First ice is about getting on a lake that hasn't been fishable for a couple of weeks or even a month. Why wait a few more weeks for six more inches of ice to form when you could be out fishing? The more you know about safety, ice formation and the current conditions at the lake, the safer it seems to be.
The equipment necessary for early and late season ice starts with safety gear. Falling through the ice, while uncomfortable and unsettling as it seams; does not have to be a catastrophe. Ice picks, personal floatation devices, throw bags and extra set of clothes should not be left behind. The same can be said for having a small group of experienced anglers with you on each trip.
Pick a spot close to shore for your first trip. No need to push your luck and hit the middle of the lake first time out. Select a spot away from a current and any exposed rocks as these are areas greatly reduced in ice thickness and man even create open water. Since no one has fished the lake recently any spot has the potential to be a great new location.
Ice is strongest in the morning, so start your trip early and plan on leaving as the sun warms the air. Hard, clear early ice is very strong, but pay attention to changes in the surface. If the ice is cloudy, there was a reason for bubbles to form in the ice or the ice has thawed and re-frozen. Also watch for color changes, cracks and small ridges in the surface.
Late ice also poses additional challenges. By late February, the daily amount of sunlight increase by five to seven minutes per day, increasing the solar load on the ice pack. The constant freezing and thawing of the ice breaks it down from clear solid ice to a cloudy consistency. Knowing this, always make sure you brink out the safety equipment and tread slowly. After trusting the lake for months make a conscious decision to fear ice again!
While walking on the ice follow directly behind the person evaluating it, staying at least 20 feet behind. Tow a sled with a longer rope than usual so it doesn't become a victim too. Knowing all of this, you should be safe, but always call local bait shops to check the current conditions. Remember to have a fun time, be safe and bring a camera to capture the memories!