Ice-out may be late, expert says
UMD professor John Downing predicts ice may be gone within just a few days of the opener
CROW WING COUNTY — Prior to the 2022 walleye/northern pike fishing opener, anglers and bait shop owners worried that ice wouldn’t be out in time for the first day.
This year’s opener may not fare any better, as experts suggest that it is a possibility that ice will still be present on area lakes Saturday, May 13.
“I think we're at that point or worse this year,” University of Minnesota-Duluth professor and limnologist John Downing said. “The average ice-out date for lakes in (the Brainerd area) is about the 24th of April … but now the front end of that goes into early March and the back end goes way out into mid- to late-May.”
Downing is a professor of biology and an expert in limnology — the study of lakes and freshwater ecosystems — and is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Sea Grant program, which has developed what he calls an “ice-out widget” that people can use to get an estimate of when ice-out will occur in their area.
In 2022, most area lakes had ice-out between April 29 and May 12, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Larger area lakes like Gull Lake and the Whitefish Chain still had ice present in the week leading up to the opening day of fishing for walleye and pike.
"We are usually two weeks behind Lake Minnetonka, and Minnetonka went out on the 18th (of April)," said Sherree Wicktor, owner of S&W Bait north of Brainerd. "I am pretty sure it will be open for the opener, and I am hoping a good share is open by next weekend."
The Sea Grant suggests it takes roughly 220 thaw degree days — a scientific measurement determining the net amount of potential ice melting — before the ice is gone on a given lake.
Thaw degree days look at the average daily temperatures of a given late winter or early spring day to see how much — if any — melting can occur. Though a spring day can see melting during the day with an above-freezing temperature, lows below freezing can negate the amount of melting that occurs.
So far, the lakes area has had roughly 160 thaw degree days.
“If you don't get a net temperature above freezing over a 24-hour period, then whatever you melt is frozen again,” Downing said.
At the rate the ice is currently melting — though temperatures are projected to rise again — lake watchers may still deal with ice well into May.
“I was projecting ice-out to about May 8-10 for the lakes around the Brainerd/Baxter area, plus or minus five days, depending on the weather,” Downing said. “Then we had that real warm spell that changed things a bit and ate up all the snow — which has an insulating factor — but I’m sticking with around May 8, plus or minus five days. That is a pretty late ice-out.”
When the ice does leave, however, anglers may want to temper their expectations a bit.
"I think we will have open water (for the opener)," Wicktor said. "I think most people will be going crappie fishing more than anything ... but I think it is going to be OK. Maybe I'm optimistic."
Those interested can find the University of Minnesota-Duluth Sea Grant Ice-Out Widget at https://seagrant.umn.edu/
“I just want to get my boat in the water,” Downing said. “I think of resorts buying food and trying to figure out when people are going to show up. I think about restaurants and sporting goods stores … It is really important to be able to know when that open water season is going to restart.”
Dan Determan, sports writer/staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5879 or email@example.com . Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan .