Monday, January 29, 2007

ON THIN ICE: Lack of cold weather is hurting the economy in areas where ice fishing is popular

By Matt Higgins

For 20 years, Capt. Kevin Caffery traced Lake Erie's frozen shoreline in the gathering twilight of late winter afternoons. From his helicopter, he scanned for parked cars belonging to ice fishermen. If the cars had not been retrieved, it could mean men were stranded miles offshore on shifting ice floes.

In this way, Caffery, of the Erie County Sheriff's Office, rescued numerous fishermen. Then came last winter, when, for the first time, Caffery made no rescues. The reason was simple. "The lake didn't freeze," he said.

Unseasonably warm weather in recent winters has Buffalo, a frequent target of jibes about snow and cold, bucking its Arctic reputation. But without freezing temperatures, there has been no ice fishing, sending a chill through those whose livelihoods depend on it.

"Guys that ice fish spend more than your average fisherman per person," said Bill Van Camp, the owner of Big Catch Bait & Tackle on Niagara Street. "An average guy will spend $10, an ice fisherman $20 to $30 on bait and little jigs and light rods."

Other than some specialty rods, Van Camp has not replenished his fishing inventory because he had so much remaining from last year. With a warm weather pattern holding, sales have slumped this season, too, leaving Van Camp concerned.

"A guy skips ice fishing this year, he may forget about it," he said.

Van Camp has watched warming weather affect his business. Twenty-five years ago, he sold extensions for augurs because the ice was so thick, but in recent years no one has needed extensions because the ice is so much thinner.

Cold, hard facts back his observations. Eighty years of records show that Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, could be counted on to freeze over nearly every winter. The lake froze every year between 1953 and 1998. But in the last nine years, it has failed to freeze completely three times, according to the local Army Corps of Engineers office.

Odds are poor that the lake will freeze over in 2007. On Jan. 9, Lake Erie was a record 41 degrees, 7 above normal.

"This year we had the second-warmest November and December in history," said Alan Blackburn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo. "We're seeing more warm years in the recent decade. There's something happening here."

Even smaller inland lakes, which freeze faster, have not had sufficient ice for fishing. An hour east from Buffalo, Silver Lake, just 34 feet deep, is a popular destination.

In the past, Silver Lake has been a site for the New York Trap Attack ice fishing tournament, part of a seven-stop series culminating in the North American Ice Fishing Championship. But the event was canceled last February because of insufficient ice and could be shut down this year.

"I never remembered a year like last year," said George Dovolos, an ice fisherman who has lived along Silver Lake for 59 years. "I've never seen the lake open up like this. The pattern has gone to less ice year after year."

An absence of sufficient ice has not been limited to western New York. A Trap Attack event in Brooklyn, Mich., was canceled last January, the first time in six years a tournament was canceled because of weather.

With the Michigan tournament scheduled to be held in less than two weeks and warm weather prevailing, the tournament has been canceled again.

"We have never felt two years back to back with bad ice," said Mike Smith, the Trap Attack tournament director.

Smith described the traditional southern boundary of the ice belt - a region suitable for ice fishing - as running from the East Coast along the northern Pennsylvania state line and continuing west to Montana, taking in parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. But in recent years the line has run roughly through the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, eliminating two-thirds of the states in the territory.