Brutally cold weather never failed to accompany our first icefishing foray of the year. My brother Ken, along with longtime family friend Peter Amico, and I would plan the trip to our Berkshire County, Massachusetts, camp for weeks–a day of rabbit hunting and a day of icefishing. No matter which weekend we picked, we could count on it being the coldest weekend of the winter. The one we chose in January about 10 years ago was certainly no different.

Undeterred by 20 to 30 mph wind gusts and temperatures hovering in the single digits, the three of us headed out across the small lake to the protected cove on its far side. There we hoped to set up a mini-camp of sorts, complete with a warming fire and barbecue pit. Winter, an abnormally cold one at that, was weeks old, and we felt confident of the safety of the ice. It was not an issue in our minds–until I watched Amico disappear as if a great scythe had lopped off his legs.

In the few seconds it took me to realize what had occurred, Amico had already rolled out of the water and was flailing around in the snow like the flopping fish we were targeting on that blustery day. His Eagle Scout training had obviously kicked in. However, the danger was far from over. Although our camp was less than a mile away, we knew he’d never make it unless we could start a fire and warm him up before the trek back through the wind and cold. That’s what we did, averting disaster, and later that evening we celebrated our relative good fortune. It could have been much worse.

That same year, the Lifesaving Society, Canada’s lifeguarding experts, reported 22 ice-related deaths in Ontario. This winter will be no different.

So how do you know when the ice you’re looking to fish is safe? Here are some rules.

1 | Never assume the ice is safe There are many factors that can compromise ice strength. Always figure that those factors are in your equation.

2 | Carefully observe ice conditions Slack ice is new and weak; clear blue ice is typically the strongest. Be watchful of slushy ice late in the season. Also watch for ice-weakening features, such as flowing water near ice edges, any nearby vegetation and, of course, cracks.

3 | Get local information Call your state’s DNR, check with local bait shops and speak with other icefishermen on the scene about ice thickness. Then test it for yourself. If the edges seem safe, drill or chip a hole to check thickness.

4 | Have a safety plan in place; never icefish alone When you go out with a group, be sure to dress properly, and take along a change of clothing in a dry bag just in case. Spread out while navigating the ice, and be sure that all members of your party are equipped with a set of ice picks (see box below).

5 | Follow ice-thickness guidelines:

• 4 inches or less: Stay off!

• 4 to 6 inches: Icefishing should be safe. However, carefully observe local conditions.

• 6 to 10 inches: Snowmobiles and ATV travel is generally considered safe.

• 10 to 16 inches: Although it is probably best avoided when possible, small cars and pickups can begin to hit the ice. I prefer never to drive on ice at all.

• 16-plus inches: Generally safe for mid-size pickups.

Ice Safety Gear

Prevention is key to steering clear of icefishing danger, but ice picks can be the key to avoiding icefishing disaster. The Pick-of-Life consists of two spike-adorned handles connected by nylon cord. To use it, thread the cord through the sleeves of your coat so that the picks hang well down your arm–within reach of your palms. If you happen to fall through the ice, grasp the picks firmly, dig them into the ice and pull yourself out. ($20;