An ice fishing tournament scheduled to take place in northern Vermont over the weekend was canceled after, in two separate incidents, three men fell through the ice and died while officials warned of “unsafe conditions” brought on by warmer weather.
The 43rd Annual Islands Ice Fishing Derby called off this year’s event in a Facebook post shared on Saturday morning, hours before the tournament was set to begin along Lake Champlain. Organizers said their decision came in response to a request from the Grand Isle County Sheriff’s Office, which urged them to cancel the derby “effective immediately,” according to the Facebook post, “due to the condition of the ice.”
“All ice anglers are asked to get off the ice,” the post read, adding that previously purchased tickets would be refunded.
The announcement closely followed the second of two deadly incidents where ice fishermen fell through the surface of Lake Champlain and were either pronounced dead at the scene or later succumbed to their injuries, authorities said. The first incident happened on Thursday, when a 62-year-old man, identified as Wayne Alexander, fell through the ice while fishing on a portion of the lake in Grand Isle, according to the Vermont State Police.
The agency said in a news release that Alexander had left his home before 12 p.m. that day and was expected to return from ice fishing about six hours later. After he did not return, a concerned relative searched for and ultimately found his truck parked near a fishing port at Grand Isle State Park at about 8:30 p.m., state police said. Emergency crews discovered him in the water, wearing a flotation suit, about one hour later, and he was transferred to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Alexander was pronounced dead at the hospital, according to the law enforcement agency, which said on Friday that an autopsy would be conducted to determine the cause and manner of his death.
“This incident appears to be an accident and is not considered suspicious at this time,” said state police.
When the agency announced that two additional men, brothers John Fleury, 71, and Wayne Fleury, 88, had died in a similar ice fishing incident early on Saturday morning, they said it appeared to be an accident as well. State police initiated a probe after the Fleury siblings fell through the ice while fishing on another section of Lake Champlain in South Hero, about six miles from Grand Isle. Authorities say the men were inside of an enclosed UTV that crashed through the lake’s surface at about 7 a.m.
A diver found Wayne Fleury’s body still inside the vehicle, and he was pronounced dead at the scene, according to state police. John Fleury was pulled from the water by emergency response workers and later died at the university medical center in Burlington. Police said their investigation was ongoing later on Saturday afternoon, and autopsies would be conducted to determine the cause of death for both men.
“First responders reported encountering difficult conditions on Keeler Bay due to the condition of the ice, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is advising the public to stay off the ice on Lake Champlain this weekend due to unsafe conditions,” said state police in their initial announcement Saturday morning.
Shortly after the Islands Ice Fishing Derby canceled the weekend tournament, the National Weather Service in Burlington shared an advisory urging people to avoid frozen lakes in the area “due to well above normal temperatures.”
“Due to well above normal temperatures that the region has experienced over the past 2 months, ice thickness on area lakes and ponds is highly variable,” the organization wrote on Facebook. “Ice is never 100% safe. If you don’t know, don’t go! Stay safe.”
Vermont Fish and Wildlife echoed the warning in comments to CBS affiliate WCAX.
“We really want to encourage people to not go out on the ice,” Christopher Herrick, a spokesperson for the department, told the station after the ice fishing incident on Saturday. “Clearly, it’s not safe. This is the second event we’ve had in two days. So ice safety is the most important thing.”