Shanty villages are cropping up on popular lakes in the area since the drop in temperatures, but authorities still urge caution due to unpredictable ice.
Warm temperatures delayed ice-in for area lakes by roughly a month this winter, and authorities say the ice still has a long way to go. Some recommended anglers stay off the ice as recently as Dec. 31.
“At this point, I would like to tell people to stay off the ice,” said Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch. “Fish aren’t worth it, but obviously people go. Some lakes have a few inches, some have more.”
Though most lakes appear to have full coverage of ice, local law enforcement reports that ice thickness varies greatly from place to place.
“There’s definitely some thin spots out there yet,” said Tim Collette, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conservation officer who patrols west of Highway 371 near Backus and Pequot Lakes. “My suggestion would be, unless they know exactly where they are going and test the ice frequently where they are going, I wouldn’t recommend anything other than foot travel at this point. Basically, take an ice chisel, walk a couple feet and chop a hole every once and a while to measure it. There’s definitely various thicknesses. You may have four inches of solid ice in one spot but if you go out on another lake and move to the side a bit you might only have two or three.”
There is some disagreement on which lakes will be safer at this time, due to recent snowfall.
“From what I’ve seen right now the safer lakes are the ones that are a bit bigger that did not get that insulating layer of snow on top of them before they had a chance for ice to thicken up,” said Collette. “Right now the better lakes are the ones that froze over later.”
DNR conservation officer Patrick McGowan, who patrols the Pine River area, warns against the larger lakes, because smaller lakes have frozen over earlier in the season and may have built more ice.
“The lakes in my station have been up around north of Pine River and Backus, but not a whole lot around the Whitefish Chain,” McGowan said. “It’s been pretty quiet. As far as I know there was a pretty large part of Whitefish that was still open about a week and a half ago. The ice out there now is probably not safe to venture out on.”
Generally, all authorities agree on several items, especially where caution is concerned.
“As always, use caution,” said McGowan. “Check as you go. Go with a friend so you aren’t going alone. Go on an area where you have checked with local people and bait shops. Don’t try to push it with lakes that have just been frozen over for a week. They aren’t going to be safe yet. Always bring ice picks and tell people where you’re going to be.”
“Basically, no ice is safe ice,” said Crow Wing County Sgt. Adam Kronstedt. “Just because you see other people fishing or doing whatever on the lake doesn’t mean the ice is sufficient enough to support whatever you are going out there on. It’s best to check with local bait shops or fishing guides who have been going out checking ice thickness.”
“Ice is never 100 percent safe,” agreed Pete Boulay, DNR climatologist. “We are very reluctant to say, ‘Hey, this lake is frozen over.’ Then people think, ‘That means I can do whatever I want on it.’ No, that’s not how it works. What I always tell people, if they want the latest ice conditions, I’d contact their local bait shop. They usually know the details of what’s going on. There is no way to keep real time track of it, but they probably know the most.”
There have not been many reports of ice water rescues.
“Fortunately we haven’t had many reports of people going through the ice, so that’s a good thing. I think most folks are using common sense. Just last week Walker Bay was still open, Gull Lake was still open. Just as of last week there were lakes that still had open water on them,” Burch said. “Nobody has been injured that we’ve heard. We heard unofficial reports of a few people breaking through a few weeks ago, but we have not responded to anyone going through the ice yet this year.”
There have been some incidents, however, including a Polaris going through ice on an area lake. Other potentially dangerous ice incidents didn’t result in emergency calls, and are unverified by local authorities.
“I heard of a few other ones where they’ve put wheelers through,” Collette said. “Nothing that I have firsthand knowledge of. I heard about someone that tried to park their car right next to the landing and put the car through, but that was in shallow water. Most recently I did have a wheeler go through yesterday. Everyone got out safe, but it was an awakening for them.”
Warm temperatures well into December are the culprits for iffy ice conditions. In an area where fishing can start as early as Thanksgiving, anglers watch with bated breath when ice is slow to develop.
“Things were pretty much frozen last year by Thanksgiving,” McGowan said. “This year everything was wide open by that point. Definitely warmer than normal.”
“When it’s all said and done it will be one of the latest ice-ins we’ve seen for the last 15 years,” Boulay said. “Maybe not the record, but close.”
Though ice records for many lakes are not well tracked, Boulay compared this year’s Dec. 19 ice-in date on Lake Bemidji to its median ice-in date of Nov. 30 due to its 56 years of ice-in records. Boulay did say, however, that the latest ice-in date for Lake Bemidji was Dec. 20 in 2001.
There are other recent memories of warm winters as well.
“I can recall four or five years ago we didn’t have a lot of ice,” Burch said. “We got some ice early and then it got extremely warm. This is obviously not typical. I can recall a couple different times we’ve had poor ice, though I don’t recall ever seeing white caps Christmas Eve on Leech Lake or Gull Lake, but we’ve had some strange years.”
Some past warm years still don’t compare to this fishing season.
“Historically, most of the time we have ice long before now, but one of the most recent memories was 2012, I think, when we had a very late winter freeze over that year,” McGowan said. “We didn’t get much for snow at all. We didn’t get any real measurable snow until into February. One thing it did that year was allow for a little better ice, because there wasn’t any snow on it, even though it was a warm fall. We did get ice, but people were ice fishing long before now.”
Ice-in dates are not well recorded for most area lakes, but the DNR climatology office always welcomes help in collecting data on freeze dates. If individuals would like to volunteer their time to monitor local ice-in dates or if they have family records of ice-in dates from the past, they are encouraged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or mail Pete Boulay at 439 Borlag Hall, 1991 Upper Buford Circle, St. Paul MN 55108.