Where there is ice, drop a line to fish

Where there is ice, drop a line to fish

Wild Side Column: This recent outing suffered from a lack of ice and big fish

Dean Paragari (left) of Monty and Mike Stafford of Winthrop jig for walleye and hawk on Jan. 25 in the warm comfort of their Lake of the Woods ice fishing shack.  (Orlan Love/Reporter)

Dean Paragari (left) of Monty and Mike Stafford of Winthrop jig for walleye and hawk on Jan. 25 in the warm comfort of their Lake of the Woods ice fishing shack. (Orlan Love/Reporter)

WILLIAMS, Minn. — Mild winters make ice fishing seasons short and unstable, even at the 49th parallel, where the northern tip of Minnesota meets Lake of the Woods.

The same super El Niño phenomenon that has conspired with ongoing climate change to create a non-winter winter in Iowa has disrupted ice fishing in one of the so-called walleye capitals.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Sven Sundgaard reported on an “amazing winter…on track to be the warmest in 151 years.” He said December was the warmest on record in Minnesota.

This was the warmest winter in his area since 1930, said Long Point Resort co-owner Kelly Berggren, who has hosted us for midwinter picnics for the past 10 years.

On January 1, as the ice fishing season finally began, a ridge opened up just off shore, stranding 50 anglers who were safely rescued by the Berggren family and sheriff’s officers.

A northern pike exposes its teeth in this close-up photo of the fish caught by Doug Rick on Jan. 25 in Lake of the Woods.  Northerners have hundreds of teeth that are useful in grabbing prey and tearing fishing line.  (Orlan Love/Reporter)

A northern pike exposes its teeth in this close-up photo of the fish caught by Doug Rick on Jan. 25 in Lake of the Woods. Northerners have hundreds of teeth that are useful in grabbing prey and tearing fishing line. (Orlan Love/Reporter)

Our party of eight had initially planned to fish the week of January 7, but was rescheduled two weeks later on the advice of the resort owners. Those two intervening weeks — the only true winter to visit the upper Midwest this season — solidified the ice, creating safe conditions for Rowley’s Chuck Mazur, Hazleton’s Randy Cieselski, Monty’s Dean Paragari, Jim Preece, Doug Rake, Mike Stafford and Phil. Stephen, every Winthrop, and your correspondent.

The fishing itself was not exceptional. My cabin mate, Stephen, and I had a busy few days that yielded plenty of walleye and hawks.

We also had a few days that left plenty of time to discuss esoteric topics like: Can a change in wind direction or barometric pressure affect the mood of a fish 30 feet down in dark water under 18 inches of ice? Does the fish really care what color or shape your bait is as long as it contains minnows?

Doug Rick of Winthrop stands with a 39.5-inch northern pike he caught Jan. 25 through the ice above Lake of the Woods.  (Orlan Love/Reporter)

Doug Rick of Winthrop stands with a 39.5-inch northern pike he caught Jan. 25 through the ice above Lake of the Woods. (Orlan Love/Reporter)

The first jolt of real excitement came on day two when Chuck caught what appeared to be a money fish. We all contribute $5 a day to a fund that will be paid to the angler who catches the first walleye of the day in the lake’s 19.5- to 28-inch protected hole. The chuck got within a half-inch and the bowl tipped over, as it had done each of the last six days we had been on the lake.

So, after 384 hours of fishing (eight men fishing eight hours a day for six days) no one had managed to catch a walleye in the protected slot. This tells you something about hunting or hunters.

An elpout device wraps around Orlan Love's wrist on Jan. 24 at Lake of the Woods.  In response to the eelbut's growing popularity among anglers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2021 reclassified the former roughneck as an game fish.  (Phil Stephen)

An elpout device wraps around Orlan Love’s wrist on Jan. 24 at Lake of the Woods. In response to the eelbut’s growing popularity among anglers, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2021 reclassified the former roughneck as an game fish. (Phil Stephen)

The biggest thrill of the trip came on January 25, our fourth and final day, when Doug tied a giant northern pike tangled in his other line and both lines from a hut mate before finally pulling it through a 10-inch-diameter hole in the line. ice. During the battle, the fish dragged one of Randy’s ice rods into the lake. In the aftermath, when Randy cleaned up some line that North had destroyed, he miraculously pulled his missing pole through a different opening than the one through which it had entered the lake.

Minnesota’s lake ice season has shrunk by two weeks over the past 50 years, according to data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Wisconsin’s ice fishing season is about 24 days shorter than it was in 1970, according to the Wisconsin DNR.

The same trend is evident here in Iowa, according to Mike Hawkins, a biologist with the DNR’s Department of Fisheries in the Iowa Great Lakes region. The record for the shortest ice duration was 75 days in 2015, Hawkins said, citing West Okoboji data dating back to 1915. He said the three shortest ice seasons all occurred since 1999. This compares to several ice seasons of more than 140 days In 2015. He said the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

In addition to the trend toward shorter ice-out periods, Hawkins said data west of Okoboji shows more extremes, including a record late ice-out date in 2018, on April 29.

Of course, the flip side of a shorter ice fishing season is a longer open water season, which I can live with as long as I can suppress the specter of the less hospitable world my grandchildren will inhabit.

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