Falling through the ice is scary and potentially life-threatening no matter the circumstances. Upon first being submerged, most people experience a physiological condition known as cold shock, causing accelerated breathing, a spike in blood pressure, and a gasping reflex. This can result in sudden death caused by cardiac arrest or drowning.
After overcoming the initial shock of being submerged in near freezing water, you must gain your composure, assess and stabilize your situation, conserve your energy, and extract yourself from the water as soon as possible. While there's no substitute for common sense and proper planning to avoid life-threatening situations on the ice, accidents happen. By wearing a snow suit with added flotation, you give yourself an extra tool that could help save your life.
As with most pieces of safety equipment, they won't do you any good unless you use them. In this regard, multiple manufacturers now make suits that are easy to wear, comfortable, and highly functional for cold-water anglers on ice and open water.
Accordingly, rid yourself of the visual of heavy-duty Mustang Survival or Stearns cold-water immersion suits that fire department personnel wear during emergency rescue or recovery missions. These suits are heavy and bulky, so most anglers view them as impractical for everyday use. But Mustang, a leader in the flotation garment industry, offers more comfortable "recreational" flotation garments to meet the needs of boaters, anglers, and snowmobilers who trek over ice. Check their U.S. Coast Guard approved Catalyst coats and Integrity Jacket, in addition to Classic and Ice Rider bibs and pants. Several other leading companies produce suits designed for the fishing crowd.
Frabill is well known among ice and open-water anglers for its cold-weather and rain gear. This year, the company enters the flotation suit market with the I-Float jacket and bib set. The I-Float suit resembles a traditional snow suit but with lots of safety features. It's approved by the U.S. Coast Guard as a personal flotation device (PFD), so it has met a minimal level of quantifiable flotation properties. Not only does the jacket contain flotation, but the bib also has flotation foam padding in the knees. This is critical to self-rescue because most experts recommend kicking your feet in the water to get your body horizontal to the ice, then slowly pulling your body onto it, and finally rolling or crawling away from the hazardous area. Think of the fire safety tip of stop, drop, and roll but for ice self-rescue, remember to kick, pull, and roll. Having flotation in the knees is important because your boots quickly fill with water and become heavy. The flotation helps elevate your legs and makes it easier to get your body on plane with the ice.
Other safety features include reflective material and a bright orange interior and accents to make you more visible both in the light and dark. The jacket and bib have self-draining mesh openings to quickly drain water, reducing the wet weight of the suit. The jacket also has an integrated holder for ice picks — another essential tool for self-rescue. The I-Float is ergonomically designed for comfort, warmth, and mobility.
Stormr Strykr suits are distinctive in their look, feel, and design. They're also unique in that their buoyancy is derived from neoprene construction. While not U.S.C.G. approved as a PFD, the jacket and bib each deliver nearly five pounds of positive buoyancy. Through its parent company of Henderson Sport Group, Stormr has a pedigree in making top-quality dive and surf equipment. With a long history of catering to these high-risk sports, Stormr has translated that expertise into top-quality cold-weather fishing gear.
For a comprehensive testing of the Strykr suit, Matt Thayer volunteered to abuse it for a year and came back with glowing reviews. As background, Thayer guides waterfowl hunts in late fall, ice fishes competitively on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit, and charter fishes on the cold, rough waters of Lake Michigan.
Through all these conditions, he's found the Strykr to be the most remarkable suit he's worn. "First and foremost, the suit is warm, comfortable, one-hundred percent windproof and waterproof in the heaviest rains and boat spray," he says. "I can't say that about any other gear that I've worn. Neoprene holds its body and doesn't compress significantly. Bulky and pillowy garments that have an outer shell and inner insulating fill material tend to compress in the wind and when sitting. This can cause them to lose their wind- and waterproof properties and make you cold. Also, though I've yet to fall through the ice wearing the suit, I've done so with other suits and know how they can absorb water and become heavy and cumbersome in the water. The Strykr is more form fitting and allows less water to be absorbed or trapped in the suit. These are all positive properties that could be a life saver if you fall through the ice."
To test Thayer's theory, I took the plunge in a lake last summer wearing the Strykr suit, along with winter clothes and snow boots, and found it to be remarkably buoyant. It had plenty of stretch for easy movement in the water. Minimal water was trapped in the suit and instantly drained upon getting out of the water.
