Beltrami County’s emergency responders raced to the aid of imperiled ice fishermen twice in one day last month for rescues that have become all too common in November and early December.
Both sets of anglers were dangling fishing lines close to open water, only to go adrift when the ice sheets they occupied broke away. No one was injured, but Sheriff Phil Hodapp followed up with a public reprimand against early-season ice anglers for putting themselves and rescue crews in avoidable danger.
“Stay off the ice,’’ his agency wrote on its Facebook page. “Unless you are familiar with the ice conditions and have safely verified there’s an adequate amount of ice, go buy some fish sticks from the frozen section of the store.’’
The trend of fishing on thin ice is no joke. Last winter in Minnesota there were eight fatalities, seven of them on “early ice’’ in November and mid-December. It was the highest season toll in 11 years, greatly surpassing the recent statewide average of 3.2 ice-related deaths per year.
The Department of Natural Resources responded by increasing its ice thickness guidelines for users of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. The old advice of at least 5 inches of ice is now 5 to 7 inches.
Part of the problem, said DNR recreational safety coordinator Lisa Dugan, is that people aren’t considering the heavier weights of increasingly popular side-by-side off-highway vehicles and heavier snowmobiles.
“People are taking chances,’’ she said. “There’s so much they aren’t accounting for.’’
Early-season dangers include non-uniform ice and rapidly changing ice conditions. Each popular fishing lake has its own network of information sources about underwater currents, cracks, ridges and other unsafe areas, Hodapp said. But some anglers aren’t utilizing those resources. Bait stores, resorts, websites and fellow anglers are all around to offer advice, he said.
“It’s just incredible how people don’t use common sense,’’ Hodapp said.
He has said the early-season rush is often fueled by anglers’ impatience to use expensive new equipment that has become part of the scene.
In separate tragedies early last season, two anglers on the tribal waters of Lower Red Lake and two others on Upper Red Lake drowned before ice was fully formed.
Hodapp said the incident investigated by his office concluded that Melissa Marie Seidenstricker, 29, of Princeton, and 28-year-old Zeth Knyphausen of Stacy got lost late at night while driving out to a heated fish house sleeper they rented for the weekend from Rogers Resort and Campground north of Kelliher.
They had stayed late at the resort’s bar on a Friday night, riding away in heavy darkness on a four-wheeler that towed a utility trailer. Investigators reported that the ATV and trailer were submerged in open water some distance away from their rented shelter.
An angler who was camped nearby later told a sheriff’s deputy that he heard a woman screaming at 2:15 a.m. He nodded off, only to be awakened by more screams.
The fisherman got dressed and rode his four-wheeler in the direction of the screams. He yelled out, but the screaming went silent before he could find anyone.
Wind was blowing 35 to 40 miles per hour and the angler guessed it was someone fighting to keep a fish house from blowing away. Or, it could have been a domestic dispute, he thought to himself. He checked the area in the morning and nothing seemed out of place, reports said.
Melissa was reported missing by a friend and a search began. With the help of sonar-imaging equipment, a dive team recovered their bodies Monday afternoon in 11 feet of water.
Melissa’s brother, Jake, joined the search and was the first to locate the site. His sister had thrown her boots onto the ice as she fought to get out of the freezing water. Her fingernails and fingers bore signs of injury from the struggle.
At the time, Jake Seidenstricker expressed anger at resorts in the area for catering to early-season ice fishing. “This ice is so unsafe and they are promoting how safe the ice is: ‘Come on up,’ ’’ he said.
The sheriff’s report noted that Melissa and Zeth were associated with “Hard Water Zombies,’’ an ice-fishing group known for taking risks. The group’s aggressiveness is in keeping with an overall surge in winter fishing, especially on Upper Red and Lake of the Woods. Even Mille Lacs, with a one-walleye bag limit, has continued to draw robust numbers of ice anglers.
Henry Drewes, Northwest Region fisheries manager for the DNR, said winter fishing effort on Upper Red has averaged 1.7 million hours for each of the past three years. That’s “much higher’’ than historical winter pressure estimates, Drewes said.
Bob Cribb, assistant fire chief in Kelliher, said the early-season pattern on Upper Red is for anglers to travel onto the ice beyond small cracks or pressure ridges to fish near open water.
Prevalent high winds contribute to ice movement and pretty soon there’s a group stranded. In 2015, 50 people were stranded in a single incident.
“It seems to be getting more frequent in the past two years,’’ Cribb said.
The latest distress call came in after dark on Saturday, Nov. 17. Nate Lusty, 19, of Alexandria, and Josh Weisel, 18, of Farwell, were rescued one by one after 7 p.m. by the operator of an inflatable watercraft pulled by sled to the emergency site by Kelliher’s emergency responders. Neither of the young men could be reached for comment.
Their portable fish house, augers and other gear were recovered by DNR conservation officer Brice Vollbrecht, who used the equipment retreival as an opportunity for air boat training.
On the same evening, the Bemidji Fire Department shared its ice rescue hovercraft with Red Lake Nation for a similar emergency on Upper Red’s tribal waters.
Vollbrecht said some anglers are putting themselves in harm’s way to take advantage of what is typically a good early walleye bite. He’s worked in the Bemidji area since 2008 and has noticed more ice fishing before lakes “lock up,’’ especially Upper Red.
“The pressure, in my opinion, has gone up signficantly,’’ he said.
As of Friday, ice on the lake was still shifting. Anglers were being advised to avoid known areas of slush and thin ice. Colder temps are in the forecast for the coming week.