-way radio kept in a waterproof bag.
-- An ice auger, chisel or spud bar (long chisel bar) to test ice thickness.
-- A ruler or measuring tape.
GF&P officials also advise ice fishermen to avoid traveling on the lake after sundown, especially across unfamiliar lakes. They warn against overdriving a vehicle's headlights since a frozen surface requires more stopping distance.
According to Symens, winter anglers are advised to use a global-positioning system (GPS) tracker after dark to drive across lake ice.
South Dakota officials recently advised outdoor recreationists to avoid spear holes used by darkhouse-spearing fishermen to drop decoys and hand-spear fish. Symens said spearfishing has grown more popular in recent years; however, many outdoorsmen don't readily look for old spearfishing holes in the ice. Outdoorsmen should look for discolored ice spots, large ice blocks and tree branches. Spear fishermen are supposed to use tree branches to mark the corners of their holes before leaving the spearfishing hole.