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On thin ice: one fisherman’s tale

January 07, 2012 at 07:52 PM

The Associated Press

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — It was one of those moments when Paul Tramp knew he was doing something wrong, but he knew it a second too late.

About a year ago on Boysen Reservoir, he saw a weak spot on the ice and thought “that looks wet.”

“And before I could get ‘wet’ out of my mind, I dropped the four-wheeler through the ice,” he said. It was submerged up to the handle bars.

The Lander angler was lucky. It was just about 4 feet to the bottom of the lake and the four-wheeler’s trailer stayed on the ice. He called a few friends, pulled out the four-wheeler and drained the engine. After a little maintenance, he had it running again.

Not all ice fishermen are as lucky as Tramp. In early winter, as temperatures warm and cool, ice can be fragile and conditions can quickly change. In Wyoming alone, up to a dozen motor vehicles fall through each year.

Experts say this year, because of fluctuating temperatures and high winds, could be worse than usual.

The ice can also be deadly.

In December, Kevin Holloway, 50, of Green River died when he fell through on Flaming Gorge while ice-fishing near the edge of open water. He was the first person to fall through at Flaming Gorge in decades, said David Johnson, the Sweetwater County emergency management coordinator.

Standing on the edge of ice and fishing into open water is risky because ice tends to be thinner and less stable, Johnson tells the Casper Star-Tribune (

Pressure ridges are one of the most dangerous places on a frozen lake.

Caused when ice expands and contracts, the large cracks and heaves run down lakes and reservoirs. They can look as innocent as small splits in the ice’s surface to as alarming as jagged piles of snow and ice several feet high.

What they mean is weaker ice.

Retired Lander anesthesiologist Norman Hillmer fell through a pressure ridge about a decade ago. He and several friends had crossed the ridge near shore at Ocean Lake in Fremont County two or three times with no problems. After dark, around 9:30 p.m. the crew headed back to their trucks and crossed one more time.

“The guy in front of me went over and I weighed a little more and I went down,” he said.

“He tried to come back and help me and I said ‘don’t you do that, you will be in here, too.’”

Hiller was wet to his waist, but was able to bend over the ice and crawl back onto the surface.

Johnson recommends checking the ice every 150 yards for thickness and cracks. If possible, avoid pressure ridges altogether and don’t ever fish on frozen rivers. The water movement and changes makes ice even more unpredictable.

In January, 2011, officials rescued six men trapped on a piece of ice that broke away and floated into the lake. The men drifted about a mile and a half during three hours.

“A lot of times it’s just that the ice conditions on the reservoir change constantly,” Johnson said.

“One day you could be fishing on some good ice and the next day you go out and, because of the moving waters and temperature fluctuations, it’s not as safe.”

Johnson recommends wearing a life jacket and carrying ice picks because after just a few minutes in the water, your hands lose mobility making it hard to pull yourself onto slippery ice. Most importantly, don’t go ice fishing alone. Hypothermia can set in within 30 minutes.

While not illegal on most Wyoming reservoirs, Johnson doesn’t recommend driving on ice, even if it seems strong enough. Each year, four-wheelers, trucks and snowmobiles go through the ice on one or more of Wyoming’s many lakes and reservoirs.

As a general rule, Johnson said 6 inches of new, clear ice will support a snowmobile and 12 inches of clear ice will support a car.

“If you’re foolish enough to take one on the ice,” he said. “We’ve lost more trucks and vehicles than people on the Gorge.”

If a vehicle goes through the ice, the owner must immediately pay for its removal. Leaking oil and gas can be harmful to the reservoirs, said Gary Schoene, public information manager for Wyoming State Parks and Historic Trails.

Three vehicles, a Suburban, a pickup truck and a Chevrolet Tahoe fell through the ice one night in January 2011, said Daniel Marty, superintendent of Boysen State Park. They were trying to reach a friend’s camper and ran into pressure ridges. It took a week to get them out and two of the vehicles were destroyed.

In the late 1990s, Marty remembers waiting for a tow truck to help pull a pickup out of a pressure ridge when a snowmobiler, looking at the truck, fell in the same open water.

The rider jumped onto ice but his snowmobile sank. Fortunately, he had a rope attached to the back dragging an inner tube and the men used it to pull the snowmobile out of the reservoir.

After Paul Tramp’s four-wheeler went through the ice, he realized he’d also hit a pressure ridge. The ice had expanded, pushed together and then contracted, pulling apart. Water filled in the gap and froze, but it was thin and wet.

He learned some lessons that day. Now he carries ice picks in his pocket, ready to use if he falls in again. He’s also not planning to drive his four-wheeler on the ice.

“People won’t let me forget it,” he said. “They ask me when I’m taking the submarine out again.”


Information from: Casper Star-Tribune - Casper,

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