With most Minnesota lakes sporting glare ice thanks to a cleansing rain, anglers are returning in growing numbers to their winter fishing holes with hopes of a longer season than a year ago.
From near the Canadian border to south of the Twin Cities, fishing reports are upbeat and tinged with confidence that lake ice will thicken fully at a fast pace. But for now, except for far north, full-sized pickup trucks in tandem with trailered fish houses are on hold until there’s more than a foot or 15 inches of core ice.
“Our store is getting busier and busier every day,’’ said Greg Fisher, co-owner of Vados Bait & Tackle in Spring Lake Park.
As a supplier of live bait to anglers who fish all over the state, Fisher said the heavy rain that fell on Christmas Day was a blessing shared far and wide. The rain knocked down a slushy snowpack that was insulating the ice from air temperatures. Once the rain fell, temps dropped quickly and the ice grew.
“That rain did wonders for us. It’s basically glare ice everywhere,’’ Fisher said. “Bring your cleats and wear ’em.’’
Already last week, the ice was thick enough around Rush City and farther north for ATVs and snowmobiles to pull fish houses into place, Fisher said. And on metro area lakes such as Peltier Lake in Centerville, Long Lake to the west, Bald Eagle Lake to the east and White Bear Lake, anglers on foot were punching holes in 4-6 inches of ice. Even on Marion Lake, just south of the metro area near Lakeville, there were 3 inches of solid ice by midweek, said John Larson of the Minnesota Valley In-Fisherman Club.
Larson said he places spearing houses on three lakes, including Marion. He’s bullish about the prospects of a season that will start earlier and hopefully end later than last year. Larson’s optimism, shared by many, was being bolstered by a near-term forecast of below-normal temperatures by midweek.
“I’m looking forward to it,’’ Larson said.
Randy Swanson, another avid ice angler who fishes in the metro area, said Lake Waconia’s crappies already are biting on most mornings and evenings. Waconia’s ice was 7-8 inches thick as of Friday. Another 6 inches of ice will support Swanson’s cozy fish house.
“I’ve got a spot that’s been dynamite for the past 20 years,’’ he said. “I’ll be out there soon.’’
Lisa Dugan of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said the early ice fishing season has gone off without a fatal accident, although there have been reports of sunken trucks, four-wheelers and snowmobiles.
She is reminding anglers to check with local bait stores and resorts for the best local information about hazards on individual lakes. But as safety outreach coordinator for the DNR, Dugan said she’s encouraged by early-season conditions.
“We’re getting that nice, thick layer that you like to see before people really start heading out,’’ Dugan said.
New this year from the DNR will be an emphasis on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning inside shelters heated with fuel-burning units. The awareness campaign will debut early in the new year, she said.
Early January also will mark the kickoff of the hard water tournament season. One of the first big contests will be the Lake Oscar Ice Fishing Tournament in Kensington, held annually on the second Saturday of January.
“I’m sure we’ll have really good ice by then,’’ said Thomas Kummrow, president of the local lake association.
A year ago at this time, Minnesota was just heading into its first deep freeze and ice conditions were woeful. Bob Sonenstahl of Wayzata Bait & Tackle joked that his checkbook is still hurting.
But already this season, Sonenstahl said, ice on Lake Minnetonka is supporting foot traffic over shallow areas.
Up North, Bryan “Beef” Sathre of Bemidji said the Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods near Baudette already is bustling with activity. “We’re seeing a lot more walleyes this year than last year at this time,’’ he said.
Reports from Mille Lacs also have been positive. Brad Parsons of the DNR said anglers have been catching a “decent amount’’ of northern pike in shallow bays. As the ice thickens, anglers will move out deeper to catch walleyes.
“We expect fishing to be really good out there,’’ Parsons said.
Like last year, the DNR has imposed a one-walleye possession limit for the Mille Lacs ice season.