The lake on which our family’s cabin sits is, for now, itself a tale of two lakes. Circling its most easterly bay early Saturday morning on the access road that hugs that shoreline, ice stretched out for 200 yards, give or take. At the public launch site, just across from a popular restaurant, the ice sheet had tapered down to 150 yards. By the look of it, barring an extended warm spell, there’ll be no boat launching here for another five months.
Then again, watching the sun rise from where the cabin sits facing southward at the lake’s widest expanse, the only hint that winter is next on the seasonal agenda is the bare trees that have so recently lost their dramatic color. No evidence of the ice slush that just days before had washed in, driven by a southerly wind that ground it to bits against the shoreline rip-rap. From here, just now, you might imagine that most of the lake’s 2,900 acres are ice-free.
Next day, on Sunday—returning from a recycling errand in the afternoon—I spun the wheel at the county road’s junction with the access to the lake’s west end landing, in summertime the most popular and largest entry point to this excellent fishing lake. I stopped just for the sake of argument, to see if—by some quirk of wind, or depth or current—there might be open water there.
Not a high probability, considering that the lake slims down considerably here, and is more sheltered than almost anywhere else on its perimeter. This not only makes it nice for launching boats, but makes it susceptible to early ice forming when dropping temperatures cool the surface down to the freezing point. Without wind to generate waves and keep water molecules in motion and fluid, they’ll link together, and—voila—ice forms.
The parking lot that for seven months of the year is usually filled with boat trailer rigs was nearly empty. The Minnesota DNR’s seasonal dock, larger than many to accommodate the volume of boats here at peak periods, was pulled up on shore where it would spend the winter and early spring.
But the place was not truly empty. Several pickups, sans trailer, were parked alongside the barren launch ramp. Behind one, a young man was carefully packing equipment into a large plastic sled he had eased out of the pickup’s bed. Having made everything secure, he pulled it scraping across the parking lot gravel, down the ramp’s incline and out onto the ice.
He seemed not the least bit apprehensive as he walked out; no tentative steps, no jabs with an ice chisel to make doubly sure that the ice was thick enough to hold him and his gear. No life jacket, in the event he should fall though. I suspect his nonchalance was due to having fished here already this November, and that he felt he was not venturing out onto ice that was unfamiliar.
Just as surprising to me, far beyond the path he was trudging I could see the bright blue of a portable fishing shelter, and an angler near it who appeared to be checking lines in outside holes. Not all that much farther beyond them—give or take, to allow for the deceptiveness of distance—was the glittering blue of open water, a strange and dangerous-feeling juxtaposition. All the more questionable after three days of above-freezing temperatures, coupled with light rain—which can weaken the bonds of newly-formed ice.
This lake is not the only one where anglers are braving the ice before full freeze-up. It’s true that the ice-up process began early this year. That will be attested to by many duck hunters whose favorite waters froze early. Deer hunters, too, who spent unusually frigid days in their deer stands. But there simply have not been enough consistently-sub-zero days and nights to create truly safe ice.
Yet a drive up the heavily-trafficked Highway 371 from Central Minnesota to Bemidji and beyond will take you past many lakes where portable ice fishing shelters have begun popping up like mushrooms, with on-foot anglers daring to go where they might not yet take their pickups; places where—they believe—the early ice will support them and their go-light gear.
Except that we’ve already had clear evidence that many of the lakes are not ready to safely support ice fishermen. Within the last two weeks 11 anglers had to be rescued on Upper Red Lake when a large sheet of ice on which they were fishing broke free from shore and began drifting. Official rescue personnel and nearby resort owners took part in that rescue.
After the incident, the Beltrami County Sheriff asked local resort operators to discourage anglers from going out onto unsafe ice. Last year a young couple ice fishing at night lost their lives when the ATV they were riding went through an opening or weak area at a popular northern Minnesota ice fishing destination. Both incidents could have been avoided.
As the Sheriff so aptly pointed out, those who take ice angling safety risks and must be rescued have put others’ lives on the line; to say nothing of the cost measured in grief and in support lost to their families, if they should perish due to this poor judgment.
There’s a belief that some of the best fishing of the ice angling season is to be had on the earliest ice. Guessing that ice is safe is not the same as knowing it’s safe. Guessing right can be profitable in terms of memorable fishing success. Guessing wrong can cost a lot more than that.