Warming temperatures and brisk southwesterly winds were a recipe for ice fishing disaster on Western Lake Erie on Saturday (Feb. 7). With more than 500 fishermen on the wrong side of a meandering 5-mile crack in the ice, the U.S. Coast Guard and various local agencies responded quickly to clear the ice of stranded anglers. About 125 fishermen were brought off the ice. Many ice fishermen took a long route around the crack on all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles and returned to shore without assistance. Some headed headed east to the solid ice off the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant, while others raced as far as 12 miles to Catawba Island State Park, a base for hundreds of other ice anglers. The fishing frenzy has been fueled by thick ice created by a week of single-digit temperatures and limit catches of six walleyes. Thin ice in recent years has prevented anglers from heading off the mainland to fish.
National Weather Service broadcasts had warned fishermen of dangerous ice conditions both on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Although air temperatures reached 55 degrees and winds gusted to 45 knots, many fishermen ignored those broadcasts and warnings published in the Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer on Friday and Saturday. They were eager to get in on the best walleye fishing of the winter. “It could have been worse,” said veteran ice fishing guide Pat Chrysler of Put-In-Bay, Ohio, who has a small village of ice shanties along the west side of South Bass Island. “If the National Weather Service had not broadcast warnings, there could have been 1,500 fishermen on the ice (off Crane Creek State Park in Oak Harbor, Ohio), not 500,” said Chrysler. “Give accolades to the National Weather Service and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as all the fire rescue units like the Jerusalem Township Fire Department. They were right on top of the situation.” The ice fishermen heading out on Saturday morning ignored warning signs that including a foot-wide crack in the ice about a mile offshore. Someone laid boards and pallets over the crack to allow snowmobiles and ATVs to get across. As the wind continued to blow, the crack widened at mid-morning and the makeshift wooden bridge floated away in open water. A stranded fisherman called for help about 10:45 a.m., said Ottawa County Sheriff Robert Bratton, who coordinated the local rescue units. The rescue effort was monumental. The Coast Guard quickly sent four helicopters – three from Detroit and one from Traverse City, Mich. – as well as an air boat from the Marblehead Station and a huge C-130 aircraft from North Carolina. The big airplane cruised the shoreline for a few hours to look for stranded anglers.
Sheriff Bratton was not very kind to the ice fishermen, chastising them for risking the lives of the rescue crews. “It’s a shame you can’t arrest people for stupidity,” he said. The area just west of the Davis-Besse plant is notorious for ice cracks and stranded anglers. The record was set in 1989, when 175 fishermen had to be rescued. That was before the advent of air boats, which have become common on Lake Erie. Much like the Florida Everglades air boats, the noisy craft are made with much tougher hulls to be able to crash through the shove ice lining the Lake Erie shoreline and haul crews of anglers and ice shanties. Temperatures were in the high 30s on Sunday, and hundreds of fishermen headed back out on Lake Erie to catch walleye. Most of them focused on an area on the west side of South Bass Island, and northwest of Catawba Island, which is attached to the mainland. Thick ice in those areas have resulted in crowds of fishermen over the prior two-week period. Chilly overnight temperatures froze the puddles of water on the ice for Sunday’s fishing, and the winds switched to light and variable. The Coast Guard wasn’t taking chances, sending a helicopter to tour the area and look for ice anglers in distress. Some of the private air boats were rescuing the vehicles the ice fishermen were forced to leave behind on Saturday. “When fishermen are rescued, they aren’t allowed to bring their gear with them,” said Sheriff Bratton. “There isn’t much room in the helicopters and air boats, and we’re only interested in saving people, not property.” One fisherman died on Saturday. Leslie Love, 65, of New Albany, Ohio and his snowmobile went through the ice in relatively shallow water east of the Davis-Besse nuclear plant. His son-in-law and a friend helped Love to get to shore; a Coast Guard helicopter took Love to Firelands Hospital in Fremont, Ohio. Love, who had a history of heart illness, died before reaching the hospital. With more warm weather in the forecast for the coming week, including rain and high winds, Mother Nature may cancel the rest of the Lake Erie ice fishing season.

UPDATE: Hundreds of anglers are plucked off drifting Lake Erie ice.