Rainy Lake fishing guide Billy Dougherty lives as far north in Minnesota as anyone, and his gut tells him that next weekend’s fishing opener won’t be as icy as people think.
“Everybody should be ready to go fishing,” Dougherty said last week from his family-owned resort in International Falls. “It should be pretty much game on.”
As he spoke, Rainy Lake’s Black Bay, Cranberry Bay and Sand Bay were melting and well on their way to open water.
“My prediction is that the ice will be out on the main lake by May 10,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty’s optimism is shared in many parts of the state, but there’s no question that ice outs are running late and that anglers on some lakes won’t have full reign due to remnant ice sheets and drifting floes. It’s the second time in five years that ice conditions have threatened the opener. In 2013, Mille Lacs and other lakes set records for late ice outs.
“The forecast is encouraging, but we are still behind,” said Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist.
“It’s going to be nip and tuck,” said veteran fishing guide Tom Neustrom of Grand Rapids, a tireless promoter of the sport. “We need a little help and some wind and some warm weather again.”
Boulay said the weather trend for next week looks to be “seasonable” in the northern two-thirds of the state, with highs in the upper 60s and low 70s. But he agreed with Neustrom that lake ice “will just sit there” in many cases if there’s no wind to push it around.
In the Twin Cities, where Mother Nature dealt the snowiest and fourth-coldest April on record, Lake Minnetonka, Christmas Lake and Medicine Lake were still shedding ice last week. And on Mille Lacs, where walleye fishing this year again will be restricted to catch-and-release, white ice dominated the surface as of late Friday afternoon.
Mille Lacs Fisheries supervisor Tom Heinrich of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Friday that the ice was expansive and still touching shore in many places. He said he can’t predict whether it will loosen and melt by Saturday.
“It’s pretty white right now. … It’s going to be really, really close,” Heinrich said. “Whether it’s Saturday or Sunday or Monday, I can’t say.”
Farther north, resort owners around Lake Winnibigoshish, Cass Lake, Bowstring Lake and others in the region were thankful to avoid the April storm that dumped 15 to 17 inches of snow on the Twin Cities and in central Minnesota. The lack of snow hastened the melting of ice.
“That’s the oddity of this year,” said Bill Heig, owner of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnie. “I think some of our southern lakes are more behind than we are.”
Gerry Albert, the DNR big lake specialist in Grand Rapids, said lake ice in the region that includes Cass and Winnie was darkening last week and showing weakness.
“It’s very difficult to predict, but it looks good right now” for the area’s large lakes to be free of ice or mostly free of ice on opening day, Albert said. Smaller lakes like Bowstring and others are almost certain to be ice-free, he said.
Albert said the late ice outs are arriving with two upsides for walleye anglers. The fish like to bite soon after the ice goes out, and late arrivals of open water have corresponded with good survival rates of baby walleyes after spawning. On Winnie, for instance, the 2013 class of walleyes was the biggest in recent years.
“It’s common when you have a late spring you have a better year class” of walleyes, Albert said.
On Lake Vermilion near Tower, resort owner Jay Schelde said Pike Bay is certain to be ice-free by opening day. The shallow bay on Vermilion’s east side is a hot spot for early-season walleye. But Schelde said late last week it was too early to tell if Big Bay, a much larger area on the lake, would be clear of ice for the opener.
The uncertainty of ice conditions has coincided with slow sales of fishing licenses. The DNR is scheduled to update the statistics Monday, but state fishing license sales at the start of last week were down 28 percent from the same time a year ago. Normally, half a million people take part in the state’s fishing opener tradition. Over the course of a year, 1.4 million people buy a Minnesota fishing license. Along with kids, an estimated 2 million people will wet a line this year in the state.
Late ice conditions this year have the potential to cause fishing groups to cancel, which would be hard on resorts, bait shops and other stakeholders. The state’s fishing business generates an estimated $2.4 billion in direct retail sales. Fishing also supports nearly 35,500 jobs, tourism officials say.
Mark Anderson of Anderson Canoe Outfitters on Crane Lake and Bruce Beste, owner of Cabins on Crane, said opening day fishing parties in their area like to follow tradition regardless of the conditions. But they said wind and 70-degree temperatures this weekend along Minnesota’s northern border are certain to create open water days before the fishing opener. Most of the ice on Crane and surrounding lakes was black and weakening by Friday, they said.
“No cancellations,” Beste said. “All our guests are coming up.”
Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to celebrate the opening weekend of fishing in the Willmar Lakes Area. Local guide Kelly Morrell is set to take him out on Green Lake to fool walleyes.
Dean Anfinson, who is part of the Willmar area host committee, said he was relieved on Wednesday to see the ice go out on Green Lake. The committee was prepared to move Dayton to a smaller lake if the ice on Green didn’t melt.
“We didn’t want the governor to be dodging icebergs,” Anfinson said.
The Minnesota side of Lake of the Woods is one area where opening day anglers are certain to be limited by ice. Gregg Hennum, co-owner of Sportsmans Lodges near Baudette, said open water along the south shore will at least triple in size by next weekend.
There will be ample room to fish from boats, he said, “but I don’t foresee all the ice being gone by any means.”
Late ice also has prompted the DNR to delay the opening of fishing at specific walleye or panfish spawning sites where the fish will be congregated and vulnerable. The DNR said such areas will be marked with signs.