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.

Barnard said the Tamarack River at Upper Red Lake and the Mississippi River below Bemidji could be closed to protect fish. The DNR will announce closed areas later.

Walleye stocking

Last April, DNR employees were already stripping millions of eggs and sperm from walleyes at eight locations as part of agency’s walleye production and stocking program. This year, they haven’t started.

The late ice-out will condense the DNR’s egg-taking process, but it won’t deter it. “We’ll get them,’’ said Neil Vanderbosch, who heads the program.

Workers plan to collect 600 million eggs, which go to 11 state hatcheries. There they blossom into 370 million tiny walleye fry. About 264 million will be stocked in 291 lakes; the rest will go into rearing ponds to grow to 3-inch fingerlings, also to be dumped in lakes.

Walleye spawning is triggered by photoperiod and water temperature. The length of days has them primed to spawn now. Once the ice melts, things could happen quickly, Vanderbosch said. His crews will be ready.

What if the ice lingers?

“If we get into May and the lakes are still locked in ice,’’ Vanderbosch said, “I think we’ll have bigger problems than our walleye egg take: people going crazy.’’

Tribal netting

Indian bands that net walleye in Lake Mille Lacs almost always are done before the sportfishing opener, which avoids potential clashes between tribal netters and non-band sport anglers.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,’’ said Sue Erickson, public information director for the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wis., which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, some of which net walleyes on Mille Lacs.

The late ice-out, Erickson said, “might have band members and anglers on the lake simultaneously. I would hope people would still be respectful of each other if that happens.’’

The tribal netters might be able to get their nets out near the shoreline, even if the rest of the lake is ice-covered, said Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries manager. But the late spring could mean those fish quickly spawn and depart for deeper waters, reducing the bands’ catch. That happened in 2011, when ice didn’t depart until May.

“It was a very short season,’’ Erickson said.

Meanwhile, more snow was forecast Up North this weekend. And Anderson, the Leech Lake guide, could only joke about it.

“It will be an opener we’ll never forget,’’ he said. “We’ll probably be ice fishing.’’

 

Doug Smith • doug.smith@startribune.com

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