Monthly Archives: December 2016

What to know before fishing our frozen lakes

Out, See, Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

I had been planning to spend this month’s blog sharing some fishing and ice-safety advice before last weekend’s tragic news of the death of two local fishermen. Regrettably, in light of these terrible events, I feel I should open with a refresher in ice safety.

Over the weekend, thin ice claimed the lives of two anglers on nearby lakes. The first was 61-year-old Wayne Ballenger who fell through on Big Bear Lake east of Gaylord. His fate was discovered by two friends who’d gone to the lake to see if the ice was safe, only to find the lone man’s fishing bucket on the lake and his snow-covered vehicle parked on shore. They called 9-1-1 and rescuers had to wear protective rubber suits to retrieve the man’s body from the frigid water.

The second happened that same day when 69-year-old Terry Weber fell through a rural lake in Montmorency County not far from Big Bear Lake. Weber, who owned Advance Tackle and Michigan Stinger lures – popular trolling spoons I’ve used to fish for salmon – was also an experienced, veteran fisherman who made a fatal mistake by trusting first ice too soon.

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn't like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn’t like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

I have made the same mistake. Fifteen years ago, during a first-ice trip with my dad, I broke through 100 feet from shore and fell until my outstretched arms caught the edge of the hole. Luckily I was able to scramble out with the help of my dad. As we carefully but quickly made our way back to shore, dad’s foot went through into shallow water and, as he fell forward, his fist punched through too.

It was a hard lesson we both needed and neither of us have forgotten it. Even so, I’m still tempted every December to fish when the ice is still young and questionable. Fishermen dying is a tragic reminder that comes too often and we got the one-two punch this year.

Here are some recommendations for preparing to fish first ice, last ice, or any time in winter, as well as how to survive a fall into the lake.

Don’t go alone. This is especially important early and late in the season when ice conditions are most untrustworthy. If you’re like me and insist on going solo, tell someone where you’ll be fishing and when you’ll be back. Check in every so often with a text message or phone call. Seriously, your loved ones will thank you.

Check local conditions. Call your bait shops. Check public-access points for foot and sled traffic. See if anyone else has been out. Being first isn’t always best.

Prepare for the worst. Wear a life vest. Drape a short length of rope over your shoulders with an old screwdriver tied to each end. These can be used as ice picks should you fall in.

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Keep your head. If you go through, turn back toward shore and try to climb onto the ice. This ice supported you on the way out, so it’s your best chance at getting back. Try not to panic. Get your legs horizontal with the ice and attempt to kick your way out.

Roll to safety. Once you’re out of the lake, don’t stand up. Distribute your weight by rolling, if possible, to shore. If there’s too much snow to roll, crawl on all fours until you are safe. Forget about your gear.

Get to shelter. Now that’ you’re freezing cold, soaking wet and in shock, you are far from out of danger. Hypothermia can still get you, so go to the nearest home, pound on the door, and ask to come inside. Drink warm fluids and wear a blanket. (I ask that lakeshore residents welcome anglers in distress into their homes.)
If a house isn’t an option, get to your vehicle and turn on the heat.
In either case, it is critical you remove all wet clothing. Being bare and dry is far better for survival than wearing cold, wet clothes. No one will care that you’re naked in this life-or-death situation. Call 9-1-1 if your cell phone is working.

I truly hope no one else will have to rely on this advice this year. Two deaths in one weekend is too many for one season.

I’ll be checking back in in January with some fishing advice. If all goes well, we should have relatively safe ice by then.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, outdoor columnist and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at

National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day!


We used to make fun of Uncle Bob’s ugly sweater.  But now, we want to borrow it.  The ugly Christmas sweater knows no bounds.  As if the ugly sweater wasn’t ugly enough already, we have found new ways to embellish and add to its hideousness.

The ugly sweater is now 3D with lights, tinsel and even stuffed animals, hanging and blinking in all its glory.  December 16th is national Ugly Sweater Day.  We want to challenge you to head out and scour second hand stores, businesses, grandma’s closet and anywhere else you can find that one-of-a-kind sweater causing others around you to gasp…enviously at the ugliness thereof, silently wishing that they could have found one uglier than yours.  Be creative, nothing is off limits, cat and horse sweaters can be transformed into a meaningful Christmas sweater you can be proud of.




So What’s with all Gaylord’s White Stuff?


snow-elevation-graphicThere are myriad ways our region stands out, though our most well known attribute may just be the heaping helping of white stuff we receive each winter. And we mean lots of snow— the fluffiest, most amazing kind of snow you can hope for, whether you’re in the mood for snowmobiling, skiing or snowshoeing. Even simply strolling the shops downtown takes on an entirely winter wonderland and magical feel with snowflakes softly falling all around.
Just how much are we talking? You can count on the sky unloading up to 180 wonderful white inches. Thank you, Mother Nature. Of course, we must give props to our super-central, tip-of-the-mitt geographic position that ensures a plethora of lake-effect snow.

“In a typical winter, probably 70 percent of the snow that Gaylord receives would be lake-effect snow,” notes Jim Keysor, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service here in Gaylord. In other words, two Great Lakes—Superior and Michigan—play integral roles in boosting the snowfall in our area. How so exactly? “The process of lake-effect snowfall, and
rainfall, is the process of cold air moving across an unfrozen body of water … and we normally
have a wind direction that blows from north and northwest that brings the air across the Lakes
into our area,” Keysor explains.

Mostly, this is air coming across Lake Michigan. But this weather phenomenon—
meteorologists calls it “fetch”—also occurs on Lake Superior to the north and typically affects
the Gaylord area several times a winter.

“A lot of our big-snow events involve both Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The air actually
begins to pick up moisture in Lake Superior, and those are our biggest events,” Keysor notes.

“We can also thank our elevation—Gaylord sits at one of the highest points of northern Lower
Michigan—for the awesome amounts of powder-like snowfall.”

Keysor describes it like this: imagine air full of moisture coming inland and hitting a hill
or higher elevation area. At that point, snowfall and rainfall are intense, as though the
atmosphere is wringing out a sponge.

Better yet for all you snow-lovers: the white stuff just keeps coming, all season long. This is
due in part to our prevailing northwest winds.

“It’s very unusual here to go for any length of time where we don’t have snow cover,” says
Keysor, who has worked as a meteorologist in cities all around the country. “That makes
Gaylord unique in that regard.”