THE DANGERS OF LAKE ERIE ICE FISHING

ice-fishing
By: Coyote Cole Carlson
It was late January 2002 and the ice on Lake Erie had finally tightened up. It is not every year that the ice on the lake gets good enough to fish on, but that particular year was a memo- rable one! Ice fishing to me is like being on a golf course in the middle of summer to others. I love it! When the ice is ideal for fishing, I drop what I’m doing and gear up for some of the best walleye fishing on the planet.

The morning started out to be clear, cold, and beautiful. I watched the weather and every- thing looked good for the day to head out and try our luck on the hard water! It was 4:30 a.m. when I called the boys Dan, Jim and Tom. The four of us had about an hour drive up to the Western Basin where the ice is optimal for fishing and the walleye were biting. The reports were 14 inches of ice plus so we thought we had no worries but boy, were we wrong!

We arrived at the state park which is the most common spot to launch our ATV’s to get onto the ice. The parking lot was full with lots of fisherman gearing up to head out. Strangely, the wind picked up and clouds rolled in along with a little snow that was not on the forecast that we had all watched before we started our journey. Wind is never good when going out on Lake Erie ice fishing. I started questioning some of the other fishermen about the weather as I was feeling a little bit nervous about what the weather was doing at that moment. Everyone seemed to think it was no big deal and it was going to be a great day on the ice.

Tom, Jim, Dan, and I decided to head out! If you have ever ice fished on the Western Basin before, you would know that when the ice gets good, there is usually a trail of Christmas trees marking the path of the good ice out to where the walleye are being caught. Jim and I were on a 4 wheeler and Dan and Tom were on one as well. We were all excited to go out and catch our first hard water walleye of the year. Northwest towards Green Island is where we set the course and we went about four to five miles out to where a group of guys were already fishing. They didn’t have any bites there yet so we decided to go a little bit further to a good spot Tom knew of.

We finally arrived at the spot! Being the cocky fisherman he is, Tom wanted to make a $10.00 bet on the biggest fish caught of the day. All of the boys were in! I am the first one to drill a hole and start fishing. The sun poked out and it was a gorgeous day! Its 9:00 a.m. now, and the first walleye of the day takes hold! It’s a big one about 8 pounds. I’m thinking at this point that I am going to win that $10.00 from everyone… Boom! Dan lands a 5 pounder. Wham! I land another one about 5 pounds. Tom is sweating now! He hates losing a bet. He finally lands one but not even close to the big one that I caught. The hours go by and the bites grow far and few between. We are all ready to move and find some more fish.

It’s about 1:00 p.m. and we pack up and head out to find another school of fish. I could have cared less if we moved or stayed because I had already caught a couple of nice walleye which had made my day. We decided to set out towards another group of guys about 3 miles north towards Green Island. We arrived and were now about 8 miles from the truck.

That was probably the furthest I had ever been out on the ice, but I did not have a worry in the world because it was a beautiful day and I was catching fish. Dan and I set up our shanty and started fishing again. Tom and Jim were spread out but not too far off. WHAM! The fish start biting, coming in one after another. Unfortunately, they are not walleye but better eating yet, yellow perch. Dan and I are excited! We are slamming them. At about 3:00p.m. the bite slows down so I get out of the shanty to see how Jim and Tom are doing. I look to the northwest, and the skies are black as night! I make my way over to Jim who is still slamming perch and ask him, “Should we be worried about that sky?” He said, “Don’t worry about it keep fishing.” I scurry my way back into our shanty and drop my bait back into the hole. I looked at Dan and said, “It looks like a storm is coming” with a frightened voice.

Then the weirdest thing happened! I looked down into my 8 inch ice hole that I had stared at all day and noticed something different. My line had been straight down all day in that hole and now it was horizontal. I said to Dan, “Man, that current really picked up. It almost seems like we are moving.” He looked at me and said the same. “Yeah it sure does!” Getting nervous now, I go back out of the shanty and walk over to Jimmy and proceed to ask him about the black skies and the unusual current. He says, “It is fine keep fishing!” As I’m walking to the shanty, the wind picks up and it’s now a bliz- zard. When I say blizzard I mean white out and you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Then, 60-70 mph winds followed. I watched our 30 yellow perch Dan and I caught go flying across the ice like a leaf in the wind.

In trouble now, all four of us pack up our shantys, what fish we had left, and the rest of our belongings as fast as we could! At this point there is zero visibility and we have no GPS, compass, nothing! I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and the snow felt like buckshot hitting you at 70 mph! Tom, Dan, and I were pretty clueless on what direc- tion to start heading so thank god for Jim. He took charge and said “There were a group of guys about a 100 yards to the east lets find them and stick together.” We inch our way towards the group moving about 5mph and somehow in the blizzard I spot them. “There they are,” I shouted! Luckily the leader of their group had his GPS. We all agree we stick together and wait the storm out as long as we can until the visibility.

Minutes seem like hours and still no clear- ing. We decided to start our nine mile journey in. As the leader of the group of guys we found leads the way with his GPS we make it about three miles and come across our first stress crack about three feet wide. As the men discuss how to cross the crack I feel the wind die and the sun start to poke out and I can begin to see again. The skies clear and you can feel a sigh of relief from all of the men. We jump the first crack with ease. We hopped on our 4 ATV’s and 2 snowmobiles and followed the GPS track. We then noticed that the pine trees we followed on our way out are not in the same locations or are just not there anymore. At this point we all realize the whole group is in serious danger!

Not knowing that when we jumped that crack we are on a piece of dangerous flow ice, which is a giant chunk of ice getting pushed underneath another. The group arrives at this point and suddenly came to a stop. It looked like a giant river flowing all around us and sounded like no other sound I had ever heard. Just imagine 14 inches of ice being crushed right in front of your eyes like squeezing a saltine cracker in your hand and pushing up giant shoves in front of us. The piece of ice we were on was losing four feet a minute. The men kept having to move the ATV’S back away from this disaster.

With nowhere to go, we finally hear the choppers. It’s the coast guard! The chopper hovered over us and dropped down a radio on a rope with a sand bag. Jimmy grabs the rope and the bag falls off as well. Oh no! Now the rope is being sucked up by the chopper blades. The coast guard scurried to get rid of the rope before disaster happens and they get it just in time! Suddenly, a loud voice comes over the radio, “There is no way out. All of you must come with us now.” Jimmy tells him, “No, we have to get our ATV’S off of this piece of ice or we will lose them.” The coast guard replies back with a disgruntled voice, “Ok but I’m telling you there is no way off. We have another group to rescue so you can try but just keep in touch with us on radio.”

Then the weirdest thing happened. That river of water that was flowing all around us had stopped, and it was silent! The men yell, “If we’re going to go we have to go now.” Jim jumps on his ATV runs back about 50 yards and guns it full speed towards the six foot wide river of broken up ice that had just suddenly stopped. I thought I was going to watch my friend drive directly into the drink and drown but luckily he made it. Jim yells, “Come on lets go we don’t have much time. The rest follow, some leap across the wobbly broken chunks and some jump the ATV’s over. Somehow by an act of god we all made it across!

We all jump with joy. We made it! Home free. After a small celebration we head towards shore smiling from ear to ear! About two miles to go, moving about 30 mph now thinking that we’ve made it, we got shut down again only 500 yards from shore. It was all open water and our battle with the Lake Erie monster was over. At least we made it as far as we did and managed to get all of our equipment off of the bad flow ice. Holding the radio in his hand Jimmy calls the coast guard. They arrive and pluck us off the ice one by one and bring us to safety. Thankfully for the coast guard any one of us could have died out there. I think there were 21 men rescued that day.

We all had to leave our equipment on the ice that night but we were able to retrieve it the following day by airboat which was not cheap. So this is where I want to begin to tell you to please if you ever decide to try your luck on the hard waters of Lake Erie please be careful and make sure that you have someone experienced with you.
I hope you all learn from this article and my experience. Please be safe out there as ice fishing can be a lot of fun as long as you are smart about it and follow these guidelines. Good luck and happy fishing!

THINGS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS HAVE AND DO BEFORE A TRIP ON THE LAKE ERIE ICE
1. Make sure to always watch and keep an eye on the weather
2. Always bring a compass or GPS with you
3. Make good decisions. If the ice looks bad, it probably is
4. Never go out in strong winds
5. Stay on the trails and listen to your guide
6. Always remember NO ICE IS SAFE ICE
7. The storm that blew in on us that day was a freak snow squall that was not forecasted. There were 60-70mph winds that blew all of the ice apart. If the sky gets black and winds pick up get out of there

TAM Cleveland
The Angler Magazine: Cleveland Edition is a free publication for Anglers and Outdoor enthusiasts throughout our region. 10,000 Copies are distributed throughout the Cleveland area each month.

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