In a “normal” winter—if there is such a thing anymore—I’d be heading east to Rainy Lake in two weeks, using a snowmobile to reach some choice crappie spots that are off the beaten path.
The way it’s looking, though, the odds of getting around by boat on the Minnesota-Ontario border water are looking better than they are for using the aforementioned snowmobile.
That’s an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much.
The winter of 2015-16 is starting out on a painfully slow note for ice fishing enthusiasts who clamor for the opportunity to get out on frozen water. Anglers are walking out on small lakes across the region and finding 5 inches to 6 inches of ice in many places, but popular wintertime destinations such as Lake of the Woods and Devils Lake still have more open water than ice.
The extended weather forecast offers little cause for optimism if you’re an ice fanatic. The Grand Forks weather forecast through Thursday calls for highs in the upper 30s and lows in the 20s. That’s not going to do much for “making ice”—especially if there’s any wind in the mix.
I can’t find a copy of the column in the archives, but early one December in the late ’90s or early 2000s, I wrote about an excursion I took with Bruce Mosher of Today’s Tackle in Beltrami, Minn., and Dave Genz, the guru of modern ice fishing, on a small lake in Polk County. The pair had spent the weekend at an ice fishing promotion hosted by a local sporting goods store, and they invited me to join them for some hard-water exploration the next day.
That year like this year, as I recall, ice was slow in forming. Genz and Mosher know what they’re doing, though, and so I didn’t feel too worried about what the day would hold in store.
Mosher, who has shared more than one story about falling through the ice in his younger, more adventurous days, led the way, poking the ice with a spud-bar chisel and inching onto the small lake one tentative step at a time.
There wasn’t a lot of ice, and it didn’t take more than two or three hard pokes for him to break through, but he kept at it. Before long, he was far enough from shore to set up his flip-top portable and begin fishing.
Genz, who followed behind at a safe distance, poked a hole in the ice and started fishing nearby.
Watching this whole scene evolve from shore as I took photos and jotted down a few notes, I finally summoned up the nerve to venture out and join them. I still can remember the sensation of sitting atop ice that wasn’t more than 2 inches thick and thinking about how little separated me from a pleasant, sunny afternoon and the bottom of a cold, dark lake some 20 feet below me.
We couldn’t get within 25 feet of each other without hearing the ice make creepy groans of protest. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed as if I could actually see the ice move in a wavelike motion as we inched our way across the marginally frozen surface of the lake.
No one broke through, and we were prepared for any incidents that might have occurred, but after all these years, I vividly remember the sense of relief I felt when I set my feet back on solid ground and loaded my gear for the trip home.
I don’t remember much about the fishing, but I made a vow that afternoon I’d never again venture onto 2 inches of ice—even if I was traveling with experts.
It’s a vow I’ve had no trouble keeping.
The excursion reminded me of the line a bush pilot had uttered a few years earlier as he taxied his floatplane to the dock of a remote lake in northern Ontario, some 100 miles from the nearest town, where some friends and I were beginning a weeklong fly-in fishing trip.
“Once again, we cheat death,” he said.
Humor aside, venturing out on ice that isn’t safe is no joking matter.
Time will tell whether there’ll be enough ice to make that fishing trip to Rainy Lake in two weeks. I’m not holding my breath, but if the trip is delayed, that’s fine, too.
I’d rather wait than get wet.