When Larry Anderson looks out across Leech Lake these days, he sees winter: Snowdrifts, trucks driving on the 3-foot-thick ice and anglers boring holes to fish.
“Most parts of the lake you need an extension on your auger to go through the ice,’’ said Anderson, 72, a longtime fishing guide on the lake.
Though April arrives Tuesday, there are no signs of spring at Leech or other northern Minnesota lakes as one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record refuses to release its grip. Instead, more cold and snow are forecast. So with just six weeks until Minnesota’s celebrated fishing opener on May 10, the buzz has started: Will the ice be gone in time? Or will we see a rerun of last spring, when, for the first time in decades, scores of lakes were ice-covered when the fishing season began?
“My thinking right now — and I’m serious — is I don’t think the ice will be out until May 20,’’ Anderson said. “Unless things change.’’
At Lake Vermilion, Jay Schelde of Pike Bay Lodge said that despite the 30 inches of ice that covers the lake, he’s optimistic.
“You have to be or you go crazy,’’ he said. “The worst-case scenario is you call guests and tell them there’s ice. I believe we’ll get warm weather and the lake will be open. It may be touch-and-go, but we’re booking guests for the opener.’’
Last year, his customers were able to get onto Pike Bay to fish. But many other resorters there and elsewhere in northern Minnesota weren’t so lucky.
“It was pretty painful last year for a lot of people,’’ he said.
At Lake Mille Lacs — one of the state’s top fishing destinations — businesses, too, are crossing their fingers. Ice covered most of the lake last opener, and ice-out didn’t occur until May 16, shattering a 63-year-old record and costing business owners cold cash.
“If you lose a weekend, you can’t recoup that,’’ said Tina Chapman, executive director of the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council and owner, with her husband, Tim, of Chapman’s Mille Lacs Resort and Guide Service. “But there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s Mother Nature.’’
Said Chapman: “If it warms up, I think the ice will go by the opener, because it didn’t seem to be very good ice.’’ But it was snowing Thursday when she said that.
The National Weather Service’s long-range forecast for April predicts below-normal temperatures. And snow and below-freezing nighttime temperatures were forecast this week for many northern areas.
“We’ve made no progress toward spring,’’ said Henry Drewes, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager in Bemidji. “We’ve been making ice the past week.’’
Could lakes in his region be ice-covered come May 10? “It’s not out of the question,’’ he said. Lake ice is around 32 inches near Bemidji but 36 to 42 inches at Lake of the Woods on the Canadian border, he said. Anglers are still driving trucks onto lakes to fish.
“There’s no end in sight,’’ he said of winter.
At Brainerd, scene of the 2014 Governor’s Fishing Opener, people are wondering if Gull Lake will be ice-free by then.
“It’s the most asked question I’ve had in the last week,’’ said Carol Altepeter of Explore Minnesota Tourism, who has coordinated the event the past 19 years. “We’re pretty sure Gull will be open, but if it isn’t we’ll find a place to fish.’’
The Mississippi River flows through Brainerd and will be open, she noted. All events will be held, regardless, said Altepeter, who pointed out the ice-out issue is a relatively new one.
“We never worried about this at International Falls, Crane Lake or Lake Kabetogama,’’ she said, locations even farther north where past governor’s openers were held.
Last year, the event was at Park Rapids, and officials took Gov. Mark Dayton to a river connected to Fish Hook Lake because of ice on the main lake. Other nearby smaller lakes that were ice-free also were used.
“Everyone got to fish,’’ Altepeter said.
It doesn’t help that this year’s May 10 opener is one of the earliest possible under the law that starts the fishing season two Saturdays before Memorial Day weekend. Next year’s opener will be May 9, but in 2016, it falls on May 14.
Meanwhile, state climatologist Greg Spoken said he thinks it’s too early to get concerned about anglers getting frozen out of another opener. But he acknowledged it will take a prolonged warm spell to melt the snow and ice from a long, brutal winter.
“We certainly have had more snow and it’s been much colder than last winter,’’ he said. “We haven’t seen a winter like this in 35 years.
“If Mother Nature is going to do something, she’d better start pretty soon.’’