Deadly Year for Vermont Ice Anglers - 3 Dead in 3 Days; Younger Brother Recounts Harrowing Ordeal
“Mark this day down,” said my younger brother Dana as he opened our conversation during a rare midday call. “I fell through the ice on Lake Champlain near North Hero (Vermont), but I was able to extend my arms to keep me from going under the ice,” he said.
It was January 22. He was remarkably calm. The harrowing incident had happened fewer than 30 minutes earlier and he was now in soaking wet clothes trying to shake off the freezing cold in his truck, the heater cranked to the maximum.
He was lucky. Other Vermont ice anglers haven’t fared as well, with three losing their lives in the last week. Two elderly men died after their Utility Task Vehicle (UTV), sometimes called a “side-by-side”, broke through the ice on Lake Champlain’s Keeler Bay, in South Hero, early in the morning on February 11.
According to a report in The Islander, a community newspaper covering Vermont’s Lake Champlain Islands, a 71-year-old Williamstown, Vermont, man was pulled from the water and brought ashore by volunteer first responders. He was transported by ambulance to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington where he was pronounced dead that afternoon.
The second man was found at the lake bottom by a Colchester, Vermont, Technical Rescue diver. The 88-year-old East Montpelier man was still inside the submerged UTV. He was pronounced dead at the scene, according to police reports. The incident happened about a mile off shore, according to multiple reports.
The Vermont State Police reported the names of the victims as John Fleury, 71, of Williamstown, and his brother, Wayne Fleury, 88, of East Montpelier. Autopsies will be conducted at the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in Burlington to determine the cause and manner of their deaths.
Initial response was coordinated by the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department with assistance from the Vermont State Police. Other agencies participating in the effort included Colchester Technical Rescue; fire departments from Alburgh, Grand Isle, Isle La Motte, North Hero and South Hero; Milton and South Hero rescue squads; the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife; and the Vermont State Police Field Force Division, Bureau of Criminal Investigations and Victim Services Unit. The North Hero Volunteer Fire Department used air airboat to maneuver over the ice and water near the scene.
According to the state police, “First responders reported encountering difficult conditions on Keeler Bay due to the condition of the ice, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is advising the public to stay off the ice on Lake Champlain this weekend due to unsafe conditions.”
The Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Department immediately issued a request for cancellation of the hugely popular Islands Ice Fishing Derby, scheduled for February 11-12. The organizers complied, sending a message to all anglers to get off the ice. It is uncertain whether the two deceased men were participating in the tournament.
A Thursday Death
Vermont Fish and Wildlife officials and the state police were also investigating an incident where another angler fell through the ice in Grand Isle and died February 9.
According to police and news reports, Wayne Alexander, 62, left home around midday to go ice fishing but failed to return. His truck was located at the fishing access at Grand Isle State Park around 8:30 p.m. Emergency crews from the Vermont State Police, Grand Isle and South Hero Fire Departments, the Grand Isle Sheriff’s Department, and the AmCare rescue squad responded and located Alexander in the water around 9:30 p.m. Alexander was reportedly wearing a flotation suit but it is unclear if he was wearing a full suit or just the parka. He was taken to the University of Vermont Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
My brother is an ice fishing fanatic, often fishing alone when conditions are good or with a core group of fellow diehards. He says his ice plunge resulted from a mix of complacency and being in a hurry. His narrow escape was due to keeping his cool as the ice gave way and acting promptly.
“I was fishing with friends, but we split up with them moving north and me steadily fishing my way south, back toward where my truck was parked,” he explained. “There was a three-inch, frozen-over pressure crack we crossed on the way out but everything was solid around it. I’ve crossed hundreds of similar pressure cracks over the years and the ice was solid. I was on about 5 inches of ice all morning.”
Pressure cracks, ruptures in the ice’s integrated surface are nothing to mess with. They sometimes leave a long line of broken ice, frozen upward in jagged upheaval, creating a dangerous, formidable wall. Or they can leave a gap of open water, something potentially perilous to those venturing forth on vehicles ranging from snowmobiles to nearly 7,000-pound trucks.
“Once I decided to head in, I noticed that water had come out of the crack and had frozen. I don’t know when that happened, but it didn’t look treacherous,” Dana said. “I followed it, looking for a place to cross. I was only about 75 feet from shore. I found a spot and for a second stupidly figured that even if I went through it wouldn’t be very deep.”
The late morning temperature was 30 degrees. He was towing a sled with his gear 10 feet behind him and had taken off his bulky jacket. He wore Striker Predator jacket and bibs. The garments have flotation cells built into them to help anglers stay afloat should the ice give way.
He took a few steps toward the crack and the ice gave way.
“It happened so fast,” he explained. “I didn’t touch bottom and I don’t know if I popped back up or extended my arms like a T to keep me from going under the ice. I think the flotation in the bibs (which cover well up to an angler’s chest), popped me up. I used the momentum when I bobbed back up to kick my feet hard and flop up out of the hole and on to the ice, kind of like a seal or a penguin. I was only in the water a few seconds.”
Now soaking wet and rapidly losing bodily heat, he retrieved the line to his sled and followed the safe side of the pressure crack to a wooded area where the ice was solid all the way in. At the truck, he removed the wet clothes, then fired up the engine, loathing the couple minutes it took for the heater to warm up.
Ice Safety – Managing Risk
Dana readily admits making several mistakes. First, he notes, he wasn’t carrying a chisel, sometimes called a “spud bar,” to probe the ice ahead of him. These are essential when treading on ice only thick enough to support a person and minimal equipment. Next, his ice picks, typically carried in an upper pocket or attached to a parka sleeve, were at home in a five-gallon bucket. These can be indispensable when it comes to trying to pull yourself out of a hole. Finally, he said, “I was in a rush, and I was alone.” Haste often leads to poor decisions.
While he had a flotation suit, he was wearing just the bibs, but he believes the bibs may have helped him pop up so quickly when he hit the water. Quality clothing and gear can be a lifesaver on the ice. I’d add that anglers should also have a throw rope among their gear. You can help other anglers if they get in trouble or nearby anglers might be able to use your rope to help you get out of a hole. Dana often carries a floating water-skiing rope with a handle on his sled.
The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department offers several tips for safety on the ice.
As a general guideline, 3½ to 4 inches of clear ice is required to walk on and 8 inches for a snowmobile or ATV. Double the thickness if the ice is white or opaque and not consistently clear throughout.
Ice never freezes uniformly, so frequently test ice thickness and solidness with a spud bar or auger as you walk out on the ice.
Ice that has formed over flowing water, springs, pressure cracks, old ice holes or around the mouths of rivers and streams can be weaker than surrounding ice. It’s a good idea to stay away from these areas.
Carrying a set of ice picks and a compass for snowy or whiteout conditions is recommended.
Let someone know where you will be fishing, your access point and when you plan on returning home. Bring your cell phone, placing it in a freezer bag to keep it dry.
TakeMeFishing.Org has additional recommendations relative to ice thickness.
Follow the ice thickness recommendations below to maximize fishing safety. These guidelines are for new, clear solid ice.
2 inches or less - STAY OFF
4 inches - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
5 inches - Snowmobile or ATV (note – this is thinner than the Vermont state recommendation)
8 – 12 inches - Car or small pickup
12 – 15 inches - Medium truck