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ICE FISHERMEN TOLD REGULATION UNLIKELY SPORTSMEN MEET WITH SHERIFF, LEGISLATORS TO DISCUSS ISSUE OF LAKE SAFETY

An ordinance to regulate Lake Erie ice fishing will not be drafted soon -- if ever -- a meeting of fishermen was told Wednesday night.

The meeting, arranged by Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins and the Erie County Federation of Sportsman Clubs, drew 50 fishermen, legislators and search-and-rescue personnel to the Evans Rod and Gun Club to discuss the rash of ice-fishing incidents that kept Sheriff's Department patrols busy in recent weeks.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not trying to banish ice fishermen," said Higgins, "but as the sheriff, I have to worry about people's safety. . . . I don't want to impose a law but there are some basic common-sense things a person can carry onto the ice. . . . I'm here to find out what we can do."

At issue is a handful of individuals -- usually early season or late-season ice fishermen or snowmobilers -- who get in trouble when the unstable ice breaks up.

Capt. Kevin Caffery, the Sheriff's Department helicopter pilot, already has flown three rescue missions and twice as many false alarms this season.

"Unless you're up there you can't see the open water," he said. "The guy who gave us so much trouble a few weeks ago had his back to shore and didn't know he was in trouble until we told him there was a half-mile of open water between him and the shore."

Jeff Sweetland, the operations chief of the Hamburg Water Rescue Unit, said that all of the publicity ice fishing has received recently is generating a lot of false alarms.

"We're getting calls when people see sticks out on the ice or see people who are just fine walking along in complete safety."

"It seems like the law enforcement people here are reluctant to have a new law passed," said Robert Wright of Hamburg, a sportsman, "so education is the best answer. I think it's got to be like turkey hunting, where the turkey hunters run safety seminars. The fishing clubs are going to have to have education programs, make strong suggestions on what to wear and what to carry and the media is going to have to help get the message out."

"It's hard to legislate ethics or pass a law that prevents stupidity," Wright said.

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Higgins and Caffery said just being seen can be the key to rescue.

"Last week I met with the South Towns Walleye Club," Caffery said, "and they asked what color is best to wear. I told them orange was a lot more visible than black, blue or red on the ice. And two days later I stopped to talk to some ice fishermen and one said, 'How do you like my orange parka?' "

"So you see," Caffery added, "if people have information, the word gets out."

Sportsmen were concerned how best to develop a fact sheet for beginning ice fishermen and how to get it in the hands of those interested in ice fishing.

That project seemed to be well in hand with County Legislators Joseph Desmond, D-Eden, and Frederick Marshall, D-Springville, saying they were ready to help in any effort to reduce ice-fishing emergencies but were reluctant to do it through an ordinance or local law if education can save lives and reduce the risk to law enforcement and rescue personnel.

They agreed that a committee of angling club representatives will prepare a brochure on ice-fishing safety.

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