Anglers and boaters blue as Minnesota lakes head toward historically late ice-outs

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2013 - 11:21 AM

Along the bays of Minnetonka and all across the Land of 10,000 Lakes, winter’s tight and icy grip is delaying business, canceling events and testing anglers’ patience.

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Snow continues to coat the docks and shoreline at Tonka Bay Marina. The late-season ice on Lake Minnetonka has delayed boating and other activities tied to the lake. Several events have already been postponed, including the annual Lake Minnetonka Crappie Contest in Excelsior, which was set for Saturday.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com ,

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Antsy anglers and boaters are having a meltdown over ice-covered area lakes.

Thousands of them are being held at bay at Lake Minnetonka, where what’s expected to be a historically late ice-out is testing the patience of everyone from die-hard fishermen to the bride whose heated wedding cruise will remain docked at shore.

Visitors aren’t booking cruises, buying boats or reserving boat slips at past years’ rates, unable to think spring in the wintry weather. Events like this weekend’s Lake Minnetonka Crappie Contest in Excelsior were postponed. And experts predict that if the snow and cold continue, the ice-out won’t take place until the first week of May — something that hasn’t happened in nearly half a century.

“It’s driving people crazy,” said Bob Turgeon, a Lake Minnetonka fishing guide whose Facebook feeds are full of fishermen’s posts bemoaning boats holed up in garages or warehouses instead of out on the water in search of panfish. “It’s been a long winter; you want to get out.”

This day last year, Minnetonka, the state’s ninth-largest lake, had been ice-free for a month, driving up boating traffic to the highest levels in recent years. But now, like many lakes across Minnesota, it’s still covered with 18 inches of ice, passing the average April 15 ice-out date and creeping up on the May 11 fishing opener.

“We’re a land of extremes,” said Pete Boulay, a state climatologist. “Maybe it’s payback for last year.”

Latest ice-out was May 8

In Minnesota, which has the most boats per capita in the nation, lake ice-outs are often celebrated as the first true sign of spring.

Last year’s unusually warm weather spurred record-setting early ice-out dates across the state in late March and early April. But this year, only about a dozen southern Minnesota lakes are ice-free so far, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, leading several Lake Minnetonka businesses to take bets on Facebook about when it will happen this year.

“If we stay like this — cloudy, cold and snowy — it’s going to take a while,” Boulay said, adding that one day with lots of wind and rain or sun could dramatically speed up the snow and ice melt. “Ice-out is progressing, it’s just very slow.”

Most metro lakes are two weeks behind average and six weeks behind last year’s ice-out, he said. On Lake Minnetonka, most ice-outs happen between April 11 and 19, according to the Freshwater Society, which defines an ice-out as being able to travel from one shoreline to another in a small boat. The record for Minnetonka’s latest ice-out dates to 1856, when it happened May 8.

“You’d think that record will never be broken,” Boulay said, “but Mother Nature can always surprise you.”

‘Spirit of spring’ lacking

Bob Geiger doesn’t want any more weather surprises this year. April snowstorms like Thursday’s make it difficult for him to sell new boats when his view of Lake Minnetonka shows a treacherous whiteout.

“The weather is having a severe impact on our business,” said Geiger, general manager at Wayzata Marine. He said that when he recently followed up with a customer from January’s boat show, “he said, ‘We haven’t given it any thought.’ Their … [mentality] isn’t there.”

He’s offered markdowns and deals to help persuade boat buyers to commit despite the unseasonable weather. “Hopefully this means we’ll have boating into December,” he said.

The dreary weather is depressing boat owners, too. At Tonka Bay Marina, one of four marinas Gabriel Jabbour owns on Minnetonka, boat slips are being sold with less urgency.

“It’s stagnant,” he said. “The spirit of spring is what drives business, and we don’t have that spirit.”

The April snow is also stalling marina renovations and work usually done by now. At bait shops, it’s pinching sales, with Wayzata Bait and Tackle estimating that it’s down $10,000 in sales from this time last year. And at Al and Alma’s Supper Club and Charter Cruises, one of six boats is in the water, but it won’t be cruising the lake. Instead, general manager Jay Soule said, they’ll get creative to make sure events like Saturday’s boat wedding will still be enjoyable.

“We’ll make dockside fun,” he said. “It’s another reason to make it memorable.”

Organizers are trying to save face, too, for the Lions’ Lake Minnetonka Crappie Contest, which has been postponed until April 27. Even if the ice isn’t out by then, organizer Roy Peterson said, they’ll scrap fishing and concentrate on onshore activities.

That may be the closest anglers get to a lake until the ice-out. Unlike golfers, who can retreat to indoor golf domes, Turgeon, the fishing guide, joked that anglers have no indoor fishing dome during wintry weather.

“It’s the die-hard guys who are itching to get out,” he said, adding that in 30 years of fishing, he’s never been unable to get on a metro lake for the fishing opener. “It’s not yet unprecedented [this year], but it’s getting close.”

 

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Twitter: @kellystrib

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