DNR conservation officers Jim Guida and Dustin Miller headed out across a mostly frozen Pelican Lake near Brainerd this week following the holes an angler made with an ice chipper.
None of the holes took more than a couple hits to knock through the ice of about 2 inches. At one point a hole had a spider web crack surrounding the spot and officers decided it wasn’t worth venturing out any further.
“It never surprises me that people risk their lives chasing panfish,” said Guida, a Brainerd area officer. “The poor ice conditions surprise the angler.”
Area lakes were frozen over even while most outdoors fans were still clad in blaze orange last year. Lakes like Upper and Lower Mission were completely iced over Nov. 15, 2014, according to records kept by the Minnesota Climatology Working Group. That was one of the earliest dates the lake completely froze. But this winter broke a new record—for the opposite reason.
The record for the latest lake ice-in for Gull Lake was Dec. 22, 1998. And according to area observers, the lake and other large area lakes still remain open.
The definition of lake ice-in varies from lake to lake, and individual to individual, according to the DNR. Ideally, observers report the date when the entire lake is frozen over for the first time and the ice cover endures for the remainder of the winter.
Due to the variable definitions of this rather subjective observation, the participating agencies attempt to contact the same individuals each year to maintain a consistent record for a particular lake.
The ice dates are reported by observers, but usually that information isn’t recorded in the state records until the following year.
“It’s usually after the fact,” according to DNR climatologist Peter Boulay of the State Climatology Office at the University of Minnesota.
Boulay said he has heard of some smaller- and medium-sized lakes that have frozen over. But with temperatures teasing the freezing mark, he said ice can come and go. That’s a dangerous situation for anyone looking to venture out.
“We haven’t had great weather for building ice … with temperatures 9 to 13 degrees above normal,” Boulay said.
Boulay said the El Nino pattern looks like it will persist and provide similar weather through January and March, which could create thin-ice situations through the traditional ice angling season.
“Our main message is that the ice is never safe,” Boulay said.
Officers Guida and Miller shared a similar message.
“We’ve seen varying degrees of ice thickness,” Guida said. “In some case 4 to 5 inches. There are still open areas … areas between lakes are very unsafe.”
Guida and Miller noted that the fishing reports from anglers were not good enough to risk a life or the lives of those that would seek to rescue those in danger.
Fishing reports from anglers were not good enough to risk a life or the lives of those that would seek to rescue those in danger.
Guida heard a report of a van going through the ice on North Long Lake last week, which has been a popular spot among anglers.
Sherree Wicktor, owner of S & W Bait on Highway 371 north of Brainerd, said she heard of another report of someone that parked their truck on the shore, which broke through the ice and made for rough entry for others looking to head out.
“There’s been quite a few going out and it has been pretty good fishing,” Wicktor said. “Northerns and crappies are common, some are getting some walleyes which is unusual for that bay.”
She cautioned that the most ice she has heard of was on North Long Lake—4 to 6 inches. Other than that, ice has been questionable in bays and the big lakes remain open in some areas.
Miller said they also ventured out on Rice Lake and noted anglers were out on about 3 inches of ice.
“The majority of ice conditions we have seen have been weak at best and deteriorating with the warmer weather,” Miller said.
“Most guys are taking it slow,” Wicktor said. “They are using the good fishermen’s brain.”
She remains hopeful that cooler weather will come over the weekend and improve ice conditions. She jokes that the smartest choice may be to drag a boat along when headed out on the ice.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before, and we’ll never see it again,” Wicktor said.
If you plan to venture out anytime soon, Boulay suggests checking your local bait shop for reports on ice conditions. If it sounds safe, continue to check ice depths as you venture out.
The State Climate Office is always looking to add to its coverage of lake ice-in and ice-out data. If you would like to submit data contact the Climate Office at email@example.com
Lake Latest ice-in Earliest ice-in
Upper Mission Dec. 25, 1998 Nov. 13, 1995
Lower Mission Dec. 7, 1998 Nov. 4, 1991
Gull Lake Dec. 22, 1998 Nov. 14, 1959
Mille Lacs Dec. 24, 2001 Nov. 9, 1959