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Issue Date: December 2007 Issue


Hearing | Lake Erie ice break underfoot


as told to Andy Netzel
Al Wellman Jr. has been ice fishing for three decades on Lake Erie and other small northern Ohio lakes. He’d never had a problem in 30 years until Feb. 27, 2005, when the ice gave way, and he ran into serious trouble.
hat lake has something on me that I can’t describe. It has a draw to me more than a woman. You’ve got to realize the allure of catching those walleyes through the ice.

I wish the lake would stay frozen all year long. I would rather ice fish than fish out of my boat, and I love fishing out of my boat. But that ice — it’s like a magnet attracting steel.

We got out there and started fishing by probably 7 a.m. We were about a mile southwest of Catawba Island State Park and 300 yards from the point that jetties out from Catawba Yacht Club. We walked because we had been out there the day before and knew there were fish in close.

There were other people out there already fishing by the time we got there.

Ice fishing is different than regular fishing. You’re not moving, you’re sitting there over a hole, in a shanty with your girlfriend or one of your buddies. You have a 6-, 8-, 10-inch hole, depending on what size your auger is. You drop your fish finder down there, and you’re watching the fish. You drop your lure, and you watch the lure. You jig it up and down and all of the sudden: BAM. You got him. You’re one-on-one with that fish, and you know you have to get him up the hole. If you’re not seasoned, most of the time you lose him.

It’s harder than regular fishing. You’ll lose more fish than you’ll get if you don’t know what you’re doing. They will get away right at the ice hole.

So, we’re sitting there, catching fish. It was slow but steady. If I didn’t have one on, my buddy Harry or his wife Megan did. I needed two more fish and I’m done.

Then we hear this BOOM. My line is down the hole, but it’s on an angle. Next thing I know, someone yelled, “The ice is moving!” Our shanties are the flip-over kind. When we flipped ours up, everyone was running.

I’ve been ice fishing for 35 years. There are different noises that the ice makes. You learn what noises are good and what’s not good. Groans are not good. That’s a sign it’s giving up. Snap crackle pop, like Rice Krispies, that’s a good sound. It means it’s making ice.

Ice cracking sounds like thunder under your feet. That’s what we heard. That was not a good noise. I knew we needed to go.

We packed all our stuff in the shanties and tried to get back to the crack. It probably took us five minutes to get there, but the crack had already opened to 10 feet or so. It opened up that quick. Some of the other people got across, but they weren’t sticking around. If someone stayed on the other side, we could have gotten off.

I have friends who have lost their trucks in that ice. I have friends who have lost their lives in it.

This was a big ice floe, probably a half mile wide and a quarter mile long. The farther we went, the more was breaking off. We were definitely in trouble. The shore just kept getting farther away.

But we heard the distress siren go off. At that point we weren’t real worried because we knew
someone
was coming. There were six of us and two dogs.

At first we were staying closer to the edge, but then that started to break off, so we had to back away. It was not a good sign. We were at the mercy of the lake.

It took awhile, maybe two hours, but the Coast Guard and the Catawba Island rescue got us off by boat.

For as long as I’ve been out there to get rescued once, that tells you something. I’m not stupid. But I’m growing more wary of the lake. I’m apprehensive about going out on snowmobiles or quads anymore. Airboats are a lot safer. I bought one. I bought survival suits. I’ve gone to great expense to save my hide.

People tell me that lake is going to kill me. I have to admit that it probably will.

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