For Ice Fishermen In Warming Times, Tiptoeing On Thin Ice Is No Metaphor

Mar 8, 2019

On a pond in a top-secret spot on the Laramie plains, I take my first steps out onto the ice behind Fisherman Larry Fioanini. He tells me to walk right behind him, pointing out some open water in the middle where a spring percolates, keeping it from freezing.

"We don't want to be in this area at all down there," he says.

"Are you kind of looking at the color of the ice?" I ask, noticing how he walks in certain areas.

"It's so clear you can see through it down here. See how far down those bubbles are?" he says, looking down at the ice between his feet.

"You can see right down. It's nice and clear," I agree.

"But there's some cracks here. It kind of freaks me out."

"Cracks are always there," he says. "Ice expands when it freezes. It has to crack. You'll hear it crack too. Nothing to worry about."

Larry Foianini drills a hole to see how thick the ice is.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Using a large augur, Foianini starts drilling a hole in the ice to make sure it's thick enough to fish on. He sticks his boot down in the hole and feels the thickness with his toe. Four inches is recommended, but Foianini says this pond is a foot thick and we're safe to fish.

His longtime fishing buddy Guy Scarpelli drags a sled out with the fishing gear. Soon, we've got some balls of Velveeta cheese on hooks and the two friends sit in chairs, twitching them to attract fish. While we wait, Scarpelli talks about an accident he had out here a few years back. He gestures across the lake.

"I was right over there, and I didn't realize I was getting closer to where the spring had been, and the ice wasn't very thick. Next thing I knew, I fell through. And the thing that saved me was having Larry with me."

"We lost the augur and everything," Foianini remembers. "He just went through, whoomph."

"How'd you get him out?" I ask.

"I just flattened myself out on the ice where it was really flat, so I was distributing the weight and I inched over toward him and it still took us about five, ten minutes. Finally, he got a leg up where I could grab it and he could roll out."

Neither of these guys is new to the sport either. Scarpelli started fishing on Seminoe Reservoir near Rawlins when he was a little kid back in the 1950s. But he says the sport has changed since then.

"It's a shorter season, yes," Scarpelli says. "I mean, I fished on April 23 and still had 16 inches of ice. But I've also seen it where, like last year, I didn't feel that we were safe enough to go out fishing."

Foainini agrees. "I remember when I was growing up in Rock Springs, we'd go out to Flaming Gorge and in late October we could get on the ice. And here sometimes, you don't get on in December."

Meteorologist Sean Sublette worked on a report called "On Thin Ice" for the research group Climate Central. He says, in the American West, fall is lasting longer than it once did.

"We don't get the extreme cold as much as we used to," Sublette says.

A sled full of ice fishing gear.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Cheyenne used to feel the bite of 25 below zero pretty regularly, but Sublette says it hasn't dropped that low since 1990.

"We're seeing a little bit of a delay in Arctic air coming into the Rocky Mountains," he says. "I see delay in terms of some of these colder outbreaks would begin to settle in in late October or November and now they're waiting until later November or December."

Rocky Mountain winters are now as much as three degrees warmer than they were a century and a half ago, and nighttime-when ice forms the most-has warmed up five degrees in that time. Sublette says some lakes that used to freeze, like around Salt Lake City, just don't anymore. He says such trends makes ice more dangerous to walk or drive on for fishing.

"With the ice not getting as thick, it gets a little more risky," he says. "Unfortunately, you fall through that ice and you're into that just hideously cold water and hypothermia can set in in a matter of minutes."

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department's Sara DiRienzo has some advice for safer ice fishing: look at the color.

"Clear ice is much stronger than cloudy or white ice. Cloudy or white ice means it's been frozen and then thawed and refrozen, and that can create some instability because of air bubbles or frozen snow. And so, if you are fishing on white ice, we recommend double the thickness or eight inches," says DiRienzo.

She says people should never try to icefish alone and should make sure they take some essential safety gear.

"Ice picks, we recommend a life jacket in some cases. And definitely packing extra clothes and hot liquids in case there is an ice fishing accident," DiRienzo says.

She also says not to fish in streams, rivers or any water with a current flowing underneath because that ice is even less stable.

Meanwhile, out on the pond, a fishing pole goes crazy. Someone has nabbed our cheese. Foianini lets me do the honors. I reel up a squirming, brilliantly colored fish.

"Just lay him on the ground," Foianini tells me. "That's a rainbow."

The ice might be getting less reliable, but the trout are still down there swimming. Scarpelli, for one, isn't giving up anytime soon. He says, sometimes, he even gives them a kiss before he sets them free.