The Arctic blast that seems to be the final blow in this Fall That Wasn’t has ice fishing enthusiasts champing at the bit, and a few anglers already have begun taking their first tentative steps onto frozen water.
If temperature trends continue, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that resorts on Lake of the Woods could be on the ice as early as Thanksgiving weekend, and Devils Lake probably won’t be far behind.
That’s only speculation, though, and anglers should resist the temptation to take dumb chances. It’s looking like a long winter, after all, and there’ll be plenty of ice time for those with a passion for hard water.
No fish is worth putting yourself or others at risk.
“I worry about that every year,” said Joe Henry, executive director of Lake of the Woods Tourism. “If somebody gets in trouble, it’s normally because they’re not on a trail; they go off the trail, they go off on their own and they want to get away from traffic.”
Henry’s advice to anglers eager for “first ice” is to work through local resorts that are on the ice every day, checking thickness and marking trails where conditions are safe.
“Early ice is tradition,” Henry said. “First off, you get some of the resorts that say, ‘OK, we’re going to open our ice roads to ATVs and snowmobiles with collapsibles.’ And then you start progressing up in weight with SUVs and then eventually, it’s going to be an SUV with a certain length wheelhouse and then it will be a pickup truck.
“Every year it kind of progresses, and of course right off the bat, they normally have such good fishing. December is usually pretty darn good.”
Devils Lake outdoor personality Jason Mitchell was on the ice of a smaller lake in the Devils Lake Basin on Thursday morning when I called him to get an update on conditions. Shallower lakes such as Irvine and Alice had 6 to 8 inches in places when he checked Wednesday, Nov. 13, but other areas on the same lakes had patches of open water, Mitchell said.
Exploring, while part of the fun, requires anglers on early ice to use extreme caution. I don’t feel the urgency I once did to get out on the ice right after freeze-up, but I’ll still carry a set of ice picks in case I break through. I’ll also carry a spud bar and jab the ice before every step.
If the ice breaks after four jabs or less, I’m not walking any farther. If it doesn’t break, I’ll keep jabbing the ice before every step until I’m comfortable the ice is safe. Usually, that means staying closer to shore than I might prefer, but no fish is worth taking dumb chances.
Ice cleats are another must; I’m clumsy enough on dry ground, much less glare ice.
Based on ice safety guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, “good, clear ice” should be at least 4 inches thick for venturing out on foot; 5 to 7 inches is the recommendation for a snowmobile or ATV; 8 to 12 inches will hold a car or small pickup; and 12 to 15 inches is the recommendation for a medium truck.
White or cloudy ice isn’t nearly as strong, the DNR says, and anglers should double the thickness guidelines under such conditions.
That being said, it won’t be long now.
As a media personality with extensive ties to the fishing industry, Mitchell says the early freeze-up has created a lot of excitement not only among anglers, but the ice fishing industry itself.
There are always hot new lures and other “toys” to check out, after all, and an early winter is good for business.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” Mitchell said. “I think for most ice fishing companies, they were probably looking at the biggest year they’ve ever had, just assuming that we get winter. And obviously sometimes, you can have a lot of preorders, for example, but then If you get a late winter, it really causes a hiccup. It’s not so much in the Dakotas and Minnesota -- we always get winter, we always get pretty good participation once we get winter -- but when you look at places like Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, when we get a shorter winter, they don’t get hardly any winter as far as good, safe, fishable ice.
“And so when we get these long, cold, hard winters, it’s not just driving sales here in the Upper Midwest, kind of the core region where a lot of the industry happens, but it also enlarges the industry by six or seven states.”
No doubt, the excitement is palpable in ice fishing circles.
“People are jacked up; people are reaching out,” Henry of Lake of the Woods Tourism said. “We can see certainly traffic building on our website. We’re getting some more phone calls, we’re getting more social media reaction.
“People are really excited to go fishing.”
Stay tuned, it won’t be long now. Have fun and be safe.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to email@example.com.