Safety needs to be the first step for ice fishermen


We were reminded earlier this week that the punishment for not adhering to the safety guidelines surrounding ice fishing can be harsh and punitive. It can come quickly and even be fatal, since when we walk out on the ice, this is sometimes a “one strike and you’re out” kind of league.

We lost another good fisherman when the early-season ice apparently gave out underneath him, and he could not pull himself from the arctic waters. Don Thorpe, Sr., never returned from a New Year’s Eve daytime ice fishing outing on Hartwig Lake, in Michigan’s Holly State Recreation Area, northwest of Detroit just off I-75.

According to his family, Thorpe was an experienced ice fisherman who found a lot of solace in the quiet, the open spaces, and the crisp, clean air that greets you on an ice fishing outing. He was passionate about ice fishing, and had a reputation for getting out early in the season and keeping with it as long as the weather cooperated.

He also was known for being cautious and usually wore a life vest, along with spikes for traction. On Monday, he did not have those safety items along. Rescue personnel started a search that evening when Thorpe’s truck was found near the lake and his fishing tackle was located beside an opening in the ice. Thorpe’s body was found Tuesday afternoon, in about 12 feet of water.

Michigan authorities reported at least three additional incidents over the holiday in which ice fishermen went through the ice and were rescued. It appears that cabin fever or the winter blues got the better of them, clouding their judgment and putting their zest to get out and fish into overdrive.

Veteran Lake Erie ice fishing guide John Hageman said following some basic safety guidelines, and resisting the urge to jump the gun on the often fickle start of the ice fishing season, is some of the best advice he can offer.

“I don’t have any animosity toward anyone who wants to get out there and fish, because anyone can make a mistake, but there’s just not a lot of room for error when you are dealing with winter and ice conditions,” he said. “These early bird incidents are something we dread hearing about, but also something everyone kind of expects. They seem to come with the territory every winter.”

Hageman, who has put in more than two decades as an ice guide, working primarily around the Lake Erie islands, said ice conditions are a habitual wild card, requiring constant monitoring. Three inches of fresh ice are considered the minimum for one person, while four inches are the least acceptable amount for small groups, and six inches are the base figure for snow mobiles or ATVs.

“But those numbers are just suggested minimums for fresh, clean ice,” Hageman said. “When you are dealing with aged ice, or ice that has been exposed to the sun or rain, then those figures don’t apply. You also throw all of that out the window when there is any wind or current involved, or you are near any kind of water discharge.”

Hageman said while the top surface of the ice might look consistent, currents, vegetation that absorbs heat, or the presence of reefs that can push water upward can all erode ice from below.

“Out on Lake Erie, just a change in the wind direction or the wind speed can cause the ice to shift, transforming relatively safe ice into something much more hazardous,” he said. “The ice off Crane Creek and Metzger Marsh can be affected by ship traffic moving into Maumee Bay, or by the action of ice-breakers out on the lake.”

Homework is a big factor in making a determination on the relative safety of the ice.

“What often gets people in trouble is assuming the ice has frozen evenly. Ice thickness can vary quite a bit in the same body of water. One area can freeze early, while a section close by stays in open water due to the wind. When that area then freezes over, it all looks the same, but the thickness is very different.”

Hageman said most ice fishing guides won’t venture out without a flotation suit or vest. He also strongly recommends carrying a pair of awls, such as the Pick-of-Life. These small tools are connected by a string you drape across your shoulders or attach to a coat zipper. The sharp picks are hidden under protective, spring-loaded covers, and they allow someone who has fallen through the ice to get enough traction to crawl out of a hole.

“There is nothing slipperier than wet ice, so these tools, or even a pair of screwdrivers, provide you a way to get yourself out of the water,” Hageman said.

He also recommends wearing ice creepers or spikes that attach to your boots, providing traction and preventing falls on the ice. Carrying a cell phone in a Ziploc bag is another sound safety measure, and a GPS is a necessary companion out on the lake, where a rouge snowstorm can quickly leave you disoriented.

“It’s always best to do the research, closely examine the conditions, have the proper safety equipment, and not fish alone,” he said.

Hageman is cautiously optimistic about getting a decent ice fishing season for the winter of 2012-13. Last year was lost due to unusually warm weather, while the winter of 2010 provided a long ice fishing season, but few fish.

His most bizarre experience on the ice occurred in 2003 when the lake was locked up with what Hageman called “the best ice in recent memory”. While he fished with a party of clients near the islands, a large sedan drove out onto the surface of the lake at Catawba State Park. The folks in the car drove out to Hageman’s location and stopped to ask the names of the surrounding islands and inquired where they could find an open restaurant.

“There were four people inside that big car, and they had no idea where they were,” he said. “I never read anything about it, so I have to assume they eventually made it back to land ok.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.