An icy opener? Resorts worry about possible impact

Ice fishing is great for February, not so much for April.

In 60 years of living and working as a fishing guide on Lake Vermilion, Cliff Wagenbach has never seen ice like this.

  “Three or four days ago, I was fishing crappies on Big Bay,” said Wagenbach, 70, who operates Cliff's Guide Service. “I've got to say it has about 30 inches of ice and it's hard ice. There's also about eight inches of hard packed snow on top.”

  Two weeks into April, it's the winter of 2017-2018 – and there’s thick lake ice that won't seem to say 'uncle.’

  With prolonged below zero overnight temperatures, record late snowfalls, and days of bitter cold winds, resort owners, guides, and northeastern Minnesota businesses that look to the fishing opener for revenue, expect many northern lakes to remain frozen for the May 12 Minnesota fishing opener.

  “This one doesn't want to quit,” said Wagenbach of the winter. “This is the latest I've seen the ice hanging on in this condition for years.”

  Bays and small lakes fed by rivers or streams are likely to open up. But Wagenbach says large parts of lakes – like Lake Vermilion's Big Bay – will probably remain ice locked. That will impact businesses across the region, according to some resort owners.

  “It will have an effect,” said Jay Schelde, owner of Pike Bay Lodge on the Tower end of Lake Vermilion. “There's been so much conversation about it that there will be a financial effect, no doubt about it.” 

  Schelde, however, is more fortunate than some.

  Schelde's Pike Bay Lodge is on Pike Bay. Pike River flows into the bay, making it one of the first bodies of water on Lake Vermilion to open. It's an annual opening day hot spot for anglers. 

  “I'm booked up for opening weekend,” said Schelde. “But with the weather that's been going on in the Twin Cities, some people down there have pretty much written it (the opener) off.”

  In Virginia, Bob Arvola, owner of Duane's Marine, says he's been busy selling boats, motors and accessories, but the weather and expected late ice-out will have an impact.

  “Definitely, people are not going to be moving around as usual,” said Arvola. “I think it's going to hold people back, but the guys who are coming in here are optimistic and are coming in and buying them (boats). They realize they'll have to wait, but business is still here.” 

  Jeff Eibler, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources assistance fisheries supervisor in Tower, said the annual walleye egg harvest at the DNR's Pike River hatchery will be delayed and shorter than average years. Eggs from spawning walleye on the Pike River are grown into fry and used to populate other lakes in northeastern Minnesota and some prairie lakes in the southwest portion of the state. In a normal year, about 850 quarts of eggs are harvested. This year, due to the late ice-out, Eibler expects about 650 quarts. 

  “Our dock is frozen in about two feet of ice,” he said. “Our average set-in date is April 14 and our latest set-in date was May 4 in 2013. It's looking like we're kind of in that area this year.” 

  Dissolved oxygen testing within the last week show some small, shallow lakes in the northeast with low levels of oxygen, said Eibler.

  “Most lakes are still good, but a couple are looking like there could be a little winter kill up here,” he  said. “Perch and northern pike are most resistant. Walleye, bass and bluegill tend to go first.”     

  Joe Panichi, who operates Panichi Guide Service from the Niles Bay area of Lake Vermilion, says there's at least 30 inches of ice near his home on Vermilion.

  “A friend of mine was driving his pickup out onto the ice the other day,” said Panichi. “Usually, by this time of the year, the snow on top of the ice melts, but this year it hasn't. It's just kind of crystallized.”

  Panichi says an icy opener is looking like a sure thing.

  “Most people are thinking it's (an ice-free opener) not going to happen,” said Panichi. “It's not going to happen unless we get some miracle weather. You never know. Two or three days of 70 degrees would make a big difference. But if I had to bet, I'd bet against it.”

  Pehrson Lodge owners Eric and Mary Hanson say in 21 years of owning the resort on the northwestern portion of Lake Vermilion, they've experienced late ice-outs only twice. However, the Hanson's say within the last week, the probability of an ice-free opener has gone from likely to near certain.

  “We still do not expect the ice to last more than a few days into the season,” said Eric Hanson. “The May sun usually weakens the ice quickly (we hope!)

  The latest ice-out Lake Vermilion was May 23, 1950, according to records kept back to 1906 on lakevermilion.com

  In 2013, the ice went out May 17.

  At Lake Kabetogama, Lee Herseth, owner of Herseth's Tomahawk Resort, says “the ice looks pretty thick yet.”

  “I think it's about the same everywhere,” said Herseth. “But it could warm up and be 80 degrees for a couple of days. It's happened before.” 

  On Lake of the Woods, about three-and-a-half to four feet of ice remain, according to Jace Luoma, assistant director of the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau in Baudette.

  “It's different all over the lake because the lake is so big,” said Luoma. “But I've been hearing about some big cracks in 4 Mile Bay and to the west.”