Ice anglers face arrest for repeat rescues
By Frank Hinchey Contributing Writer
Port Clinton, Ohio — Being safe on Lake Erie during the winter
is a no-brainer for ice fishing guide Patrick Chrysler of
Put-In-Bay, Ohio. He just has to look at license plates of vehicles
parked along the shore.
“If there are not local license plates in the parking lot, then
the ice is not good, and, if they are not local there is a
problem,” said Chrysler, a Put-in-Bay firefighter, charter boat
captain, and a 40-year fishing guide reared on nearby Middle Bass
Chrysler was referring to such parking lots at Catawba Island
and Crane Creek State Parks on the shores of Lake Erie, where
sportsmen often converge in the winter to fish through the ice.
Local knowledge is crucial when lake ice is constantly being
moved and shaped by changes in temperature and wind, he said.
Chrysler recalled he once had to venture out on uncertain ice to
warn a group of Minnesota fishermen there was open water ahead of
them near Port Clinton.
On Feb. 25, 2005, the Jerusalem Township Fire Department in
Lucas County was assisted by the U.S. Coast Guard in rescuing 11
stranded fishermen from a windswept ice floe a half mile off Crane
Creek State Park. Some in the group were from Wisconsin. Two days
later, the Coast Guard helped rescue six people and two dogs from
an ice floe about a half mile off Catawba Island.
In the Crane Creek incident, the Coast Guard scrambled three
helicopters from Detroit to assist in the rescue.
“We had a southerly breeze and a wind chill below zero and the
ice cracked and floated,” said Chief Petty Officer Jeff Hall, a
Coast Guard spokesman.
After being rescued, some of the fishermen ventured back onto
the ice to retrieve equipment. The apparent disregard for personal
safety caught the attention of Ottawa County Sheriff Robert
Bratton, who told the Toledo Blade newspaper, “That is a slap in
the face for everyone who put their life on the line to rescue
them. I don’t care what the value of their equipment is. It can go
under water. At least they are alive.”
The Crane Creek incident has not been forgotten by Bratton, who
last month hosted a public meeting he hoped would start a
conversation among emergency responders and fishermen about a new
safety policy the sheriff’s office plans to implement this month to
keep track of those who disregard orders to stay off unsafe ice and
who require repeated rescues.
“That’s what got us to look at that,” Bratton said of what
happened off the shores of Crane Creek in Lucas County. “We are not
trying to discourage ice fishing; just make (ice fishermen)
After consultation and advice from Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark
Mulligan, Bratton and his staff drafted a new three-phase ice
safety policy that has education as its key component, he said.
While there may be some downsides, Mulligan said, the upside “is
that fishermen won’t put themselves in jeopardy on the ice.”
Just as in snow emergency declarations enacted by Ohio sheriffs
to close county and township roads during a snow crisis, under the
new policy, Bratton can declare a similar emergency when lake or
pond ice is considered too unsafe for vehicles and fishermen.
Any fishermen rescued for a first time under the fledgling
policy will be told they cannot return to the ice, Bratton said,
and his or her name will be kept in a permanent log at the
“They are going to have to show us their ID,” he said. “I am not
doing this to be hard-nosed.”
Those who disregard lawful orders not to return to the ice risk
misdemeanor charges such as misconduct at an emergency, failure to
comply, or disorderly conduct, Bratton said.
If a person is rescued a second time in the same fishing season,
then it will be recommended that he or she attend a newly created
ice safety program. If they attend the class, their names will be
removed from the sheriff’s log, Bratton said.
“We are going to put together an ice-safety class with the help
of the DNR, the sheriff’s office and experienced fishermen, some of
whom have 30 and 40 years of experience,” Bratton said. Chrysler is
among fishing guides who will help in the safety education, he
The instruction will essentially be a primer on how to read lake
conditions in winter, factoring in such variables as wind,
temperature, and ice depth.
If the same fisherman is rescued a third time in a fishing
season, then the person could face a civil suit in small claims
court for rescue restitution of up to $3,000, Bratton said. Any
monies collected will be returned to local emergency responders
involved in the fisherman’s rescues, he said.
The Coast Guard’s funding covers the cost of its rescues, which
Bratton said can run as much as $2,000 an hour when helicopters are
called into action.
“We never want them to think about the cost first,” Chief Petty
Officer Jeff Hall said of ice fishermen faced with a life-or-death
situation in an emergency.
“Every minute they wait puts them in danger. Everything is
exponential in the winter, like hypothermia.” Hall said a
recreational fisherman who doesn’t have survival gear can risk
death within 25 minutes of being in the water.
Like Bratton, the Coast Guard emphasizes ice safety through such
programs as its third annual ice symposium on Feb. 6-10 at the
Coast Guard station in Saginaw, Mich.
“More recreational fishermen have been coming to it,” Hall
While Bratton said he “feels good” about the new policy, “I
think where I will have a tug-of-war is from out of state where
some will push it.” Vacationing sportsmen may have only a few days
to spend on the lake, he said. “They want to get out on the ice and
are more inclined to chance it because they are here to catch
Bratton’s policy is headed in the right direction, said Kevin
Chapman, assistant chief of the Jerusalem Township Fire Department.
Chapman’s department was the first to respond to help rescue
stranded fishermen off Crane Creek State Park only to see some go
right back on the ice while the department was still in a rescue
While Chapman said he can’t blame someone for wanting to
retrieve a $4,000 all-terrain vehicle, at the same, he said,
repeated rescues of the same people can put his department at
“If they are going back out on the ice after we rescue them,
then I’m risking the lives of my men a second time, and it is not
fair to them or their families,” Chapman said. “Everything can be
replaced, but your family cannot replace you.”
Chapman believes Bratton has some good points with the new
policy, “and I think they can be fine-tuned to be useable for
everybody,” he said.
Ottawa County’s ice safety initiative makes sense and is worth a
close look, according to The Columbus Dispatch, which endorsed
Bratton’s proposal in an Dec. 26 editorial:
“Once firefighters and police rescue someone, whether from ice
fishing or sailing in rough waters or participating in extreme
sports, that person should stay rescued,” The Dispatch stated.
Bratton said the policy is aimed at people who are negligent and
repeat offenders, “and we are trying to recoup some of the costs
(of rescues),” he said.
As for fishing equipment abandoned on the ice, the owner will
have to hire a private boat or an approved operator through the
fire department or law enforcement to retrieve the gear, Bratton
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office is ready to defend lawsuits
over lost gear as the result of such rescues.
“If they sue because of property, we are ready to argue that if
the ice is unsafe, we have a civil obligation to your family not to
let you to go out there,” he said.