Required for ice anglers: patience

Bemidji, Minn. — A year ago, it was a nice, smooth transition from the end of the firearms deer season to ice fishing. By this time last year, ice in much of northern Minnesota, at least, was “walkable,” if not thicker. Even some southern lakes saw anglers walking on water.

A year later, not only is there little ice to speak of, but on larger, deeper lakes in the state, solid ice upon which one might fish is probably not in the immediate forecast.

“We’re quite a ways from any significant ice yet,” said Gary Barnard, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Bemidji. “We’re on a different end of the spectrum (from last year).”

Notable last year was that wheel house-style fish shelters were being set by Thanksgiving on Upper Red Lake, the vast but shallow lake near Waskish, Barnard said. Given new, more liberal ice-fishing regulations for that lake – a three-fish limit with one over 17 inches allowed in possession – Barnard said he expected excitement around winter fishing on the lake to be at a new high. A delayed start to the season will no doubt cut into the total fish kill, he said. That regulation begins Dec. 1. The current limit is two walleyes, with a 17- to 26-inch protected slot, and one fish allowed over 26 inches.

By the third week of November, Upper Red wasn’t the only place where ice fishing was occurring. According to the Outdoor News fishing report in the Nov. 21, 2014, edition, “It was a quick transition for anglers from open water to ice fishing this year. Within the past week it’s been cold enough for ‘walkable’ ice to form in most areas in the northern one-third of the state.”

What turned out to be bad for a number of 2014 waterfowlers around Nov. 10 was what jump-started major ice formation; the high temperature in the Twin Cities dipped below 32 degrees that Monday and didn’t get above freezing again for about two weeks. Meanwhile, lows were in the single digits, and Nov. 27 came with a low of minus 4 degrees.

Other locations to the north saw an even a greater chill.

It all added up to quick and efficient ice formation statewide.

Not so this year. Yet.

“We’ve really got a whole lot of nothing at the moment,” Josh Koenen, of Delaney’s bait shop in Park Rapids, said of the local ice situation Monday. Looking ahead to a forecast more conducive to ice-making, he said, “We’ll put a little on as long as it doesn’t get windy.”

Officials in much of the state said water temperatures still hovered in the upper 30s to lower 40s, depending on the portion of the state. In fact, last weekend saw a number of boat anglers – aside from the typical crowd that prefers to fish late in the season, such as muskie anglers – taking advantage of temperatures near 60 degrees on Saturday and Sunday. Many of those fishermen were deer hunters who experienced early success.

“Last weekend we sold out of minnows,” Koenen said.

Fishing was good, too, in the Glenwood area, according to Dean Beck, the DNR’s area fisheries supervisor in that town.

“Muskie fishermen are going great guns,” Beck said earlier this week, adding that crappie anglers were still taking advantage of the bite on Osakis.

The delay in ice formation has made for interesting challenges for proprietors who sell both open-water and ice tackle; the transition in merchandise has been slow and somewhat painful. And it’s tough to satisfy everyone.

“Last year was one of the best starts (to the ice season) in a long time,” said Jeff Byrne, of Cabin Fever Sports in the west-metro city of Victoria. “This year there’s just no enthusiasm.”

Byrne said he’d checked upcoming weather forecasts, which looked promising for kick-starting the ice-fishing season.

“I think this weekend (will) skim over ponds if it’s not windy. As soon as we see that it’ll be a trigger (for) everybody to get going,” he said. “As soon as we get cold weather … you’re going to see things pick up.”

Saturday’s high was expected to be about 28 degrees in Brainerd, AccuWeather predicted Monday. Thereafter followed a predicted stretch of about 10 days during which the high peeked above freezing just once.

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