For the past two springs, lingering ice has ruined the fishing opener on some northern Minnesota lakes.

That includes Lake Vermilion, site of this year’s Governor’s Fishing Opener.

But not this year.

“The lake is probably three- quarters open right now,” Jay Schelde of Pike Bay Lodge said last week. “It will be out by this weekend.”

Warmer-than-normal temperatures have resulted in early ice-outs this spring on lakes across the state, meaning Minnesota’s 1.5 million anglers won’t be frozen out on the May 9 opener. Which is a relief, not only for them but for resorts, bait shops, taverns and other businesses dependent on tourism.

“Everything is lining up for ice to be out well ahead of the opener,” said Tim Goeman, Department of Natural Resources regional fisheries manager for northeastern Minnesota. “By the end of the month, we should be ice-free border to border.”

Some major destination lakes, including Gull, Mille Lacs, Leech, Itasca and Pokegema, already are ice-free. All Brainerd-area lakes are open. Lake Winnibigoshish had half open water on Friday, meaning ice could be gone any day. Ditto for Lake Vermilion. Even Lake of the Woods, on the Minnesota-Ontario border, had some open water last week, and the prognosis there is for a liquid opener.

“We’re not going to have to worry about having ice on the opener,” said Phil Talmage, DNR area fisheries manager in Baudette. “Four Mile Bay is largely open.”

Said Talmage: “The ice on Upper Red Lake was looking black last week, too. We have rain forecast, and while it won’t be as warm as it has been, the rain will chew up the ice.”

Lakes in the far northeast, including Gunflint and Saganaga, still were iced last week. But there is plenty of time for remaining ice to melt.

“We’re way ahead of the past two years,” said Pete Boulay, a DNR state climatologist. In 2013, a winter that refused to die resulted in record-shattering late ice-outs. At Mille Lacs, the ice didn’t depart until May 16, an unwanted record. Winnie went ice-free on May 17, another record.

Last year was a repeat in some areas. Rainy, Vermilion, Lake of the Woods and lakes along the Gunflint Trail were mostly locked in ice on the fishing opener.

“A lot of our guests didn’t come the last two years because we’ve had ice on the lake both years on opening weekend,” said Eric Hanson, owner of Pehrson Lodge Resort on Lake Vermilion. He’s owned the resort for 19 years, and never had ice impact back-to-back fishing openers. He’s looking forward to a more normal opener, one that will bring attention to the area because of the governor’s visit.

“It’s going to be great,” he said.

There is one potential drawback for anglers: Water levels on many lakes are down because of lack of snow and rain.

“All of our lakes are pretty low right now,” said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries manager in Grand Rapids. Rocks and boat accesses could pose problems for boaters.

“We need rain,” said Schelde, the resort owner. “It will be OK for a while, but it could get nasty out there.”

Said the DNR’s Goeman: “Anglers have gone to bigger and bigger boats, and when you launch those, you need more water. Some of the boat ramps could be a challenge. That could change if we get rain.”

But Goeman figures the early ice-out should spell good fishing come May.

“Water temperatures will be pretty much ideal, and fish will be in he post-spawn mode,” he said. “I think it’s shaping up to be a good opener for walleye anglers.”

Walleyes are spawning ahead of schedule, but that could help or hurt anglers.

“I don’t think the fish will be as concentrated as they are in late spring when they are still in spawning areas,” said Kavanaugh. “They will be more dispersed. It might make it a little more difficult to find fish.”

Meanwhile, Schelde and other resort owners on Lake Vermilion are relieved that open water will greet anglers — including Gov. Mark Dayton, his entourage and news media.

“This is huge,” he said. “The opener is a big deal up here. It means a lot to the local businesses.”

And to anglers.


Doug Smith