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Safety tops checklist for anxious area ice anglers

02/17/2014, 11:40pm EST
By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Safety tops their checklists.


Byron Grochowski, 12, a 7th grader at Anthony Wayne Junior High, caught a 31-inch walleye recently while ice fishing on Lake Erie.

CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio — The icy haze makes it difficult to tell just how many are out there, but on most days, it likely numbers in the hundreds.

Wave after wave of ice fishermen have been embarking from the boat ramps and beaches along western Lake Erie, in increasingly large numbers, and heading out onto that massive frozen stage to fish for walleye and perch. As our winter-without-end churns on, with no amen in sight, stories of huge fish being pulled up through holes in the ice have sparked the charge and spread the fever.

And with the surge of anglers on the march across Erie’s frozen deck, most via snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, also come the accounts of trouble that can be attributed to the harshness of the surroundings, the unreliability of the ice, and maybe common sense left back at the shoreline.

A truck went through the ice near here recently, and although the two people inside managed to escape, the vehicle went under and the Coast Guard had a mess to deal with. This past weekend a snowmobiler was injured out on the lake, off Magee Marsh. The Coast Guard ice rescue team, the Ottawa County sheriff’s department and the Jerusalem Township fire department were all involved in getting the man to shore and to the hospital.

The Coast Guard, law enforcement, and those experienced in the lake’s fickle nature have been repeatedly banging the drum, urging vigilance. "If you do venture out on the ice, exercise extreme caution," Lt. James Long of the Coast Guard’s station located near here at Marblehead, told The Fishing Wire recently. "We also want people to remain vigilant to the ever-changing weather and ice conditions.”

Despite the prolonged cold temperatures, and the existence of ice 14-16 inches thick in some places, wind and current create pressure and erosion that can cause the ice to heave or shift, and open up treacherous cracks that can gobble up ATVs and snowmobiles.

Walleye fishing pro and Lake Erie veteran Ross Robertson said the winter wind can change the lake’s disposition in a hurry, just like it does with the open water the rest of the year.

“Current eats at the ice quickly and sweeps you away, and big winds can separate ice chunks that are miles long, remarkably fast,” Robertson said. “At some point, guys have to realize that a big south wind and Lake Erie don't mix.”

Robertson, who has been out on the ice numerous times this winter, said the companies he works with on the professional fishing circuit are focusing a lot of their informational materials on ice safety and the gear ice anglers should never leave shore without when taking on the big lake.

He recommends carrying a throw bag containing a floating rescue line; safety picks attached to a piece of rope you hang around your neck that let you get grip on the ice to pull yourself out if you fall through; a spud bar — a long, heavy metal rod with a chisel tip that is used to check ahead for cracks and ice thickness as you walk out on the ice; a float suit that is comfortable and breathable and will lift you if you fall through; ice creepers you wear on your boots for slip-free walking and traction when pulling someone else out; a compass since GPS devices rely on batteries that can fail in the cold; a life jacket; extra batteries for flashlights, radios, GPS, and keep batteries inside your jacket so they are warm and ready to use; and a hand-held VHF radio since cell phones do not work in many places on the lake and their batteries tend to die quickly while continually searching for service. You can contact the Coast Guard directly with a VHF radio.

“Ice safety is all about thinking ahead and being prepared,” Robertson said. “Having safety equipment at the bottom of a bucket or back in the truck won't help in an emergency, when seconds count. The biggest thing is to have everything accessible and to know how to use it. You can't "tough guy" your way out of an emergency when ice fishing on big lakes such as Erie.”

Robertson also stresses the importance of common sense, and patience. If the conditions are iffy, wait for a better day.

“If the wind is blowing 30 miles an hour on Lake Erie, don't go out,” he said.

Brad Gahler, the showroom manager at Jann's Netcraft on Briarfield Boulevard in Maumee, said that in addition to the recommended safety gear and clothing suitable for the conditions, anglers considering testing Lake Erie this winter should equip themselves with the specialized tackle that successful ice fishing demands.

A gas-powered or manual ice auger will open a hole in the ice, while a skimmer will keep the hole clear of slush. A fish-finder will help determine the depth of the water below the ice and allow you to set up on a potentially productive location. Ice shanties and shelters keep the anglers warm and out of the wind, allowing for much longer time on the ice, and ice sleds are an ideal way to transport all the gear.

Gahler said there are many rod-and-reel combinations made specifically for ice fishing, and a wide assortment of ice flies, jigs, and other lures designed for the sport. He also recommends wearing polarized glasses, since a little bit of sun on that vast plain of ice can be blinding and disorienting.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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