On thin ice
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
RIFLE GAP, Colorado – The air was cool. The temperature was below freezing and there was a blanket of snow covering the ice surface at Rifle Gap Reservoir Monday morning.
In the snow, footprints led from a parking area to a group of three anglers up from Grand Junction for a day on the lake.
One angler said that the ice conditions were good, but that he would not want to be on the lake with a few hundred people, the turnout expected for the 13th annual Rifle Gap Ice Fishing Tournament.
The tournament was scheduled for Jan. 15-16, but unusually warm temperatures during December caused the Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and fellow participating organizations to cancel the popular winter fishing competition this year.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t reschedule the tournament due to insurance purposes and also because of conflicts with other upcoming events,” said Rifle Area Chamber of Commerce event coordinator Nicole Barkley.
The event usually draws close to 600 anglers on the ice for the two-day tournament. As of Dec. 30, close to 200 folks had already signed up. Barkley said that those who signed up are eligible to receive a refund of the $35 entry fee – or they can choose raffle tickets instead.
The Colorado Sportman’s Wildlife Fund, a partner organization in the event, uses the tournament as a fundraiser and still plans to hold the annual tournament raffle with prizes from Cabela’s and Sportsman’s Warehouse in Grand Junction. The raffle is scheduled for Feb. 26, Barkley said.
All entrants in the ice fishing tournament will be given the option to convert their entry money into raffle tickets, Barkley said. The $35 entry fee will yield 10 raffle tickets. Single raffle tickets can be purchased for $5 each at the Rifle Chamber for those interested.
This is only the second time in the 13 years of the tournament that the Chamber has had to cancel, according to Chamber president and CEO Annick Pruett. The first time was the 2005 tournament, which was also canceled due to unsafe ice conditions, Pruett said.
Despite the Monday scene at Rifle Gap Reservoir, where a layer of ice spans from shore to shore and a few anglers were scattered about, tournament organizers were not comfortable with the idea of more than 500 people out on the lake in just a couple of weeks.
Barkley said that she’s fielded several phone calls since announcing the cancellation of the tournament, most from anglers inquiring about the decision.
“We’ve gotten people calling us disappointed that we have had to cancel it, but we kept checking in with the guys at the [Rifle Gap] State Park, and due to their recommendation, they weren’t comfortable with us putting 600 people on the ice,” Barkley said. “And we are not comfortable putting people on the ice in an unsafe situation.”
According to Rifle Gap State Park manager Aaron Fero, ice is a fickle beast.
“It’s not an exact science where you go out and drill a hole in one spot and it’s five inches thick, then it’s five inches everywhere,” he said. “That just isn’t the case.”
While temperatures dipped well below freezing the last week of December and into the new year, it was too little, too late, to help save the tournament.
“We have ice all the way across the lake,” Fero said, “but, at this point, it varies quite dramatically from one point to another.”
Fero said that thickness and ice quality are considerations in determining ice strength. Where a long, cold spell will create a thick solid layer of ice, when temperatures vary and the ice thaws and freezes, that can create unstable ice conditions, he said.
Often times, access to the solid ice on the lake is the biggest problem.
“Sometimes you’ve got four or five feet of water, or ice that is only a quarter of an inch thick, before you get to the solid ice,” he said.
While anglers on the lake Monday were comfortable being on the ice, they were still cautious.
According to Fero, the Colorado State Parks system does not restrict access to the ice during the winter months. They leave it up to anglers if they consider the ice safe or not.
“Those decisions, we leave to the public as to what they are comfortable with,” Fero said. “We never actually make a declaration that the ice is safe, or the ice is not safe.”
Fero added that ice is never considered “safe” because it varies so much from one point to another.
“You simply don’t know, when you are walking out on the lake, what you are going to find,” he said.
Ice may be six inches in one spot, but 50 yards in another direction, it may only be two inches thick or less.
Fero recommends that folks going out on the ice be prepared for the worst-case scenario of falling through the ice.
“They need to take every safety precaution they can and be prepared,” he said.
There are ice rescue stations scattered around the lake shore in case of an angler falling through the ice. The rescue stations are marked with signs and provide a rope and floatation device in some cases. But Fero stressed for anglers to be prepared even further.
“It can be a very dangerous prospect to get out on the lake,” he said. “And people need to take precautions to provide for their own safety.”
While the ice fishing tournament had to be canceled this year, the chamber and organizers still plan on doing it again next year – as long as Mother Nature cooperates.
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