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Rescuers want stranded anglers to pay

Now that the danger is over for 134 fishermen stranded on a huge ice floe in Lake Erie over the weekend, the anger has set in among the people who had to rescue them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Now that the danger is over for 134 fishermen stranded on a huge ice floe in Lake Erie over the weekend, the anger has set in among the people who had to rescue them.

The fishermen ignored cracks in the ice and high-wind warnings; some even built a makeshift bridge across the cracking ice to reach a favorite fishing spot. But the agencies that led the risky rescue operation can't charge them a dime.

"They pushed it to the limit," Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said Monday. "It wasn't about the weather. It was about common sense and personal responsibility."

Some emergency responders say laws should be written to fine or even criminally charge ice fishermen who take extreme risks.

"This was a man-made rescue," Bratton said. "This wasn't like a tornado or a flood. These people were reckless."

Eleven fire departments, two sheriff's departments and the U.S. Coast Guard sent boats, helicopters and crews to Lake Erie's shoreline Saturday when the ice shifted, stranding the fishermen about 1,000 yards offshore.

Authorities haven't tallied the cost. On Sunday, Bratton had estimated the cost of the response at $20,000, but on Monday he said it would probably be significantly more than that.

One man died
One man died at the lake Saturday, although his relatives say he was not on the ice floe that broke away. Relatives told The Columbus Dispatch on Monday that the man died of an apparent heart attack just after his snowmobile went through the ice.

Most of the fishermen stuck on the ice were brought in by helicopters and air boats.

"They don't look at it from our side," said Dan Barlow, chief of the Catawba Island Township Fire Department, which handles about three ice rescues each winter but was not part of the response Saturday. "It's probably one of the most dangerous things we do."

The Coast Guard never charges anyone it rescues, saying it's part of its duty.

Bratton was behind a move three years ago in his county to punish ice fishermen who need to be rescued repeatedly. Those who need help twice take an ice fishing class. Third-time offenders can face fines and a bill for the rescue if the sheriff or prosecutors feel that's warranted.

No fines
Nobody has faced fines so far under the rules, and nobody will be fined over Saturday's incident because the emergency call originated in a different county. Bratton said he now thinks the rules may be too lenient, and that he wants to meet with the Coast Guard and other departments that take part in ice rescues to try to come up with a common policy.

Ice fishing guide Pat Chrysler, who takes out groups in western Lake Erie, said some type of penalty is needed because too many fishermen don't want to hear about safety.

"These guys walk out there and see the airboats and think they'll be taken care of," said Chrysler, who broke his neck 13 years ago while trying to rescue three people who drove an all-terrain vehicle through the ice.

What makes restrictions tricky is that hunting and fishing clubs have enormous political clout. Conservation groups in Michigan helped kill a bill a decade ago that would have set fines for ice rescues.

Bratton said there also may be more agencies can do to warn people of the risks. Most law enforcement agencies simply warn that there is no safe ice instead of trying to determine when the ice is safe.

Call for warning system
Marc Hudson, president of the Western Basin Fishing Association in northern Ohio, said setting up a warning system would be a good start.

He said both the fishermen who ventured onto the ice and the authorities who failed to warn them should share the blame. He noted that authorities already can close beaches in the summer when conditions are dangerous.

"There are no rules about ice fishing," he said. "If you're going to put in rules, you need to put in accountability on the other side."

In Ohio, the ice fishing season on Lake Erie is unpredictable. Some years pass without any ice. But this winter has been especially good.

Thousands of fishermen have filled up hotels and restaurants in recent weekends. The big draw is the walleye, thought to be among the best-tasting freshwater fish.

Many of those rescued made sure to save their buckets of fish, but had to leave the rest of their gear behind. Mike Sanger of Milwaukee said Saturday he was most upset that he missed a day of fishing.

"It's always a little dicey, but it's excellent fishing, so I plan on coming again," he said.