Art Beniek waited with patient anticipation for a crappie to bite during the final few hours in his heated fish house on Christmas Lake.
Bobbing the fishing line into the water, he treasured the last of a short two months of ice fishing in the house, one of five left on the lake near Lake Minnetonka Monday afternoon, just hours before the state required permanent shelters to be removed.
“I’ll catch something today,” said Beniek, of Excelsior. “You can sit here for two to three hours, and nothing bites. But then it’s one after another.”
The annual deadline is the last day some of Minnesota’s thousands of anglers like Beniek will fish until spring arrives. The state, which ranks first in the nation for fishing licenses per capita, required shelters to be moved off Twin Cities, central and southern Minnesota lakes by the end of Monday.
Fish houses and portable shelters don’t have to be removed from northern Minnesota lakes until the end of the day March 16.
“Ice conditions just start to deteriorate,” said Maj. Greg Salo, operations manager at the state Department of Natural Resources. “When we hit March 1, then I think spring’s around the corner.”
Heavy snow last year caused some anglers to abandon fish houses altogether at the season’s end. But this year, Salo said, little snow on area lakes should give anglers no excuses. If shelters aren’t removed, owners could receive a $137 citation; five days after the deadline, the fine increases to up to $1,000, or jail time, Salo said. The DNR confiscates and removes fish houses.
“It becomes a lot of work,” he added.
With thinning ice near channels and bridges on Lake Minnetonka, three vehicles fell through the lake’s ice in a 24-hour period last month. Last Wednesday, a man escaped his sinking truck on the lake while driving out to his fish house, rescued after clinging to the ice for 40 minutes, though his dog didn’t survive.
On Saturday night, a pickup partly broke through the ice of a narrow channel of Big Mantrap Lake in Hubbard County, but both the driver and passenger were rescued uninjured.
Now, with fewer anglers out, officers are more concerned about safety for snowmobilers and ATV users as temperatures rise.
Beniek won’t fish again until spring, pulling his fish house off the lake and storing it at his Excelsior home, where his grandkids can play inside of it. But other anglers, like Lou Quinn, of Minnetonka will keep on fishing. The DNR allows shelters to remain on the ice, just not overnight unoccupied.
As Quinn prepared to take his decades-old fish house off Christmas Lake, he lamented the disappointing, anti-climatic season.
“This is the worst I’ve seen it in 30 years,” he said of the slow fishing.
As a result, he’s seen fewer fish houses on the lake and normally busy weekend days reduced to a lull.
“I think that kept a lot of people off the ice,” Salo said. “We kind of had a goofy ice season.”