Kelliher, Minn. — Anglers are always eager to hit the ice to take advantage of the early hard-water bite, but an incident on Upper Red Lake in northern Minnesota on Monday illustrates the risks that can come with venturing onto late November ice.
The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call at approximately 11:34 a.m. on Nov. 28 from individuals fishing on Upper Red. The callers indicated that a large chunk of ice had broken free from the shoreline. Deputies and first responders arrived on the scene to find a large portion of the ice broken free, with up to 30 yards of open water between shore ice and anglers stranded on the wayward floe.
By 2:37 p.m., the sheriff’s office reported, everyone requiring evacuation from the ice had been reached, and emergency responders cleared the scene. A press release issued by the sheriff’s office said an estimated 200 individuals were evacuated from the ice.
A narrow spot of open water between shore ice and the ice floe had been identified, and a temporary bridge was set up for anglers to walk across near JR’s Corner Access – one of the resorts where anglers are able to get onto the ice.
JR’s Corner Access owner Adam Studniski was not on the scene Monday, but said he was in continual contact with his business partner, Ryan Klein, as Klein helped set up the bridge and worked with local first responders in getting anglers off the ice.
“It was super-chill, absolutely zero panic,” Studniski said. “At about 11:30, Ryan called me and said, ‘Adam, the ice is shifting out.’ I said, ‘How many people are out there?’ He said, ‘Over 100 between the three neighboring resorts.’ He just said it’s going to catch, it’s not going to be a big deal. He said, ‘I just got to find a pinch and put a bridge.’ By about 12:30, we had a bridge and started going out, talking to people.”
Studniski said some anglers were so calm about the situation that they asked to keep fishing in an attempt to reach their walleye limits.
“It was about 2:45 p.m. by the time everybody walked off,” Studniski said. “Honestly, on big lakes, cracks and breakers happen all the time. It’s just part of our deal. (As resorters), we go out and check. Everyone thinks (we’re) just opening for the money. That’s not it. A resort is the best access point. You pay your fee, and we have the safest ice because we’re up there every day checking ice. Most of the good resorts are fully equipped, ready to deal with it.”
The Beltrami Sheriff’s Office was assisted by Kelliher Fire and Rescue, Red Lake Nation Fire, Minnesota DNR conservation officers, the Minnesota State Patrol, Blackduck Ambulance, the Lake of the Woods Sheriff’s Office, and local resorts.
“The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office reminds those who are thinking of heading on the ice that early-season ice is very unpredictable,” Beltrami County Chief Deputy Jarrett Walton said in the release. “Extreme caution should be used when heading on the ice and to check the thickness frequently to ensure an adequate amount of ice.”
The Minnesota DNR’s ice safety page recommends anglers wait for at least 4 inches of ice for on-foot access, and 5 to 7 inches to a small ATV or snowmobile on the ice.
Studniski said JR’s Corner Access does not open until there is at least 5 inches of ice on Upper Red.
“When it blew out, I would say most of our ice was at 7 (inches),” Studniski said. “The times people get bad raps is when one resort is open and everybody else is closed. Every resort was open since the day before Thanksgiving. Everything was fine, and that wind just picked up. The thawing and the warm weather throughout the weekend before didn’t help. We’re going to stay closed for a couple days. We’re going to get some grief, but I almost bet we’ll be open by Friday again. It just changes so quickly up here.”
As a big, shallow body of water in northern Minnesota, Red Lake is typically one of the first spots anglers fish during the start of the winter season. As for the bite during this first week, there’s a reason so many anglers want to be out there.
“It’s been great. Thanksgiving and Black Friday were unbelievably hot,” Studniski said of the fishing on Upper Red. “Saturday, with crowds and the shallow body of water like Red Lake is, it’s almost like you’re deer hunting. I say this and some people laugh at me. But it’s such a shallow body of water, and those fish stay shallow. When you’re walking on the ice with cleats and pulling your sled, those fish hear you. They know what’s going on. Saturdays are always the worst day to fish because of all the noise up top.”