Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Thin ice on lakes poses safety risk

By Jeff Bollier
Gannett Wisconsin Newspapers

OSHKOSH — As Chris Freiberg watched the Green Bay Packers game Sunday on TV, part of him wished he could be playing on Lake Winnebago instead of being indoors.

“This would be excellent ice boating weather, but the ice conditions are rough,” Freiberg said. “The lake just froze over today, but if it stays cold this week, I’m sure people will be out boating in a week.”

The weekend’s single-digit temperatures went a long way toward solidifying the start of ice-related recreation season.

But Winnebago County sheriff’s deputy Steve Herman said it will take another five to seven days before ice on Lake Winnebago is thick enough to walk on, and even longer until snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and full-size vehicles can safely venture out.

“Citizens have to realize when they go out on the ice, they do so on their own and need to be aware of the potential problems that exist,” Herman said.

Winter sportsmen can’t wait to get out on the ice, but it’s an enthusiasm tempered by safety concerns.

“I’m looking forward to getting out there, but it’s not worth the risk of going out there just for some fish,” Oshkosh ice fisherman Greg Golliher said. “I’m not a person to sit around in the house and watch TV. I’d rather be out fishing or duck hunting.”

Golliher said anglers already have walked onto Lake Poygan and some of the other smaller lakes in Winnebago County. He said all Lake Winnebago needs before it can open up for what should be good winter walleye fishing is a few windless nights.

“Once you get a solid layer (of ice) out there, the wind can’t do much,” Golliher said. “I’m hoping to get out there before the end of the year, but safety’s the main issue.”

Otter Street Fishing Club president Scotty Engel and others said people shouldn’t walk on lake ice until it’s 4 to 6 inches thick, shouldn’t drive a snowmobile or ATV until the ice is at least 8 inches thick and shouldn’t drive a vehicle on the ice until it’s at least a foot thick.

Engel also recommended anyone unsure of lake conditions or new to ice activities should check with local anglers and fishing clubs, bait shops and boaters before heading out.

“The locals know what’s going on,” Engel said. “A lot of times visitors come in and do not check with local clubs or bait shops. It’s important because every lake is different.”

Freiberg said he’s hoping for the better part of a month of good ice boating weather before snow falls in volumes large enough to disrupt boating. He said he still gets a thrill out of getting his ice boat up to speeds of 60 mph on Lake Winnebago.

“I’ll be out there every weekend and after work, if I’ve got time before it gets dark,” Freiberg said. “In the past years, we’ve had about a month of good ice boating before the snow ruined it.”

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