From his living-room window overlooking Leech Lake’s secluded Kabekona Bay late Monday, Dana Pitt described what he saw.
“Ice,” he said dryly. “Lots of ice.”
Pitt and his wife, Cindy, own Bailey’s Resort. They have nine cabins, most of which are rented by anglers for the walleye opener. Pitt, who’s been in the business 20 years, is less than optimistic about Leech Lake being ice-free for the May 12 event.
“I’d be shocked if it happened at this point — I think we have close to 30 inches out there right now — but I’m really, really hoping I’m wrong,” said Pitt, adding that some unseasonably warm weather, rain and wind would help open up one of the state’s premiere walleye fisheries. “We may lose some business over the opener, but last year we had an early ice-out. I’ve been in this business long enough to know I can’t control the weather.”
With the walleye opener roughly three weeks away, ice-out on Minnesota lakes is lagging well behind compared to historic averages, which has some anglers, fishing guides and business owners nervous. Minnesota is, after all, known for inhospitable openers: As recently as 2013, Gov. Mark Dayton found Park Rapids’ Fish Hook Lake covered in ice and had to fish at the nearby Fish Hook River instead.
“Mother Nature has been tough this year and extended winter well into April, which is delaying ice-out across the state,” said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “We’re about 21 days later than the median in southern Minnesota, and we’ll probably set some records there. But this return to normal to even above-normal temperatures should help. We just won’t know how much for a few weeks.”
Jeff Sundin of Grand Rapids has been a fishing guide for 30 years. He fishes numerous lakes in north-central Minnesota, including Leech, Winnibigoshish, Cass and Upper Red. In the last week or so, he’s been monitoring ice conditions and he likes what he’s seeing. Ice thickness, he said, hasn’t changed much, but ice quality has. After a lake tour Monday, Sundin said ice conditions, particularly on smaller lakes in his region, are “deteriorating fast.”
“I’m optimistic,” said Sundin of the opener. “I can’t guarantee all our lakes up here will be ice-free by then, but I will guarantee we will be fishing in boats somewhere up here by then.”
The earliest ice-out on Leech Lake was April 2, 2012; the latest was May 23, 1950, and the average is April 27. Sundin said larger lakes farther north of Leech likely will still have ice on the opener. “It’s been reported Lake of the Woods in some places had 50 inches of ice,” he said. “That’s a lot of ice.”
Neil Vanderbosch, Minnesota DNR fisheries program consultant, said late ice-out conditions are impacting the agency’s spring walleye work. Last April, DNR officials already had finished stripping millions of eggs and sperm from walleyes at 10 locations as part of the state’s walleye stocking program. This year, only one location has begun such work.
“We’ll be playing a little catch-up, but we’ll get what we need,” Vanderbosch said. “We’ve been here before.”
The DNR plans to collect roughly 600 million eggs for its 11 state hatcheries. Not all will hatch, but roughly 370 million will grow into tiny walleyes called fry. Of those, two-thirds will be stocked at roughly 300 lakes and the remainder will put into rearing ponds to grow to 4- to 8-inch fingerlings, which will used for lake stocking in the fall.
Vanderbosch said the length of days and water temperature trigger walleye spawning.
“They [walleyes] should be primed and ready when the ice goes out,” he said. “Our crews are just waiting for that to happen.”
Lingering ice conditions could also impact the DNR’s ability to get the 1,500 water access points it manages ready in time for the walleye opener. (See Field Report on this page.)
Pitt and Sundin say a little rain and wind would help.
“I predicted a May 3rd ice-out for the lakes up here,” Sundin said. “That looks to be a little early, but we should be in better shape by the opener. It’s amazing what a little sunshine can do.”
For more information about ice-out on Minnesota lakes: dnr.state.mn.us/ice_out/index.html
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.