Late ice-out: What will it mean for Minnesota anglers?

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2013 - 11:36 PM

Lingering winter brings worries in the fishing business.

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The weather was brutal for the 2008 opener at Upper Red Lake, but at least there was open water. The fear this year: ice for the opener.

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Larry Anderson peered out his window at a frozen, snow-covered Leech Lake last week and pondered whether the white expanse would be blue by the May 11 fishing opener.

“Looking at the forecast, I’d say we’re in trouble,’’ said Anderson, a longtime Leech Lake fishing guide. Ice on Leech still is nearly 3 feet thick, as it is on lakes across northern Minnesota.

So with less than three weeks before Minnesota’s fishing opener — and with no end in sight for the cool spring weather — some anglers, fishing guides and business owners are becoming a bit nervous. After record early ice-outs last year, many lakes could go ice-free much later than normal this year. Currently all but a few southern Minnesota lakes are locked firmly in winter’s grip.

“There’s probably as much ice on the lakes now as any time all winter,’’ said Gary Barnard, Department of Natural Resources area fisheries manager in Bemidji, where many lakes still have 30 inches of ice. “It’s not a certainty the ice will be off the lakes by the opener.’’

Still, a lot can happen in three weeks.

“What always amazes me is you get a few warm days and warm nights and some rain, and that can knock the ice out,’’ said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries manager at Grand Rapids, where lakes have 27 to 31 inches of ice. “I think rain has more effect [on melting ice] than a sunny day.’’

Larry Jacobson, owner of Hiawatha Beach Resort on Leech Lake, isn’t worried. Yet.

“We’ve been here since 1960, and it’s been open [water] on the fishing opener every year,’’ he said. No one is canceling reservations at his resort, which is on Steamboat Bay, always one of the first to lose its ice, he said.

The earliest that Leech has gone ice-free was April 2 last year; the latest was May 23, 1950, and the average date is April 27. Lakes farther north — Lake of the Woods, Upper Red, Basswood, Saganaga and Gunflint, to name a few — are even more at risk.

But even if spring finally arrives and ice fades by May 11, there could be impacts on anglers, fish managers and others. Among them:

The fish bite

Anderson said water temperatures likely will be cooler than normal.

“I would think the fish would be where they normally would be,’’ he said, referring to shallow water, where they spawn. “I wouldn’t expect them to be out in the deep water yet.’’

Barnard agrees.

“Fishing generally is really good with late ice-out, because they are not dispersed,’’ he said.

However, said Kavanaugh: “They might still be concentrated in creeks, inlets or spawning areas. If it stays cool, there may be situations where they haven’t finished spawning, and we all know that can affect the bite.’’

Meaning walleyes might be tight-lipped.

And if walleyes haven’t finished spawning by the opener, some areas where fish are vulnerable to overfishing could be closed, including the Little Cut Foot Sioux area of Lake Winnibigoshish. “Right now, it’s too early to make that call,’’ Kavanaugh said.

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