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Published: Thursday, 4/17/2014

Experts: Spring calls for caution on the water

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

To those who know Lake Erie the best — the anglers who spend a couple hundred days each year fishing the lake — the tragic accident that took the lives of two boaters and likely claimed two others serves as a harsh reminder of the dangers that body of water presents this time of year.

Hidden obstacles and hypothermia are the primary concerns, and many anglers speculate that both likely played a role in the deaths or suspected deaths of boat operator Bryan Huff, 32, of Rossford and his fishing party that included Paige Widmer, 16, of Pelion, S.C.; Amy Santus, 33, of Perrysburg Township, and Andrew Rose, 33, of Maumee, who were fishing in Mr. Huff’s 21-foot Tracker boat Wednesday evening.

Joe Whitten of Toledo, a pro on the walleye fishing circuit and someone who has fished in tournaments with Mr. Huff, said the lake is especially dangerous after spring floods send water-logged debris down area rivers and into Lake Erie.

“I was out there fishing the tournament last weekend, and there were deadheads floating everywhere,” Mr. Whitten said, referring to partially submerged logs and stumps. “The only thing I can think of is that they hit something and ended up in the water.”

And with the lake’s water temperature in the low 40s, a healthy, conscious individual wearing a life jacket would have just a half hour or less before he or she reached exhaustion in that cold water, and less than an hour later death would follow, according to the Division of Watercraft of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Cold water steals heat from the body 25 times faster than cold air of the same temperature, according to the ODNR’s data. Sudden immersion in cold water results in extreme pain and disorientation, often inducing panic.

“I’ve been in cold-water situations,” said Gary Obermiller, chief of the Division of Watercraft, “and in just 10 to 12 minutes you have no coordination in your muscles. At this time of year, with the lake water as cold as it is, it’s absolutely imperative that individuals layer up their clothing, and wear a life jacket on top of that.”

Mr. Obermiller said that if a person suddenly ends up in the cold lake water, it can be extremely difficult to put on a life jacket.

“It’s really hard for people to believe, but once you go in that water, you have about 10 minutes,” he said. “As your muscle coordination deteriorates, it’s surprising how difficult it is to get that life jacket on.”

Mr. Obermiller said Lake Erie boaters and anglers should have a life jacket on at all times, at least until the lake water temperature reaches near 70 degrees this summer. The Division of Watercraft also encourages boaters on the lake to fill out a float plan outlining the day’s expected travels, leaving a copy at home, and one on the dash of the vehicle parked at the boat launch.

Mr. Obermiller said traveling cautiously and being constantly on the watch for obstacles in the water is essential, as well.

“That’s another danger that comes with boating at this time of year,” he said. “The rivers flush a lot of debris into the lake, so those types of hazards are definitely out there.”

Toledo pro angler and fishing guide Ross Robertson was out on Lake Erie on Thursday, and when he returned midday, he said he agrees that the tragedy was likely the result of impact. Mr. Huff’s boat, a Tracker Tundra, is open and does not offer the protection from waves or ejection that a larger, hard-top craft does.

“I know him and his boat, and he probably hit something and it went down real quick,” Mr. Robertson said.

Mr. Robertson said he has his clients scan for debris as he moves his boat across the lake, and this time of year he will drive from an upright position to have the best vantage point to spot potential hazards.

“There’s a ton of stuff out there in the water and you have to do a lot of evasive driving,” he said. “And with the water in some areas as muddy as it is, it is so tough to see. You just don’t know what’s hiding under the surface.”

Fred Snyder of the Western Basin Sportfishing Association said he had a scare on the lake a couple of years ago, under similar circumstances.

“We were watching closely and didn’t see it, but we hit a log that was big enough to take out the steering,” Mr. Snyder said. “And you don’t want to hit something and end up in the water that’s around 40 degrees — that is serious hypothermia time.”

Mr. Snyder said the circumstances that brought about the tragedy “are open for speculation at this point,” but added that he was pretty certain Mr. Huff’s boat had life jackets and safety equipment.

Mr. Huff and Ms. Santus had taken part in the Lake Erie Walleye Trail Magee East Tournament on Saturday as a team, and the boat had to pass a safety inspection before that event.

Mr. Robertson said that when fishing the cold water in the spring, he carries extra life jackets on his craft, and has three of them out in the open in a cargo net where they can be accessed quickly in the event of an emergency.

“I hope I never have to, but I can get those life jackets out in three seconds if something happens,” he said. “With the way the water temperature is, all the debris in the lake, and the way the wind changes, you just have to be ready for anything.”

Mr. Snyder said there was a 15-knot wind out of the east on Wednesday, which several anglers said put whitecaps on the water. Mr. Obermiller said an essential part of safe boating on Lake Erie is an awareness of how conditions can deteriorate rapidly.

“Lake Erie is notorious for going from flat and calm to heavy seas, pretty quickly,” he said.

This incident likely will take Ohio boating deaths this year to seven.

A kayaker drowned in a Columbus-area pond in mid-March. Two fishermen died when their boat overturned in Buckeye Lake in central Ohio in late March.

Contact Blade Outdoors Editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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