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'Do not go on Lake Champlain.' Vermont officials offer ice safety tips as temperatures warm

Milder winter temperatures can cause dangerous conditions for ice fishers. We talk to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife on how to stay safe.

Arctic temperatures brought frigid conditions and ice to Vermont at the beginning of February, but since then, temperatures have warmed, causing ice on lakes and ponds to rapidly deteriorate. The unpredictable ice conditions led to three Vermont ice fishermen dying last weekend after plunging through the ice on Lake Champlain. We talk to the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife about ice safety amid mild temperatures.

Our guest is:

  • Alison Thomas, director of outreach for the the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife

Connor Cyrus: These are heartbreaking stories. What kind of outreach did you do prior to the warm weather that was happening before these three men died?

Alison Thomas: In early January, we send out a press release talking about tips and tricks and general thoughts associated with what to do prior to, and during, ice fishing to stay safe. And then we also have Facebook and Twitter in which we can communicate similar messages in the beginning of the winter.

Also, we have a program called Let's Go Fishing in which we provide Ice Ice Fishing Clinics. It's usually about 25 to 30 clinics, on a normal year. This year, we're not there, but on a year in which the ice is safe, we provide ice safety instruction during every single one of those clinics.

We also have the Ice Fishing Festival [which was in late January in 2023], and the very first station that everybody goes to—and about 550 people attend that—is my station, which is Ice Safety. And finally, we have on our website, under our ice fishing page, the second tab is safety regarding ice fishing.

What should people know about going out on the ice in the near future?

In the near future, for this year, we are saying, do not go on Lake Champlain. It's not safe right now. And, of course, there are probably small little areas that are, but absolutely, by and large, we are saying "do not go on it." And we almost never say that. So, we mean it! We almost never say "don't go on this specific water body." That's not something our department does.

But, in this specific year, because of the unseasonably warm weather we've experienced, it has led to more unstable ice conditions that are really indicative of late-season ice fishing—more like mid to late March. But this year, because of what we've experienced with warm weather, wind, rain, that really messes up the ice, and makes it unstable in many places. So, for Lake Champlain, we're saying, please just stay off.

Just know that ice conditions can vary widely. I mean, wind can really mess up ice. There are big lakes in Vermont where, even when it's -20°F, ice won't form because it's so windy. So, it's not just "because last night was below 32°F it's going to be safe." It's more than that. Inlets, warm springs, beaver lodges, different activity and different structures in the lake and water bodies can make certain areas not as stable, and so, every single day is a new day with ice, and you need to be careful that day.

There is still ice fishing opportunities that are safe in places throughout the state. You just really have to do your due diligence prior to getting on the ice, to make sure where you're going as has been safe recently, and then bring all of the necessary safety gear and utilize it while you are approaching the ice and on it during your fishing adventures.

Now, you've told people to stay off Lake Champlain, which is something that your department rarely, if ever, does. So, what should people consider when it comes to how quickly ice conditions are changing, where they do choose to ice fish?

Well, if people want to go ice fishing, and Lake Champlain is not an option right now, call up the local bait dealers. Or, when they go in to get their bait, just tell them, "I'm going to this specific body of water, where on it have you heard is safe? Where is it not safe?"

That doesn't mean you don't do your safety actions and protocols once on the ice, but the local bait dealers really do have their finger on the pulse of what's going on in a certain body of water. And they're very experienced with that. So, that's just step one. You're gonna need to get bait, so you might as well ask the bait dealer at that point.

Given the forecast that's coming up, that we're expected to get some really cold temperatures, what does that tell us about the rest of the season for ice fishing?

Maybe it's not over?! [Laughs] I can't prescribe, like, "yes, it's gonna be safe," or, "no, it's not." Because again, there's so many variables.

I will say, no matter how cold it's going to get, the ice will be, in general, more unstable then it would be [during] early season cold temperatures, because we've had so many weird thaw events and wind events and rain events. So yeah, it'll freeze, but it won't be beautiful black ice everywhere.

It might get cold, and it might get safe in some places again that weren't safe, previously, because of the current temperatures were experiencing. But the quality of the ice may not be as high. So again, really be safe about the difference between black ice and maybe ice that's gray or white, cloudy, milky-looking with air pockets.

What has your experience been as an avid ice fisherman or fisherwoman this year?

This year, I have not ice fished very much at all, because it has been a little tricky to get out there. And that's not just because the conditions have been bad, because there have been stretches of great conditions this winter, I'm just busy.

What I found out about myself is, ice fishing is very important to me, and when I don't get to do it as often as I used to it, it's hard for me. I like to get out there. There's nothing better than being outside, in the elements—whether it's windy and cold, or snowy and beautiful, or sunny and cold—and just spending a day connecting to this beautiful resource.

Or, which is more often for me, at night, because of my life schedule ... evening and night ice fishing! When the stars are out and you're trying to jig for smelt or you have some tip-ups for burbot or walleye, whatever it may be

Ali... ice fishing, at night, under the stars, seems in so many words, miserable! It just seems really cold!

No, it's the best! Think about it. Vermont has so much darkness in winter. There's a lot of dark time during winter. You know, it's like, okay, it can go hole up inside, or you can go out and you get energized from it. I can't explain it, but it's energizing, and it's exciting, and it just feels so good and healthy. And at trust me, I have been out in the cold and the wind and the snow and, despite all of that—and this obviously might be part of my personality—but despite all of that, I'll get back to my vehicle at the end of the night, and I'll be like, that was awesome! I'm a total wreck, my hair is in a know, my hands are all crazy red, but I have never regretted it, because it's so healthy and fun feeling.

I'm a firm believer in 'don't knock it 'till you try it," so that is something that I'll try that I'll have to try to do. Is there anything else you want to share about ice fishing, whether that's your experience, or messaging from the Dept. of Fish & Wildlife?

Ice fishing is truly a wonderful, healthy, fun, wholesome activity to do, with a buddy, with a bunch of people. If you don't know how to do it, I get it. There's gear associated with it, and some techniques that are a little mysterious, if you're not familiar.

That's why we have our Let's Go Fishing program in the department, to help people navigate that new activity and hopefully find it to be something that they, too, like to do.

I fish to catch my food. That's why I fish. It's a great way to be connected to your your protein resources and the resources on the fisheries habitats that we have in the state.

This year, use absolute extreme caution and stay off of Lake Champlain right now. But in general, don't let ice fishing scare you. Like any outdoor activity, even going on a walk, you have to figure out what layers to wear and what shoes to wear. In Vermont, it could be pure ice or mud or it could be lots of things.

So, ice fishing, like any outdoor activity, requires some safety decisions before and during it, and some appropriate gear. And you will have a wonderful time. It doesn't take fancy things. It just takes a few things to remember how to stay safe and to practice that.

Broadcast on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.