The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is strongly urging everyone to stay off the frozen surfaces of bodies of water for the rest of this season, following the death of an ice fisherman Wednesday.
"In my opinion, the ice fishing season is over," said Col. Jason Batchelder, the chief game warden of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. "After yesterday's tragedy, there's no reason for anyone to be going out on the ice."
Kenny Gaudette, 67, of Shelburne, died on Shelburne Pond. He was ice fishing when he fell through the surface, investigators said.
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Marianne Charbonneau and Jennifer Huante, nieces of Gaudette, remembered him as an avid hunter, trapper, and fisherman who was always eager to share his love of the outdoors with others, or help relatives with projects.
"We called him 'the last mountain man in Vermont,'" Charbonneau remembered Thursday, describing his skill and passion for a wide variety of hunting and fishing-related activities.
"He passed doing what he loved the best," observed Huante.
Game warden Dana Joyal responded to Shelburne Pond Wednesday afternoon, following the report of unattended fishing gear near an ice fishing hole. Joyal told necn he ventured onto the ice aiming to retrieve and hopefully resuscitate Gaudette. Investigators could not determine precisely how long Gaudette had been in the water.
"I was not going to sit idly by with Mr. Gaudette out there," Joyal said, explaining he took several precautions before going out onto the ice, including removing heavy equipment like his belt and bulletproof vest.
For nearly a half-hour, up to his neck in frigid water, Joyal struggled to haul himself to shore, he said. He had extensive training and a flotation device, but Joyal explained he suffered bad scratches and bruises when his body made forceful contact with chunks of ice and when he tried to dig his ice picks into the surface of the pond.
Joyal needed a brief hospitalization Wednesday for hypothermia, the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department said. He is expected to make a complete recovery.
"When I was returning to shore, I was yelling to people not to come out because, without the protective equipment and the training [I had], I knew it was likely a death sentence for anyone to come out," Joyal told necn.
Thursday's rain and Wednesday's record-breaking warmth further softened the ice across Vermont. Even before this week, there were several safety concerns on Vermont waterways, following a winter of up-and-down temperatures.
Saturday, Vermont State Police said 31-year-old Jordan Smith of Groton, Vermont, died after snowmobiling on the ice-covered Ricker Pond in the Groton State Forest. The machine fell through the ice, investigators said.
In mid-February, another ice fisherman, 23-year-old William Fournier, died from exposure on Campbell's Bay in Swanton. Investigators said the Swanton man was found on top of the ice on a bitterly cold night, not far from where his vehicle sank into the bay, when Fournier likely got very wet.
"With the rain and unseasonably warm weather, some areas of the state are seeing thinner and more unpredictable ice than we would expect this time of year," Batchelder, said. "We would encourage everyone to stay off the ice."
Gaudette's relatives expressed deep gratitude for the game warden who tried to help, and wished him well in his recovery.
The grieving family echoed the Fish & Wildlife Department's safety message for this month.
"Please stay off the ice," Marianne Charbonneau said. "And never go fishing alone if you are on the ice."