Ice fishing enthusiasts undaunted by less-than-ideal weather

LAKE COUNTY — It is now a matter of record that the winter of 2011-12 will go down as one of the mildest in recent history. Several major cities across the United States report that this winter is the fifth or sixth warmest since official meteorological statistics began to be kept, with unusually light snowfalls in many areas.

Some might think that, given these extreme conditions, winter sports might suffer — and indeed, more than a few folks around town have expressed disappointment that Baldwin didn’t get too many of the kind of storms that insure an influx of tourists eager to ride their snowmobiles. Another logical assumption might be that ice-fishing this season was a bust; however, a little investigation reveals that this was not the case.

In fact, lots of ice fishermen have been able to “take to the ice” for the past three or four months. The consensus of opinion is that “it all depends on the lake” — shallower bodies of water around Northwest Michigan did indeed freeze up, though some of the larger ones have been judged unsafe.

The rollercoaster type temperature fluctuations — chilly mornings sometimes followed by balmy afternoons in the 40’s — do worry ice-watchers in our area.

“I would advise people to exercise extreme caution before venturing out onto the lakes,” said Deputy Mike Newmann of the Water Division of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department.

“This is the time of year when ice often starts to melt and becomes rotten. Appearances can be deceiving, and it’s when fishermen or snowmobile riders take foolish chances that tragic accidents can occur.”

Newmann notes that because of the unusually mild temperatures this winter, some events, such as an ice-fishing tournament on Hamlim Lake, had to be canceled. Officials wisely decided to err on the side of caution rather than send competitors out over deep water — and potentially, into deep trouble.

Fortunately, no water rescues have been necessary yet this year.

This can be a dangerous enterprise, even for experts, as anyone knows who has watched the team from the Yates Township Fire Department demonstrate. Volunteers in what is known as a “Gumbi Suit” (an insulated rubber protective coverall) venture into the frigid waters to help victims to safety, or they use a special “ice-cannon” that shoots a flotation device to people struggling in the water. However, in such situations, every minute counts, and clearly it’s better not to get into trouble in the first place.

Falling through unstable ice is always unpleasant and can be fatal. “Once you’re submerged in ice-water, it’s only a matter of minutes before hypothermia sets in,” Newmann pointed out.

Another reason to stick to the trails if one is on a snowmobile, or to the edge of the lake if ice fishing, is that if a vehicle or shanty falls through, the owner is legally responsible for its recovery — sometimes an expensive undertaking. Every day that a snow-mobile or fishing-shack goes unrecovered, a fine is levied, and the total can mount up quickly.

Nevertheless, many avid fishermen around Baldwin have been very satisfied with ice fishing throughout this winter. “There is plenty of ice,” maintains David Williams of the Orvis Shop at the Pere Marquette River Lodge. “True, we didn’t get the 14 to 15 inches that we see some winters, but 8 inches has been reported in several lakes.”

Among the “fishin’ holes” that have been popular lately are Cecelia Lake, and even parts of Big Star Lake, where plentiful catches of bluegill and perch, and even some good-sized pike, have been taken. Of course it helps that many of these fish are most often found amongst the reeds in the shallows, where the ice is likely to be safe. Other lakes, however (such as North Lake) have natural springs which can cause very dangerous conditions. One local sportsman recalled that he and some friends were out in the middle of a lake when they heard the ice cracking and immediately decided it was time to call it quits for the day. The sound is pretty scary (it’s been compared to gunshots).

When ice is cracking, it is definitely unsafe.

Williams reports that some die-hard ice fishing fans consider ice as thin as three inches sufficient, but he warns that novice fishermen should never go out unless accompanied by someone who has had a lot of experience. “It’s always a good idea to check what the ice actually looks like,” he points out. “Clear ice is generally solid ice; when it’s cloudy, that’s the time to head for shore.”

Many fishermen use a device called a “spud” to measure the thickness of ice on a lake. Unless one is sure that conditions are safe, the best plan is to forego ice-fishing or snowmobiling and find something else to do.