Gov. Mark Dayton shouldn’t need an auger on his May 12 Fishing Opener on Green Lake in Kandiyohi County. The latest ice-out ever on that 5,500-acre west-central Minnesota gem was May 8.
But anglers hoping to begin their 2018 open-water fishing season in northern Minnesota might want to keep their winter gear handy, especially after a week like the one just ending.
Thursday night, the low temperature in International Falls was expected to be 3 degrees, with zero — as in 0 — predicted Saturday night, which explains why some 30 inches of frozen water still covers many northern Minnesota lakes.
The question now, a mere five weeks from Opening Day: Will ice remain on some of those lakes when walleyes and other game fish become legal fare the second Saturday of May?
“There was ice on some Minnesota lakes on openers in 1950, 1966, 1979, 1996, 2008, 2013 and 2014,” said Kenny Blumenfeld of the State Climatology Office.
Worst ever for Opening Day lake ice might have been 1950 when Brainerd area lakes, Lake Mille Lacs and Lake Osakis, among many other waters, were impassable by boat and motor.
Blumenfeld, a climatologist, said it’s the cold and snow in the days just past that might foretell whether at least some northern Minnesota lakes will be ice-covered May 12.
When ice remained on some state lakes on Opening Day in past years, the 10-day average temperature in Grand Rapids between March 24 and April 2 ranged from 19.6 degrees Fahrenheit in 1996 to 31 degrees in 2008 — all temperatures below freezing, Blumenfeld noted.
And more than a foot of snow covered the ground in half the years of that period.
By contrast, the 30-year average “normal” temperature for the same 10-day period in Grand Rapids is 33.2 degrees.
Unfortunately, this year lines up pretty closely with years when ice remained on some northern Minnesota lakes on the opener. The average temperature between March 24 and Monday of this week was 27.1 degrees, and the snowpack in Grand Rapids averaged 9 inches during that time.
If there’s good news, it’s that cold, late springs often offer terrific opener fishing action, because walleyes remain concentrated in shallow, post-spawning areas and in areas where currents are swift. Both can be relatively easily targeted by anglers.
It was during such an opener in 1979 — when ice remained on some Minnesota lakes — that LeRoy Chiovitte caught the state’s 17-pound, 8-ounce record walleye while fishing the Seagull River where it enters Seagull Lake along the Gunflint Trail.
Chiovitte landed that brute, a female spawner, on Sunday of opening weekend. He had already caught a 12 ½-pounder the previous day that had spawned out. The action was so good that he and two friends, Lorin and Todd Palmer of Cloquet, took home 10 walleyes Sunday night weighing a total of 86 pounds.
That area is now closed by the Department of Natural Resources on most openers to protect spawning fish. But at least some other state waters with similar structure will be available to anglers — provided they are ice-free.
During his tenure as governor, Dayton has had some close opening day calls with ice. In 2013, at Park Rapids, ice covered some area lakes. But nearby rivers were open, and the day was saved.
The next year, Dayton traveled to Brainerd, following ice-out on Gull Lake by only a week.
According to data compiled by the climatology office, the most common opener conditions that prevail across Minnesota include partly to mostly cloudy skies, with morning temperatures around 40 north and near 50 south.
Opening Day temperatures have dipped to as low as 24 at International Falls in 1996 and 2004, and to 31 degrees in the Twin Cities in 1979. Highest Opening Day temp was 92 degrees in 1987 in St. Cloud, and 91 the same year in the Twin Cities.
Three-quarters of openers dating to 1950 haven’t had any measurable precipitation, and two-thirds have been entirely free of rain or snow.
All of which is in the past. And the past — as stockbrokers are wont to say — is not necessarily indicative of the future.
In the end, it will be the coming days, Blumenfeld said, that will make or break the 2018 opener, ice-wise.
“Every opener, except 2009, in which we had ice on some of our lakes, followed cold Aprils,” he said. “How cold we have been so far this spring is important. But how cold we stay, or how warm we get, the rest of this month, will be the key to whether we have a fast melt-off or keep ice on some lakes for the opener.”
Put another way: Keep the auger handy.