By JOHN WISSE|
PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio - In the 1993 film Grumpy Old Men, we witnessed the friendship and juvenile antics of John Gustavson (played by Jack Lemmon) and Max Goldman (played by Walter Matthau), America's favorite ice fishermen from Wabasha, Minnesota.
Someone perhaps should think of inviting Gustavson and Goldman to the shores of Lake Erie's western basin islands for a celebrity showing because it looks as if an ice fishing season is about to break out.
If safe ice conditions can be maintained for even a modest period, say three to four weeks, it will be the longest ice fishing season anyone here has seen at least since this time three years ago.
Ohio's variable weather can cause rapid changes on Lake Erie. During this mid-winter stretch, below normal temperatures have made for some ideal ice conditions around the island and mainland shorelines. Many anglers who choose to go ice fishing here hire a guide to take them across the ice and set them up in a protective shelter, known as an ice shanty, in a safe area and where fish may likely be caught.
Most experts say ice fishing safety is in the numbers --- not only in measurements of ice thickness, but also in the number of anglers grouped in an area.
"It's not a good idea to go ice fishing alone. There's relative safety in numbers when ice fishing, but any ice should not really be deemed as safe. It's best to let someone know your precise location and timetable when fishing anywhere on ice," said Ron Bland, a wildlife agency spokesperson.
The ice now forming on Lake Erie can be considered new ice and should offer ideal conditions when it becomes more than five inches thick. Recent reports indicate ice thickness around the island shorelines and portions of the western basin mainland shoreline is more than seven inches thick. Some Lake Erie fishing guides have just started taking anglers out to South Bass Island and other nearby locations.
Because of extremely cold temperatures and the wind chill factor, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts need to be aware of the onset of hypothermia, which is a severe loss of body heat due to exposure to cold temperatures. The wind chill factor is a combined measurement of wind and temperature that most directly affects exposed skin such as a person's hand or face.
"Being prepared for the conditions and for an emergency is the best policy when ice fishing or enjoying other outdoor recreation this time of year", said Bland.
Invariably, some ice fishermen will be taking a chance against fate as some always seem to do each year when a change in weather makes ice conditions highly unstable on Lake Erie. It is not unusual to hear of a rescue of ice fishermen stranded on an ice floe, or a situation where vehicles or anglers have plunged through unstable ice and fallen into the freezing lake waters.
Local fire and emergency rescue units, most often led here by the U.S. Coast Guard, are called to duty when accidents happen. In nearly every case, these accidents are caused by people taking high risks in venturing onto unstable ice. Most times, anglers are safely rescued and suffer no more than public embarrassment and some hypothermia. In rare cases, fatalities occur. It more often happens that vehicles such as cars, SUV's, pickup trucks, and snowmobiles are lost to the bottom of Lake Erie when they go through the ice.
It should also be noted that in most cases, insurance companies do not cover losses sustained when a policyholder's personal or recreational vehicle plunges through the ice to the bottom of the lake.
"Trust the expertise of knowledgeable ice fishing guides when visiting Lake Erie during the winter. However, the ultimate responsibility for safety rests with the individual angler. Ice fishing is an enjoyable winter activity on Lake Erie when safe conditions permit it, but the activity should be regarded with some risk and a lot of respect," said Bland.
Statistics show that 421 people were rescued in the Great Lakes region from ice and icy lake waters over the past five years. All but 48 of those persons were rescued in Michigan. Even more people were rescued over the same period by local fire and rescue forces without assistance from the Coast Guard.