For Minnesota anglers, it’s déjà vu.
A brutally cold winter that produced 3- to 4-foot-thick lake ice has been followed by a frigid spring — leaving ice on some northern waters just a week before an estimated 500,000 anglers open Minnesota’s fishing season.
For the second consecutive year, anglers are wondering whether that ice will disappear in time to renew opener traditions.
The best guess is that it still will cover some far-north lakes, but officials are optimistic many major waters will be open later this week.
“We haven’t had much sun, but the rain and wind have taken its toll on ice,’’ said Henry Drewes, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager in Bemidji.
“Lakes Bemidji, Leech, Winnibigoshish, Cass and Upper Red are in the same category: There’s still lots of ice, but the way it’s moving around with the wind, I would expect all of those waters to be ice-out by opener.
“Not Lake of the Woods,’’ Drewes added. “There will be ice on the big part of the lake, the question is where. A south wind will move it north. I think there’ll be a lot of water to fish [including Four Mile Bay and the Rainy River], but there will be some big chunks of ice.’’
Things will be dicey in the northeast. Ice should be gone in the Grand Rapids area by opener, said Tim Goeman, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager there.
How about the Ely area?
“That will be touch and go,’’ he said. Ditto for Rainy Lake along the Minnesota-Ontario border.
“The forecast looks like we’ll get temperatures in the 50s, and if we just get some sun, the ice will go quickly,’’ Goeman said. “I’m guessing Lake Vermilion will be open on the opener.’’
Resort owners at Crane Lake expect open water there, too.
Lakes near the Canadian border off the Gunflint Trail, and larger lakes in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, likely will have ice, Goeman said.
What are the chances Grand Marais-area lakes will be ice-free by Saturday?
“I would say zero,’’ Darin Fagerman, a DNR conservation officer there, said Wednesday. “We still have people snowmobiling in areas of Cook County. I believe that we are farther behind than we were at this time last year.’’
Mille Lacs on ice
Farther south, at Lake Mille Lakes — one of the state’s most popular fisheries — ice last year ruined the opener. Rick Bruesewitz is optimistic ice won’t wreck the 2014 opener.
“I think there’s a good shot [ice will be gone by Saturday],’’ said the DNR area fisheries manager in Aitkin. “Rain, wind and sunshine all help; we’ve gotten plenty of rain and wind, but not much sunshine.’’
Some open water has appeared on the east side of the lake, which bodes well, he said.
But the ice-out predicting business can be perilous.
“A month ago, I declared April 29 would be ice-out,’’ Bruesewitz said with a laugh.
Cold weather and lingering ice can cause some anglers to stay home — or go elsewhere. Mille Lacs routinely tallies 100,000 hours of fishing pressure on opening weekend.
Last year, the DNR counted just 85,000 hours for the entire month of May.
Late spring effects
Even if anglers can float boats on their favorite lake, the late spring and cold water likely will affect them. For starters, some of the state’s 1,600 boat accesses might not be ready for the opener, said the DNR’s Nancy Stewart. Some docks might not be installed by May 10.
“We suggest people call ahead and get a report from the local area,’’ she said. “Boaters have to be ready for a variety of conditions.’’
DNR crews will work on repairing boat ramps first.
“Sometimes they are damaged from ice,’’ Stewart said.
Then they will install docks. And the cold water could make catching walleyes more difficult.
“There will be walleyes spawning,’’ Drewes said, which will make them less likely to bite. The best action may be in rivers and the mouths of rivers, where the water warms first. “We’re about a week behind [normal],’’ he said.
Goeman said he figures the May 17 weekend will be more like a typical opener.
Meanwhile, early-season anglers need to be conscious that cold water kills and should wear — not stow — their life jackets. This year water temperatures in the north will be in the 30s or low 40s — potentially deadly.
“Anything below 70 is considered dangerously cold,’’ said Kara Owens, DNR boat safety specialist.
“We really want people to keep in mind that water levels are high and temperatures are cold. Wear a life jacket and don’t overload your boat.’’
More than 30 percent of Minnesota boating fatalities happen in cold water with a victim not wearing a life jacket, she said.
Last year, 13 people died in boating accidents, and one fatality already has occurred this spring.