Late-Spring Snow and Cold Jeopardizes Fishing, as Well as Golf, for Minnesota Resorts

By | April 17th, 2018

Properties that depend on revenues from fishing as much as golf, boating or other forms of warm-weather recreation now expect many northern lakes and other bodies of water to still be frozen when the state opens the fishing season on May 12, after the first half of April brought prolonged below-zero overnight temperatures, record late snowfalls and days of bitter cold winds.

In 60 years of living and working as a fishing guide on Minnesota’s Lake Vermilion, Cliff Wagenbach has never seen ice jeopardize the start of the fishing season the way it is this year, BusinessNorth of Duluth, Minn. reported.

“Three or four days ago, I was fishing crappies on [Lake Vermillion’s] Big Bay,” Wagenbach, 70, who operates Cliff’s Guide Service, told BusinessNorth. “I’ve got to say it has about 30 inches of ice, and it’s hard ice. There’s also about eight inches of hard, packed snow on top.”

Two weeks into April, it’s still very much the winter of 2017-2018, BusinessNorth reported, with thick lake ice lingering that won’t seem to say ‘uncle.’ And that is jeopardizing the fishing season that is just as important to many northern resorts as golf.

With prolonged below-zero overnight temperatures, record late snowfalls, and days of bitter cold winds, resort owners, guides, and northeastern Minnesota businesses that look to the fishing opener for revenue expect many northern lakes to remain frozen for the May 12 opening of the fishing season in the state, BusinessNorth reported.

“This one doesn’t want to quit,” said Wagenbach of the winter. “This is the latest I’ve seen the ice hanging on in this condition for years.”

Bays and small lakes fed by rivers or streams are likely to open up, BusinessNorth reported, but Wagenbach says large parts of lakes—like Lake Vermilion’s Big Bay—will probably remain ice-locked. That will impact businesses across the region, according to some resort owners.

“It will have an effect,” said Jay Schelde, owner of Pike Bay Lodge on the Tower, Minn. end of Lake Vermilion. “There’s been so much conversation about it that there will be a financial effect, no doubt about it.”

Schelde, however, is more fortunate than some, BusinessNorth reported, because his property is on Pike Bay, which is an annual opening-day hot spot for anglers, because it flows into the bay and is one of the first bodies of water on Lake Vermillion to open.

“I’m booked up for opening weekend,” Schelde told BusinessNorth. “But with the weather that’s been going on in [Minneapolis/Saint Paul], some people down there have pretty much written [the opener] off.”

In Virginia, Minn., Bob Arvola, owner of Duane’s Marine, told BusinessNorth he’s been busy selling boats, motors and accessories, but still expects that the weather and expected late melting, known as the “ice-out” to locals, will have an impact.

“Definitely, people are not going to be moving around as usual,” Arvola said. “I think it’s going to hold people back, but the guys who are coming in here are optimistic and are coming in and buying [boats]. They realize they’ll have to wait, but business is still here.”

Jeff Eibler, an assistant fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Tower, Minn., told BusinessNorth that the annual walleye egg harvest at the DNR’s Pike River hatchery will be delayed and shorter than average years because of the extended winter.

Eggs from spawning walleye on the Pike River are grown into fry and used to populate other lakes in northeastern Minnesota and some prairie lakes in the southwest portion of the state, BusinessNorth reported, and In a normal year, about 850 quarts of eggs are harvested. But this year, due to the late ice-out, Eibler expects about 650 quarts.

“Our dock is frozen in about two feet of ice,” Eibler told BusinessNorth. “Our average set-in date is April 14, and our latest set-in date was May 4, in 2013. It’s looking like we’re kind of in that area this year.”

Dissolved oxygen testing taken as the middle of April approached showed some small, shallow lakes in the northeast part of the state with low levels of oxygen, Eibler added.

“Most lakes are still good, but a couple are looking like there could be a little winter kill up here,” he said. “Perch and northern pike are most resistant. Walleye, bass and bluegill tend to go first.”

Joe Panichi, who operates the Panichi Guide Service from the Niles Bay area of Lake Vermilion, told BusinessNorth that there was at least 30 inches of ice near his home on Vermilion as mid-April arrived.

“A friend of mine was driving his pickup out onto the ice the other day,” Panichi said. “Usually, by this time of the year, the snow on top of the ice melts, but this year it hasn’t. It’s just kind of crystallized.”

As a result, Panichi added, an icy opening to the fishing season is looking like a sure thing.

“Most people are thinking [an ice-free opener] is not going to happen,” he said. “It’s not going to happen unless we get some miracle weather.

“You never know—two or three days of 70 degrees would make a big difference,” Panichi added. “But if I had to bet, I’d bet against it.”

Eric and Mary Hanson, owners of the Pehrson Lodge resort on the northwestern portion of Lake Vermilion, told BusinessNorth that in their 21 years of operating the property, they’ve experienced late ice-outs only twice. But as April hit the halfway point with no relief from the cold, they said, the probability of an ice-free opener to the fishing season has gone from likely to near certain.

“We still do not expect the ice to last more than a few days into the season,” Eric Hanson noted. “The May sun usually weakens the ice quickly—we hope!”

The latest ice-out ever recorded for Lake Vermilion was May 23, 1950, according to records kept back to 1906 on lakevermilion.com, BusinessNorth reported. The most recent extension past the opening of the fishing season occurred in 2013, when the ice went out on May 17.

At Lake Kabetogama, Lee Herseth, owner of Herseth’s Tomahawk Resort, told BusinessNorth that “the ice looks pretty thick yet.”

“I think it’s about the same everywhere,” said Herseth. “But it could warm up and be 80 degrees for a couple of days. It’s happened before.”

On Lake of the Woods, about three-and-a-half to four feet of ice remain, according to Jace Luoma, Assistant Director of the Lake of the Woods Tourism Bureau in Baudette, Minn.

“It’s different all over the lake, because the lake is so big,” said Luoma. “But I’ve been hearing about some big cracks in 4 Mile Bay and to the west.”

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