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Dennis Anderson: For opener, ice-out will be a close call on some northern Minnesota lakes

Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune on

Published in Outdoors

The cool, cloudy spring that has prevailed statewide this year has implications for everyone from farmers to ... anglers. Perhaps especially anglers, including those who, on May 14, intend to open Minnesota's walleye and northern pike seasons in the northern third of the state.

In that region, will some of the state's best walleye lakes, including Mille Lacs, Upper Red, Winnibigoshish, Leech, Vermilion, Rainy and Lake of the Woods, be free of ice on the season's first day?

A spot check suggests that in some cases, on certain lakes, anglers will indeed be able to float their boats.

While on other waters, well, perhaps not so much.

— Mille Lacs: Earliest ice-out: March 26, 2012. Latest: May 16, 2013. Median: April 25: Steve Fellegy, 68, grew up on Mille Lacs and expects the ice to go out approximately by Wednesday of this week. Some smaller lakes around Mille Lacs went out Thursday and Friday. "Usually, Mille Lacs is 10 days or so behind Minnetonka, and we're already about two weeks behind that,'' Fellegy said. "Wind and rain that we're expecting this weekend will help.'' On one of the coldest openers on record, in 1950, only part of Mille Lacs was open, so anglers loaded their rental boats onto flatbed trucks and hauled them to the Malmo end of the lake to fish. "Then about 10 a.m. the wind shifted, the ice came back in, and everyone loaded up and headed to the west side again,'' Fellegy said.

— Rainy Lake: Earliest ice-out: April 6, 2012. Latest: May 22, 1950. Median: May 4. Billy Dougherty, who with his family owns Rainy Lake Houseboats, is confident in this prediction: "In the last 10,000 years, the ice has always gone out in spring on Rainy Lake, and it will again this year.'' The Minnesota walleye opener typically isn't a big deal on Rainy or other lakes in the state's far north. Ice can be an issue. But more often, Twin Cities anglers simply don't want to drive to the border for just a weekend of fishing. "On the plus side, given the drought we had last summer, we had about 4 inches of rain the other day, helping to push Rainy and Namakan lakes up about 30 inches,'' Dougherty said.

— Winnibigoshish: Earliest ice-out: March 30, 2012. Latest: May 17, 2013. Median: April 26: "It's probably going to be pretty close,'' said Nate Brown, whose family owns McArdle's Resort. "The ice could be gone by the opener, or it's possible there could still be some ice floating around on Winnie.'' Rain that fell 10 days ago or so helped darken the lake's edges, Brown said. "It was cold this winter, but not all that bad,'' he said. "The problem is that the weather just hasn't warmed up. Next week is supposed to be better. So we'll see.'' Fellegy, on Mille Lacs, said Winnie usually opens up three days or so after Mille Lacs. If that holds true, and if Fellegy's prediction about Mille Lacs opening within a day or so on either side of May 4 is accurate, Winnie will be ice-free when walleye fishing begins.

 

— Gull Lake: Earliest ice-out: March 26, 2012. Latest, May 18, 1950. Median: April 20: Gull and other lakes in the Brainerd area should be ice-free on the opener. Cold as the winter has been, it didn't rival that of 1950, the year of the latest ice-out (May 18) on Gull. Wildlife photographer Bill Marchel, who lives near Brainerd, said that as of April 27, some parts of Gull, Round and North Long lakes "looked like February'' while other shorelines of those lakes showed 100 yards or more of open water. Strong winds recently have heaved 4 feet of ice onto some shorelines. "We've been averaging about 20 degrees lower than normal temperatures and that's kept more ice on the lakes than we would typically have at this point in spring,'' Marchel said.

— Upper Red Lake: Earliest ice-out: April 18, 1983. Latest: May 17, 1996. Median: April 28: Kevin Waldo, an owner of West Wind Resort on Upper Red, reports that "some'' open water is showing up at the mouth of the Tamarack River. Otherwise the lake is a frozen sheet of white. Waldo thinks it's "better than 50-50'' ice will be gone from the lake on the opener. Cold weather has been the problem. "It got down to 15 degrees the other night,'' he said. Even if some ice remains on Upper Red on the opener, as long as anglers can get onto a portion of the lake, fishing is expected to be good.

— Vermilion: Earliest ice-out: March 28, 2012. Latest: May 23, 1950. Median: April 30: "I'm telling our guests who are coming for the opener that we'll know a lot more in a week,'' said Tom Lantry, who with his family owns White Eagle Resort on Lake Vermilion. "There's still a lot of ice out there.'' Lantry said he hasn't drilled a hole in the lake in recent days, but he's heard that parts of the lake are still covered with 20 inches or so of frozen water. Vermilion's Black Bay is likely to be open on walleye fishing's first day and is a traditional gathering area then for anglers, regardless of weather conditions. "We have access to the bay, so if the lake is pretty much ice covered, we could bring our guests around and get them on the water that way,'' Lantry said. Recent heavy rainfalls and snowmelt have covered Vermilion with more than a foot of water, added John Cumming of the Twin Cities, who was at his Vermilion cabin on Friday. "We're expecting some 60-degree days at the end of next week,'' Cumming said Friday. "That will help.''

— Leech Lake: Earliest ice-out: March 28, 2012. Latest: May 23, 1950. Median: April 30: In the middle part of last week, ATV-driving ice anglers were still plying Walker Bay of Leech, said Dana Pitt, owner with his wife, Cindy, of Bailey's Resort on Leech Lake. "Right now, I'd say we're a long way from ice-out,'' Dana said. "The man-made harbor at our resort is still frozen solid.'' Wind, sunshine and warmth are needed. Rain that is predicted this weekend will help. And temperatures beginning Wednesday are expected to be near 60, with still warmer weather on the way heading into the week before the opener. The good news is that whether Leech's ice goes out just before the opener or just after, walleye fishing should be good, with fish still congregated in the shallows. "Early springs often make for tougher fishing,'' Dana said. "Late springs like this tend to be good.''

— Lake of the woods: Earliest ice-out: April 8, 2012. Latest: May 21, 2014, Median: May 3: It's unlikely this giant border lake will be free of ice on the opener — given that Friday, Arctic Cat product testers were still riding the company's latest sleds on the lake. However, the Rainy River, which spills into Lake of the Woods, will be hopping with anglers, including the Star Tribune's Tony Kennedy, who will report on his party's fishing success in our May 15 editions.

— Burntside Lake: Earliest ice-out: March 28, 2012. Latest: May 22, 1950. Median: April 30: One of the most beautiful lakes in Minnesota, Burntside lies only a short distance from Ely. "Listening Point,'' Sigurd Olson's cabin, is located on it. But on the opener, will it be ice-free? "I think if we had a week with temperatures in the 90s the ice might be gone,'' said Nancy Tubbs, owner of Camp Van Vac, a resort on Burntside. "We have 24 cabins and we have so much ice that has accumulated on some of them over the winter we can't open the doors,'' she said. "So the going has been slow.'' The last year that similar conditions prevailed, she said, a pair of guests paddled their canoe into an opening in the lake's ice and caught a record-size lake trout. "Guests of ours should at least be able to fish from shore or off the dock,'' she said.

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