PHOTOS: Michigan ice fishing ‘just not safe’

Posted by Cory Smith • Last Updated 11:17 am on Thursday, January 12 2012

Greenville resident Brandon Jones shows a piece of ice he has chiseled from Baldwin Lake about 40 feet from the shoreline — Daily New/Cory Smith.

GREENVILLE — After a few quick strikes to the ice on Baldwin Lake with his chisel Tuesday, avid ice fisherman Brandon Jones penetrated through the frozen surface into the water below without much effort.

“That’s not safe,” Jones said staring down at the hole he had made in the thin sheet of ice. “And it’s not fair. This is January and it’s still not safe to be out here ice fishing.”

In an unusually warm winter, Jones is just one of many ice fishermen throughout the area whose patience is wearing thin, wanting to get out on the ice as soon as possible.

“Usually by Christmas, everybody is ice fishing,” he said. “We should be (ice) fishing no later than December. Most people I know that fish a lot won’t come out here yet.”

With colder temperatures scheduled to arrive in the upcoming days, Jones may get his wish of thicker ice sooner than later. But the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office is encouraging fishermen to stay off the ice as of right now.

Sheriff Bill Barnwell said with warm weather lasting into January, thin ice on lakes is more of a concern than in past years.

“This is an unusual year for us,” Barnwell said. “I know a lot of fishermen are getting anxious to get on the ice. People get fooled thinking it’s safe. I saw two people out on Como Lake yesterday, but the east end of the lake still didn’t have any ice on it.”

Barnwell said there still is no excuse to go out on the ice until temperatures are below freezing on a more consistent basis even though many people in the area are frequent fishermen and know the lakes well.
“It’s just not safe,” he said. “Not only does going out on the ice jeopardize your own safety, but also the safety of potential rescuers if anything bad was to happen.”

Communications Specialist Elyse Walter with the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division in Lansing said normally at this time of year there is little issue with ice fishing, but this year has been an abnormality.

“We’re disappointed that there isn’t much ice right now, but we hope it develops soon,” Walter said. “Ice fishing is still extremely popular in Michigan; it’s equally as popular as standard fishing in the summer, spring, and fall, just perhaps for a different audience.”

Walter confirmed that normally by Christmas there is a sufficient amount of ice on Michigan lakes, but that hasn’t been the case this year.

“For ice fishing, things normally start around the holidays,” she said. “We have a weekly fishing report we release and right now we should be talking about actual activity on the ice, but we’re still talking about a complete lack of ice in mid-January.”

Barnwell said one of the biggest issues this winter has been a constant fluctuation of temperatures, which weakens the ice and poses further danger.

“The warmer temperatures and especially the change in temperature can cause the ice to weaken,” he said. “So don’t be deceived, even if the ice appears safe.”

As Jones was testing the ice Tuesday afternoon, he ventured out about 50 feet where he estimated the ice was maybe 4 inches thick.

“I come out here quite a bit, but I usually go off the boat launch,” he said. “But that area only has about a half inch of ice covering it right now, not even close to being safe.”

Jones said normally the cool night air gives the lake a better chance to freeze over, but even that opportunity has seemed to disappear in the warmer weather.

“It gets cold at night and the ice forms,” he said. “But last night I checked at midnight and it was only 36 degrees. The water freezes at 32 (degrees), so even at night the lake hasn’t had much time to freeze.”

Jones said Tuesday marked the first time he had actually gone outside and tried to fish this winter, the latest he’s ever been out for a first effort.

“Compared to 2010, I’d have been out here anywhere from 20 to 30 times by this time,” he said. “It’s hard to believe I’ve only been out here once so far and it’s still not safe.”

Jones will have to wait at least one more week to use all of his new ice fishing equipment he purchased for this winter.

“Hopefully this time next week it won’t be 45 degrees and sunny outside,” he said. “There are a lot of us who just want to get out here to fish, but we need colder weather for that.”

Tips for venturing on frozen lakes
• Never go out on the ice alone.
• Always check the ice before venturing out onto it. Test the ice with a spud every few feet — thickness can change in that short of a space.
• Wear a life preserver or float-coat.
• Attach a 20 to 25 foot long rope to your waist and let it drag behind you – it will not interfere with walking and it is something you can grab onto should you fall through the ice.
• Clear ice is the strongest, formed by a long hard freeze, varying in color from green to blue to black.
• Fragile ice is usually the first type to form when temperatures drop and is made up of disk shaped crystals and is not safe.
• Snow ice is milky looking and formed by snow that has melted and then froze again and is not very dense, making it unsafe.
• Layered ice has many layers of frozen, thawed and refrozen snow, giving it the striped appearance and is not safe.
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