Tips for late-season ice fishing as fish house removal deadline approaches
As March temperatures rise and snow transforms into Minnesota’s signature spring slush, it’s time for anglers to take their fish houses off thinning lakes to make way for the summer fishing season.
BEMIDJI — As March temperatures rise and snow transforms into Minnesota’s signature spring slush, it’s time for anglers to take their fish houses off thinning lakes to make way for the summer fishing season.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the deadline to remove fish houses from lakes is looming. While the March 7 deadline for the southern two-thirds of the state has come and gone, northern Minnesota has a bit longer to prepare.
In the northern third of the state, which includes Bemidji, the deadline is the end of the day on Monday, March 21.
While this deadline isn’t the last day anglers are allowed to be on the ice, there are certain parameters that should be followed.
“The fish house removal deadline doesn’t mean anglers no longer can use them,” a DNR release said. “After the deadline, fish houses may still be on the ice, but they must be occupied if they’re out between midnight and one hour before sunrise.”
Failing to remove a fish house by the deadline can result in legal consequences.
“If shelters aren’t removed by the deadline, owners can be prosecuted, and structures may be confiscated and removed by a conservation officer,” the release said. “If conditions or other circumstances are making it difficult for people to meet the deadline, they should contact their local conservation officer to explain the situation.”
For Dick Beardsley, owner of Bemidji-based Dick Beardsley Fishing Guide Service, this year’s harsh winter weather has made removing fish houses uniquely difficult.
When Beardsley recently took his fish houses off Lake Bemidji, he said the structures put up a fight because of the stubborn, unruly ice on the lake.
“We were using jackhammers and chainsaws to cut the ice houses out of the ice,” Beardsley said. “The water from all the snow had come up and froze them right down into the ice. It was unbelievable.”
This lack of accessibility to lakes, Beardsley explained, is widely due to the amount of snow the area got throughout the winter months.
“This winter has got to be one of the hardest winters I can remember for ice fishing just to get out on any of the lakes in the area because of all the snow and the slush underneath it,” Beardsley said. “It was a tough, tough winter.”
The Minnesota DNR also stresses the importance of keeping ice clean and clear of garbage.
“In addition to ensuring shelters are removed by the deadline, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers will be watching closely to make sure people don’t leave trash behind,” the release said. “As wheelhouses have proliferated across the state, there also have been increasing instances of people dumping sewage atop the ice.”
Commonly left items include bait, blocking material, bottles, cans, cigarette butts and plastic bags filled with waste.
“Some of the things people leave behind are downright disgusting, and anything people leave on the ice has the potential to be an eyesore at best and an environmental concern at the worst,” DNR Conservation Officer Garrett Thomas said in the release.
“The message is simple: Don’t leave anything behind when you leave the ice, and make sure to dispose of it properly,” Thomas added. “It’s not any different than the lessons we’ve been taught since we were kids.”
If anglers do leave garbage or other debris on the ice conservation officers may issue citations for littering.
Ice safety tips
For anglers who want to brave the melting ice for a little longer, the Minnesota DNR offers tips on how to take safety measures during the ice-out season.
It's vital that anglers are aware that ice strength can be affected by many different factors, the release explained.
“You can't judge the strength of ice just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature or whether or not the ice is covered with snow,” the release said. “Strength is based on all these factors — plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.”
The DNR does not measure ice thickness on Minnesota lakes, so it’s recommended that anglers check ice thickness at least every 150 feet to prevent dangerous situations.
“Temperature, snow cover, currents, springs and rough fish all affect the relative safety of ice,” the release said. “Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water; it can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away.”
The DNR recommends using an ice chisel, auger, cordless drill or a tape measure to check ice thickness. Ice with snow packed on top, the release said, is generally much weaker than new ice.
For a lake with snow on the ice, 8 inches is the minimum thickness for walking or ice fishing, 16 to 24 inches thick for a car, and 24 to 30 inches thick for a medium truck.
Those with vehicles out on the frozen lakes should take special precautions, especially during the ice-out season. The DNR recommends that cars, pickups or SUVs should be parked at least 50 feet apart from each other and moved every two hours to prevent sinking.
Ice on lakes, Beardsley expressed, can often be unpredictable.
“You can never ever trust ice completely, no matter what time of the year it is,” he said. “Safety is No. 1. There’s not a fish in the lake that’s worth going through the ice for.”
Beardsley advised those who want to go ice fishing in March and April should never go out on the ice alone, and should always wear ice picks around their necks.
“If you happened to fall through the ice or break through, (ice picks) have real sharp points on them and you can stick them in the ice and pull yourself up out of the water,” Beardsley explained.
While it’s important to keep spring ice fishing safety tips in mind, Beardsley said the ice on Lake Bemidji is, for the most part, still thick enough for fishing.
“Unless we warm up a lot for days on end, that ice isn’t going to go out until sometime in May,” Beardsley predicted. “When I was out there last weekend I drilled a hole, and in one spot on Lake Bemidji the ice was 37 inches thick.”
While Beardsley said ice on the lakes is still strong enough to fish on, spring fever has taken over for most area anglers, and excitement for the season of open-water fishing is growing.
“A lot of the folks I’ve been talking to. . . everybody is tired of it,” Beardsley said about the ice fishing season. “Everybody is just begging for spring to come.”