Rule number one: 'No life is worth the fish'

Deep freeze draws ice fishermen out in the elements

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By David Dye

A small cluster of ice huts stood alone as the wind swept over the ice covering the Shenango River Lake on a recent afternoon. But spirits inside the huts were warm despite the winds and cold temperatures.

The fishermen seemed to be having fun in their huts trying to catch the bluegill, crappie and perch swimming underneath the ice. However, the seriousness of what could happen should someone fall through the ice was not lost on them.

This meant safety was paramount, which is why the fishermen went out in a group and measured the ice themselves before setting up their ice huts, said Dan Kovolenko of Hopewell, Pa.

“No life is worth the fish. That's rule number one," Kovolenko said. “Always have a buddy, never go alone, and never take anyone's word on how thick the ice is."

Among the other safety precautions were flotation devices, such as float suits and safety vests. The fishermen also had cleats and ropes to throw to someone in the water, while Bill also owned a pair of gloves with cleats in them.

Despite these precautions, fishers going through the ice are usually reported a couple times a year, Waterways Conservation Officer Jeff Giardina, of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, said. On average, most accidents are generally reported during the first and last ice of the winter.

“In the beginning people go out and it looks safe, but when they walk out they don't realize how thin the ice is. At the end they've been out on the ice all day but the ice around the shore has melted away and then the edges aren't stable," Giardina said.

Officially, no ice can be considered “safe," due to the many factors which can affect the ice's thickness, such as when waterfowl congregate and keep places in the ice from melting, which can then be subsequently covered up by a light layer of snow or ice. Other times, a tributary or warmer body of water can thin the ice, John Kolodziejski said, resource manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Shenango River Lake in particular is a flood control reservoir, which means the water level can go up or down and affect the ice thickness around the shoreline, further opening the possibilities for open border water to freeze only an inch thick and become covered with snow, Kolodziejski said.

“What we recommend to people is if they choose to venture onto Shenango Lake, to wear a flotation device and never venture out alone," Kolodziejski said. “We also recommend they carry Ice-awls around their neck, which are two small handles with nails driven on the sides. They're basically miniature ice picks."

Pet owners are also urged to keep their dogs on leashes, both because it is required and because dogs have been known to run onto the lake, perhaps chasing waterfowl, and fall through the ice. Since the dogs sometimes can't figure out how or aren't able to get out of the water on their own, the situation can be fatal to both the dogs and the owners, Kolodziejski said.

“The reaction of the owner is to try and do a rescue, but it could be met with a dire outcome," he said.

If someone does witness someone in distress out on the ice, they are urged to call 911 and let first responders with specialized equipment handle the situation, Kolodziejski said.

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