These benefits are the result of Stormr's Neoprene Core Technology that combines a 1.5-mm thermal neoprene core with an outer water-repellent and wear-resistant shell and an inner moisture-wicking fleece liner. This material has four-way stretch for dexterity and thermal-taped seams for durability. Comfort features include oversized fleece-lined pockets, internal neoprene cuffs, wrist, waist, and hood adjustments, an extended interior collar, and splash-proof pockets. Above all, it has the fit, construction, and buoyancy to provide you a greater likelihood of getting out of the water alive.
Ice Armor Lift
Ice Armor has been making tremendous cold weather gear for decades, and the In-Fisherman staff has subjected it to the toughest testing throughout the years. These suits never fail to deliver on warmth, comfort, and convenience. With the introduction of the Lift Suit several years ago, Ice Armor offers all the great features of their traditional suits with the added buoyancy worked into the lining of the jacket. While not approved by the U.S.C.G. as a PFD, the suit offers the necessary "lift" to assist you in getting out of the water more easily.
These are the same suits worn by hardcore ice anglers like Dave Genz and Jason Mitchell due to their durability and functionality. The jacket contains extra-large front cargo pockets for extra gloves and jig boxes, while the bib has extra padding in the knees and seat area for added cushion, warmth, and dryness.
Guide Nathan Zelinsky exclusively wears the Clam Lift Suit due to its added buoyancy. "Being a western ice angler has its advantages as we start to see ice as early as mid-October and in some cases we have ice until mid-June," he says. "A big issue though is that our reservoirs are constantly changing water levels with relocating current seams. These changes can lead to dangerous situations, especially early and late in the season.
"I've gotten myself in a pickle a few times," he recalls, "including once being totally submerged at midnight with a sled blocking the exit hole, and a second time with deteriorating late ice that kept breaking as I tried to pull myself to safety. Both times, I was in wet and heavy saturated clothing that worked against me the entire time. Although I felt that I had kept my cool and made the best possible choices, I was perhaps minutes away from drowning both times due to poor clothing selection. The Lift Suit would have saved my energy in both situations and allowed me to get out of the water much faster. I no longer take those chances and always wear a Lift Suit on the ice."
Striker Ice Climate
Talk to anyone who owns a Striker suit and get ready for glowing reviews. Talk to them about the Ice Climate suit and be ready for a discourse on its long list of unique features and versatility. Climate suits, along with Striker's Hard Water and Predator suits, float. Striker uses a material known as SUREFLOTE that is made from expanded low-density polyethylene foam. While not Coast Guard approved, this foam traps air in closed cells constructed into multi-layer membranes to create internal air pockets for added buoyancy. This means the suit has flotation material throughout it for even buoyancy.
Each piece of the suit is highly versatile. The jacket has a removable fleece-lined soft-shell jacket that can be worn separately, placed in the jacket during bitter conditions, or removed during milder conditions. This creates three separate clothing options in one. Both the jacket and bib have reflective material and water draining features for safety. They have unique zipper venting systems to help regulate your body temperature, no matter how your activity level changes on the ice. To ensure proper fit, the jacket has draw strings at the waist and hem, a removable hood with a wire memory visor, Velcro adjustable stretch cuffs and elastic Lycra inner wrist cuffs. Plus, the bibs have an infinadjustable leg cuff, which makes the inseam length adjustable over a 6-inch range.
Jason Drewa takes his ice fishing seriously and travels across much of the ice belt. Having grown up on the spring-ridden and current-affected backwaters of the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Drewa has fallen through the ice more times than he cares to recall. With age came wisdom and the investment in a Striker Ice Climate suit as a potential lifesaver. He recalls, "I recently went through on late-season ice that was deteriorating quickly. It was a warm day and I had taken off my jacket. When I went through, the Climate bibs were floating my legs before I was chest deep in the frigid water. With a few kicks and use of ice spikes, I was back topside in seconds.
"With as many times that I've gone through you'd think I'd have it down to a science on how to get out, but everything is still a surprise," he says. "I'm impressed with the way the Ice Climate suit floats me, with or without the jacket, and how quickly it drains. Convenient features like the three-way waist-height leg zippers are also great for getting in and out of the bibs while wearing boots. Fleece-lined chest pockets offer more areas to keep your hands warm and magnetic flaps over the zippers don't retain water and freeze shut like Velcro."
Several other companies make suits or jackets that are U.S.C.G approved as Type III PDFs, including the Stearns Challenger Anti-Exposure Work Suit, Onyx Deluxe Flotation Jacket, and First Watch Gear's Flotation Coat and Bomber Jacket. First Watch also makes flotation bibs. Sample as many garments as possible and choose a potentially life-saving suit that fits you and your fishing style best. Above all else, invest a little in your own safety and wear one of these suits whenever you venture out on the ice.