By Shelley Grieshop
A great blue heron glides to the top of a nearby tree as Tim Heindel drills a second hole in the ice for his shortened fishing pole.
"That's probably a good sign," Heindel, 39, remarks as he spots the giant bird doing some fishing of his own along U.S. 127 near Coldwater Creek on Thursday.
A cold snap in mid-December brought scores of ice fishermen to Grand Lake St. Marys, but the recent warm-up with temperatures climbing into the 50s again today has state park officials a little concerned.
"People really have to be careful right now," says Grand Lake St. Marys State Park Manager Craig Morton, adding the warmer temperatures and rain has made the surface of the lake quite slushy.
The policy of state park officials is not to advise the public whether the ice is safe for fishing, ice skating or other activities, Morton says. Instead, they urge people to use good judgment, measure the ice first and take along appropriate equipment in case of emergencies. Heindel, of the village of Mercer, loves ice fishing and has taken advantage of the frozen lake while off work this week, he says, adding that "it's peaceful."
Heindel's wife, Wendy, worries about her husband on the ice but has taken steps to make sure his hobby is a safe one. She purchased a handy ice pick that he can wear around his neck and open quickly; her in-laws gave their son a long, thick rope to tie to his truck.
Heindel drags a toboggan along with him to carry his gear and to spread out the weight of his fishing equipment. The toboggan also can be stood on end and used for a weather block, Wendy Heindel says.
Morton says ice anglers should let others know when and where they're going if they head out alone. Setting aside policy, Morton advises children to stay off the lake altogether this week, he says.
"It would be too slushy to skate anyway," he says.
Morton says one of his veteran rangers told him the lake has never completely frozen in the 25 years he's monitored it. Because of natural phenomena like underwater currents, there are always thin spots and even open water areas on the lake regardless of long-term cold temperatures.
Fog, such as the area has experienced recently, can cause disorientation so Morton advises adventurers to stay close to shore when it's difficult to see great distances.
Morton says he is planning a future meeting with area law enforcement and rescue teams to inventory each agency's equipment for the purpose of coordinating aid if necessary. He hopes the need never arises.
Although Heindel jokes that the sound of cracking ice "makes me feel closer to God," he takes necessary precautions to insure he and his catch of the day make it back home safely.
"I don't worry too much about falling in," he says. "Right now I'm just wondering whether the full moon is keeping the fish from biting."