Leech Lake is a walleye haven and the third largest lake entirely in the boundary of Minnesota, and this year anglers on Leech and lakes near Pine River could still be wetting their fishing opener lines May 11 through holes in the ice.
Last year, Leech Lake set a record for its early ice-off date of April 2. The State Climatology Office records the average ice-out date as April 27.
“That’s coming up pretty quick,” said Steve Mortensen, Fish, Wildlife and Plant Resources program director with the Department of Resources Management on Leech Lake. “We’re not going to make that.”
In contrast, Leech Lake’s latest recorded ice-off date was set in 1950 on May 23.
Doug Shultz, DNR area supervisor for the Walker Area Fisheries office, said, “At this pace, we’re certainly on track to see that mark right now.”
This could have various consequences on local businesses and anglers.
“Obviously, it’s going to force folks to change their plans,” Shultz said. “A lot of the resorts we’ve spoken with have said their opener bookings are pretty light yet, because of the uncertainty around when the ice is finally going to go. Everybody is in a sort of wait-and-see mode right now.”
Late-season ice might also present safety issues for anxious anglers. Some dangerous spots can include thinner ice along the edges, and even thicker ice might not be entirely safe.
“Once you get out there the ice will still likely be marginally safe, but also, as the ice starts to get water running through, it may be 18 inches thick but it is all honeycombed and it’s pretty rotten ice,” Mortensen said. “They need to be pretty cautious and check what’s going on before they risk their lives for a few fish.”
“Make sure you use caution on the water, be safe and use good judgment,” said Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch.
Law enforcement throughout the area is asking that anglers stay informed about weather and ice conditions and take precautions, not risks.
Leech Lake has not had a fishing opener on ice since before Shultz and Mortensen began working in the area; however, in 2008 Shultz remembers there was still a sheet of ice on Leech Lake on opening day that moved with the wind and closed off lake accesses. At one point, anglers were blocked in for hours before the ice was blown out of the way again.
If the ice is off the lakes, or even if it’s not, the state walleye and northern pike fishing opener will happen May 11.
“People plan on it year after year after year,” said Nikki Shoutz, DNR conservation officer in the Pine River area. “The resorts certainly plan for it. It really would throw a wrench into things to change the date of fishing opener.”
St. Scott Goddard with the Crow Wing County water patrol, weighed in on whether he believes the ice will be out.
“My educated guess would be no,” Goddard said. “Some of the smaller lakes that are spring fed, I could see them opening earlier.”
Having grown up on the Whitefish Chain of Lakes, Goddard remembers on a normal year seeing fishermen out for crappies by this time on the bays, but those are still frozen solid.
Sherree Wicktor, owner of S&W Bait on Highway 371 north of Baxter, said by phone April 22 that she was hearing reports of 24- to 36-inch ice widespread.
“What they’re out there fishing on, it’s two feet at least,” Wicktor said. She predicts the ice will be out on the majority of the lakes May 6. Last year her prediction was April 1, and she said she was pretty much right on the money.
Glen Belgum, a guide for the Nisswa Guide Service, is optimistic.
“I’m going to stay focused and stay positive,” Belgum said. “A lot can happen in two weeks.”
Belgum believes the weather will warm and the ice will go out. His guide service is booked for the fishing opener.
“Typically, ice doesn’t really leave our lakes until the 20th or 25th of April. That seems normal,” Belgum said. The latest ice out he remembers was around May 5-8.
While he’s optimistic that the ice will be out, Belgum did say, “It’s going to shave it really, really close this year.”
Marc Bacigalupi, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Brainerd, said that in anticipation of colder temperatures, the fishing could be a little slower this year. On the other hand, he said, fish could be clustered in the shallows with spawning activity.
Anglers are advised to be patient, because it might be some time before favored fishing holes are finally thawed.
“The old rule of thumb is ice-out is roughly four weeks after the snow melt, and more times than not that holds,” Shultz said. “This year it’s going to probably go a little quicker than that because I think when the weather finally breaks it’s going to happen. In the meantime you look at the calendar and we’re only three weeks away from opener. There are a lot of things to happen before then.”