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Bad ice winter creates 'regional disaster' for resorts, bait shops

Resort owners met with a state senator looking for state loans to work through lost winter business.

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The driver of a plow truck on Lake Winnibigoshish works to free the vehicle that was mired in deep slush earlier this week. Slush and deep snow have combined to keep anglers away from many Minnesota lakes this winter, causing economic problems for local businesses. Photo courtesy High Banks resort.
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DULUTH — How bad have ice conditions been on many northern Minnesota lakes this winter? So bad it's hurting businesses that make their money off ice anglers — resorts, bait shops, fish house rentals and others — and so bad that some business owners are shutting down early and asking for the state’s financial help.

Thin ice, deep snow, paralyzing slush and warm temperatures have combined to produce treacherous conditions that have effectively scared away many ice anglers. Even snowmobile traffic is down in some areas because deep snow has insulated swamps, preventing them from freezing enough to cross.

“We’re off 40-50% for winter. It makes you wonder how we are even going to open in the spring,” said Rick Leonhardt, who co-owns High Banks Resort on Lake Winnibigoshish with his wife, Kim.

State Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, attended a meeting of 40 north-central Minnesota business owners on Wednesday at High Banks to talk about potential remedies. In a letter sent to many area business, local resort owners said the economic impact of the unusual winter conditions “is equal to flooding or forest fires’’ after which the state has offered economic aid.

“We aren’t asking for a handout. But we got kicked in the teeth here and we need some help. … Maybe low-interest or no-interest loans or something,” Rick Leonhardt said.

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A plow truck attempting to clear a road on Lake Winnibigoshish last week became mired in deep slush. Access to many Northern Minnesota lakes has been difficult if not impossible this winter, scaring anglers and their money away and creating a financial crisis for some local businesses. (Photo courtesy of High Banks Resort)

Kim Leonhardt said some businesses have simply given up on this winter, noting the problem stretches from the Brainerd Lakes area north through Leech and Winnibigoshish and onto Upper Red Lake. She said Eichorn was "very receptive'' about bringing their concerns to St. Paul for potential action by the Legislature. She said ice fishing-related businesses in five counties — Beltrami, Cass, Itasca, Hubbard and St. Louis — have reported serious economic losses so far.

“It’s a regional disaster … One resort up on Red Lake (Rogers on Red) just shut down for winter yesterday. Some on our lake are doing it, too,” Kim Leonhardt said. "They're giving up with more than a month to go."

Ironically, the fishing has been pretty good for the people who do get out. But High Banks has had to shut down its public access to the lake as the resort staff works to get their own customers out to fishing spots.

Grand Rapids-area ice fishing guide Jeff Sundin wrote on his blog that many lakes this year are void of the usual hubbub of angling activity.

“The scene has been eerily quiet as I’ve traveled from lake to lake in search of fishing news to report,’’ Sundin noted. “Many of the area’s most popular fishing areas have had little or no traffic. Bait suppliers and tackle dealers report dismal sales of ice gear as well.”

Related Topics: TOURISM
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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