Each year across the Ice Belt, a swarm of anglers descend on frozen ponds, lakes and rivers. No matter the location or climate, all anglers experience some of the best angling at first and last ice — which also happen to be the most dangerous ice conditions of the year.
Ice-covered days on lakes and rivers are decreasing across North America. Ice-up comes later, ice goes off earlier, and more frequent midwinter warm spells lead to thaws that deteriorate ice conditions. At the same time, participation in ice fishing continues to build. The ice angling industry has experienced soaring technological advancements that make harsh weather more comfortable and fishing easier during the past 40 years. Thankfully, safety advancements have also appeared, a crucial factor for a sport whose participants move on top of a surface that is never 100% safe. Staying safe on the ice has never been more important, and due to technological innovations, it has never been easier.
“If you want to wear a life jacket, you can do it on the ice, but it won’t be that comfortable,” explained Shawn Knodt, Apparel Product Development and Purchasing Lead for Clam Corporation. Knodt has lived and worked through the ice fishing flotation suit boom. After working in apparel in the motorsports world, he eventually joined Clam Outdoors. Knodt explained how in the motorsports world, companies were adding flotation to jackets for snowmobilers. They knew that if you fell into a lake, your chances of survival were pretty slim.
“Ice fishing really pushes the parameters of fabrics and insulations more than any other sport I’ve worked in,” Knodt described. “You go from being super aerobically engaged, whether it is pulling a sled, clearing a spot for your shelter, augering holes, scooping slush out, getting set up. You’re sweating like crazy, your core temperature is way up, and your aerobic activity is up. And then you go from that to sitting on a bucket or chair on ice and doing absolutely nothing but moving your arm a little bit to jig!
“Those are the two extremes and you don’t see that in any other sport. Skiers are always moving, so they keep the layers light. Snowmobilers aren’t exerting at all, so they layer up to stay warm. Ice anglers themselves go through big temperature changes and then you have the outer element as well. You could be on a five-day fishing trip where it swings from 20 degrees below zero outside with a stiff wind to sunshine and above freezing temperatures.”
Those huge swings in temperature on either side of an ice suit highlight the intricacies of creating such a versatile garment, and one that may save your life.
Knodt’s mission in ice fishing suits is the marriage of utility, safety and comfort. Since joining Clam, he’s redesigned a portion of the ice fishing suit line each year, a trend he vows won’t stop in his pursuit of perfection. Clam has beefed up their women and youth suit offerings by widening the entire line and adding more bells and whistles. Comfort sells a lot of ice suits, but also carries on the ice for safety.
“If you make a jacket comfortable enough, it becomes an everyday jacket. That’s the point I’m trying to get ice fishing jackets to. You have to improve the comfort level of a safety product. You’ll wear it without even knowing it. How many motorcyclists would wear a safety helmet if they could still feel the wind blowing through their hair? Everyone would. Same thing goes with safety equipment. No one was going to go out wearing a survival suit each time they ventured out, because not only was it uncomfortable, it was too dang hot and expensive.”
Knodt says that float suits have moisture problems because foam doesn’t breathe. The first accomplishment was for him to strategically place ventilation ports so that there was some breathability, while still retaining water-resistant features. He needed a life jacket that looked like a regular jacket. Once organized in the correct way, Knodt found the right balance. A suit that was comfortable to wear, with zip vents to get the moisture out, and a better feeling and fit on the jacket and bib.
If you look closely at the flotation suits on the market these days, you’ll notice that none have United States Coast Guard approval as life-saving devices. Knodt says that most of the suits on the market would have the buoyancy to pass the Coast Guard tests, but would fail when it comes to staying in place on the body. Life-saving devices are required to not ride up and to stay in place, which is why you see clips, buckles and straps on personal flotation devices.
Rather than go through the expense of testing, or adding uncomfortable straps or buckles, most manufacturers have embraced the term “flotation assist” as a means of touting their suits for falls through the ice. Striking the balance in safety and comfort again comes to mind, as getting consumers to wear flotation suits is critically important. “We’re trying to make them comfortable,” explained Knodt, “so you don’t feel like you are wearing a space suit or a garbage bag. You really need to buy a float suit that matches up with your style of fishing and is comfortable. Our next step at Clam was the Motion Float technology, where instead of having a one-piece flotation membrane, we segmented ours and put it together with stretch fleece, for a suit that moves with you and stays comfortable.”
Additional safety features are making their way to the market for the 2020-2021 year. All of Clam’s flotation suits include a detachable waterproof cell phone pouch, which is touchscreen friendly through the pouch. “If you fall in,” Knodt reminded me, “the first thing you are going to need to do is get out. After that, you need to call for help in a timely manner. The hypothermia clock is ticking. If you just took a swim and everybody else’s garments don’t have a waterproof pocket, you’re screwed. It’s a legitimate safety function and a difference-maker. It could be as important as the flotation material itself.“
Belt loops were also added to Clam’s suits. While primarily placed for comfort for folks who want to wear a belt and treat the bibs more as pants, the loops do provide a place on which to tie a rope for when you are going out early or late on unknown ice.
A final touch for Clam’s ice suits are vents for water to leave the garment when you’ve fallen in the water. “If you have to deadlift yourself out of a hole and back onto the ice, you may not be able to do it with an extra 10 gallons of water to lift, too. Cold water immersion and panic set in. If you are wearing undergarments like cotton-based hoodies and denim that sponge extra weight, it can make pulling yourself out of the water almost impossible. Venting and drainage holes are a safety feature, as well as a comfort feature for breathability.
Ice anglers need to be smart about where they fish by waiting for safe ice, and knowing when to call it a season. Even with advanced safety gear outerwear and flotation devices, there is no substitute for making good decisions. The basic safety gear hasn’t really changed in many years; a good set of ice picks and a throw rope brought on every ice fishing trip could save your life or another person on the ice that day.
— Scott Mackenthun has been writing about the outdoors since 2005. You can follow him on Instagram @scottmackenthun and on Twitter @ScottyMack31.