Spirits were high on New Year's Eve in Chris Mauer's portable fishing shack on Lake Demontreville in the city of Lake Elmo.
The fish weren't biting and the ice was questionable in spots, but the local ice angling season had finally arrived.
"We couldn't wait," Mauer said. "People start to get desperate."
At this time last year, Mauer, 54, of Oakdale, already had logged nearly a dozen ice-fishing outings on metro area lakes. Over the course of a normal winter, the activity provides him and members of his extended family hundreds of hours of enjoyment.
For others, too, catching fish through holes cut into the season's first reasonable ice seemed secondary to the thrill of returning to their rituals.
"It's relaxing and peaceful," said Ryan Huseby, 31, of Mahtomedi.
Huseby and Justin Barnhart, 28, of Stillwater were among eight sets of anglers who — like the Mauers — were scattered across Demontreville's northwest end during the daylight hours of New Year's Eve. Under a bright blue sky and in light winds, they carved out a 4-by-3 foot opening in the ice for spearing northern pike. Others were jigging or using tip-ups to attract northerns, crappie, sunfish or the lake's catch-and-release specialty: largemouth bass.
"The best part about this is that anybody can go out on the ice," Barnhart said. "You don't need a boat."
From inside their portable darkhouse, Barnhart and Huseby staged a decoy 3 feet down in the naturally illuminated water. As they watched and waited, a lime-green glow from the opening reflected off their faces. They could see all the way to the lake's weedy bottom, 7 feet under.
With the early ice ranging in thickness from 3 to 6 inches, no one was driving snowmobiles or four-wheelers. The anglers had all walked to their respective spots, pulling sleds of equipment behind them across an area that juts out from the lake's only public access, owned by the Department of Natural Resources. There was a long ribbon of dark, soft ice that everyone avoided.
At the DNR, the agency's bottom-line advice is that no ice is 100 percent safe. But DNR guidelines state that 4 inches of new, clear ice is enough to support ice fishing or other activities on foot. To support a car or small pickup truck, the ice should be 8 to 12 inches thick. A medium truck can ride or sit on new, clear ice that is 12 to 15 inches thick, but those vehicles should be parked at least 50 feet away from each other and moved every couple of hours to guard against sinking the ice. DNR officials also suggest anglers check with a local bait shop or resort about known thin ice areas if unfamiliar with the area.
Luke Pitzen, 38, of Stillwater, ventured onto Lake Demontreville in mid-afternoon with enough shelter, lighting and battery power to fish well into the night. He said he's more apt to fish the waters of Big Carnelian Lake this time of year, but the ice there still was not thick enough.
"I only come here because I know I can get out," said Pitzen, who drilled four holes inside his portable shanty to jig with minnows. He also was proud to debut a new electronics caddy that he built at home.
Meanwhile, Justin Meyer, 21, of Maplewood and Jake Erickson, 21, of Oakdale were old-schooling it in a portable shelter closer to shore. Their shack was too small to accommodate indoor jigging, so they watched a set of tip-ups out the window. Raised flags were a rarity, but they were happy to be out for the first time this season with live sucker minnows dangled from treble hooks.
The Mauers used the same approach. Chris Mauer's crew included his 21-year-old son, Travis; family friend Michael Schmitz, 23, of Oakdale, and Travis's uncle, Mark Mauer, 58, of Bloomington. With tip-ups arranged outside their eight-man enclosure — warmed by portable heaters — the younger anglers played cards as Mark and Chris reminisced about all the flags that popped up during the long ice-fishing season of 2014-15.
"See a flag, catch a fish, take a picture, let it go," Chris Mauer said.
They were all confidant of an eventual return to last year's script, maybe even in the closing hours of 2015.
"You'd think the fish would be lined up because we're so late this year,'' Mark Mauer deadpanned.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213