No one will argue that patience is a virtue. But it can be a difficult virtue to practice. If you’re an angler waiting for safe ice to form on your favorite Minnesota lakes, there’s no telling how virtuous you will be by the time you’re able to shuffle cautiously from shore to bore the first holes of the ice fishing season. Translation: it could be a while on the bigger lakes.
There have already been several significant snowfall events, and enough cold to freeze small or shallow wetlands and end the season for most duck hunters. But it will take more patience—and persistent deep cold—before we have safe ice for angling, at least on larger waters. Skiers and snowmobilers can have instant gratification with a substantial snow event. But solid, safe ice does not form overnight. Ice anglers who value their vehicles and their gear—not to mention their lives—will have to wait out weather’s whims.
That process has begun, however—even on the large lakes—which have been gradually cooling as daily high and overnight low temperatures have steadily declined. Some sheltered bays on them are beginning to “make ice,” something I confirmed when I ventured out for one last duck hunt on this past and final weekend of the season in the central hunting zone.
The prospects for ducks are not the best on a typical “fish lake.” But there is always the possibility that a few late migrators might be found on the only open water available, such as this lake of nearly 3,000 acres. If nothing else, it would serve as a final salute to a favorite pastime for another 10 months.
The shallow bay that I aimed for—sheltered by a long point of cattails and bulrushes—was mostly ice-covered, so I set out my decoys on the point’s open water side. The only waterfowl to be drawn to my spread of counterfeit plastic ducks during those several hours were small groups of swans—not legal targets—at about the limit of my effective shooting range; if only they had been goldeneyes, or late migrating bluebills.
I did hear “ice music,” though, as new ice forming in the lake-rimming vegetation would rise and fall with the passage of an occasional wave generated far in the distance by one of the few anglers who had braved the elements on this last weekend in November. A gently rising wave would break the fragile, microscope-slide-thin surface into innumerable tiny ice plates, each one grating against those nearby to generate the peculiar rustling sound that few have the opportunity to hear. Motoring back to the public landing in the gathering dusk, I also heard an occasional grating against the hull as it split a patch of floating ice that had detached from the shoreline.
However one feels about the science of climate change—and importantly, what man’s role in it might be—data that is being recorded can’t be easily reasoned away. One of these data points is the timing of when lake ice forms—some call it “ice-in”—which we know is a function of weather patterns, and thus of climate.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center maintains a database with ice-in and ice-out date observations on more than 700 bodies of water in the Northern Hemisphere. There are 14 lakes in the U.S. with the longest and most complete records of such observations, and these are located in Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and Maine.
Most graphs show ups and downs, rather than a straight line, which in the case of ice-in dates reflects variations from one winter to the next. What matters, however, is the trend, the beginning and ending points on such a long-term graph. Over the last 110 years, ice-in dates have moved an average of one day to one-and-one-half days later with each decade. This means that the average ice-in date for a representative lake is at least 11 days—and maybe half again more—later than it was in 1910.
Well-known and much-published naturalist Jim Gilbert recently wrote that he’s been recording the dates when ice forms on several lakes at strategic points in the state. For Lake Bemidji, for example, in 1991 he recorded an ice-in date of November 4, while in 2019 ice-in was recorded on December 3. Lake Waconia, just west of the Twin Cities, had a 1991 ice-in date of November 7, and in 2019 it was December 2.
In addition to air temperature, the intensity of wind and even cloud cover, can affect a lake’s ice-in, which most consider to be the time when 90% of a lake’s surface is ice-covered. But wind, cloud cover and other minor variables alone or in combination can’t explain ice-in date variability of such magnitude.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will tell you that “ice is never 100% safe.” That’s not just good risk management to deflect frivolous lawsuits against the agency, but is true. Such things as pressure ridges that fracture the ice surface, and underwater currents that can weaken ice in a very specific area, are among the reasons for this conservative stance.
That said, the DNR does offer general advice to those who will inevitably venture out on early ice. The DNR recommends checking ice thickness yourself as you venture out, using either a spear-like ice chisel, an auger, or even a cordless electric drill equipped with an auger-type wood-boring bit. Four inches of new, clear ice is considered the minimum for walk-out ice fishing, 5-7 inches for a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle, 8-12 inches for an average car or mini pickup, and 12-15 inches for a full-size pickup.
Needless to say, the first anglers who can safely get onto the ice are those that fish either without a shelter, or inside a lightweight portable. Those who fish amid all the comforts of home in a large pull-behind shelter—the kind that doubles as a camping trailer—will obviously have to wait.
Beyond our need for patience, we’ll all be hoping that we don’t have a repeat of 2019, when heavy snow fell on early ice before a deep, safe ice layer could form, making on-ice travel a nightmare for many. All the patience in the world may not be a cure for that.