BY KYLE LOHMEIER VOICE STAFF WRITER
For most of the last month, anglers have taken advantage of the bitter cold weather that has frozen the shallow water near the shore of Lake St. Clair thick enough for ice fishing.
Over the last few weeks, most of Bouvier Bay has been a shanty town of pop-up ice shelters interspaced among the anglers seasoned enough to brave the cold seated atop a five-gallon bucket.
As the cold weather persists, more ice fishermen are drawn out to other portions of the lake, and invariably, a few will fall through or otherwise find themselves in trouble.
"Watch the ice. Everybody thinks it forms uniformly and it doesn't. The bottom of the lake has to do with how it forms, so does vegetation or underground springs. You might be on a few inches and the next step you're on a half inch," said Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Ron Pinson.
Jeff Braunscheidel, a fisheries biologist for the DNR, said that as a general rule, the ice should be at least six inches thick before one ventures out on it.
"People will fish on a lot thinner ice than that, they'll go out two inches, but we don't recommend it," Braunscheidel said.
For snowmobiles or four-wheelers, Braunscheidel suggested a minimum ice thickness of ten to 12 inches.
"At no time do we recommend they take cars or trucks out on the ice," Braunscheidel said.
In addition to ice thickness, Braunscheidel said there was another factor anglers should consider before heading out on the ice.
"On Lake St. Clair you have to be aware of prevailing wind. An offshore wind can break off those large ice floes that people have been trapped on. If it's extremely windy large sections of ice can get separated because the middle of the lake doesn't freeze until later in the year if at all," Braunscheidel said.
Unfortunately, Michigan's often unpredictable weather makes it impossible for the DNR to list ice conditions on their Website since those conditions can vary widely from area to area and day to day.
"They're probably better off developing a contact with someone at the local bait store in the area where they want to fish," Braunscheidel said.
Temperature fluctuations, such as the warm spell that struck late last week, also play havoc with the stability of ice.
"When they (temperatures) rise a little bit it still makes a difference. When there's that melted water on top of the ice it causes instability, that's when it's the most dangerous," said Richard Angelet, executive officer at the St. Clair Shores Coast Guard Station. "The ice is heavier so you have this gap and it's going to create this instability."
Angelet said that due to last winter's relatively mild temperatures, personnel at his station weren't terribly busy doing ice rescues.
"We had less than five, that's for us as a station. There's been times when the bells rang and we'd launch but by the time we got out there Harrison Township or Ira Township had affected the rescue. Last year because it was a mild winter there weren't many cases at all," Angelet said.
He stated the most common sort of trouble an angler gets into on the ice is falling through where the weight of their own clothes and equipment coupled with the threat of hypothermia puts them at grave risk of drowning or death. In cases where someone disappears beneath the ice, rescue divers would be brought in from local fire/rescue departments or law-enforcement, not the Coast Guard. If an angler finds themselves clinging to the edge of the ice, the Coast Guard and other agencies will respond to rescue the individual, and the individual only.
"They need to be cognizant that when that helicopter or boat comes over it's to rescue them, not their shanty or fishing poles," Angelet said.
He suggested ice fishermen affix an ice pick of some sort to their wrist so that if they do fall through the ice they have some means of pulling themselves back up.
"You're never going to pull yourself out, you'll never get any traction with just your hands on the ice. While you're hanging onto it, your lower extremities are subjected to hypothermia very quickly. A life jacket is good to have on, at least that way it'll keep your head above water. Maybe have a whistle too, so if you do fall in you can get people's attention," Angelet said.
Angelet also cautioned against anglers running to the rescue of a fellow fisherman who has fallen through the ice. Without the proper equipment or training, would-be rescuers can easily end up as casualties.
"Never go and try to save someone unless you have proper equipment. First call 911, in turn they'll notify local EMS and the Coast Guard. If they have a rope or some type of floatation device, provide it to that person without getting too close because you don't know the stability of the ice. Aside from that, just keep good communication going with the individual, let them know help is coming," Angelet said.
Ice thickness can be unpredictable and varies widely from place to place. One clue as to where ice may be unsafe offered by Angelet is the presence of poles or other obstructions jutting through the ice.
"A pole, something sticking out of the water, usually around those areas it's not solid. Be smart about it, bring proper equipment so you can pull yourself out of the water. Self rescue is the best bet if you can do it," Angelet said.