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Kim Wagner, co-owner of Hi-Banks Resort on Fish Lake north of Duluth, stands on the solid ice of Fish Lake on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. She and her husband, Tim, hope the ice will go out before Minnesota's fishing opener on May 11. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)

What if ice isn’t gone in time for fishing openers?

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What if?

That’s what anglers across the Northland are wondering. What if the ice doesn’t go out in time for Minnesota’s fishing opener on May 11 or Wisconsin’s opener on Saturday?

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It could happen on many lakes, especially across the northern tier of our region. People in the fishing and tourism community hold divided opinions about whether anglers will find open water on Minnesota’s opener.

“I don’t see it happening with this weather,” said Darwin Markgraf of God’s Country Outfitters, north of Grand Rapids. “I’m thinking it’s going to happen on Memorial Day weekend.”

Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman’s Corner in Pike Lake is more optimistic, but then, he’s 80 miles farther south, too.

“I feel pretty confident by opener (the ice) will be gone,” he said. “But it’s going to be nip and tuck.”

He said flowage lakes such as Island Lake and Fish Lake north of Duluth have river current coming in. If that opens a channel, the wind could work to break up the remaining ice.

But Tim Wagner of Hi-Banks Resort on Fish Lake isn’t optimistic about ice-out by the opener.

“I’d almost say ‘no,’ ” Wagner said Tuesday. “I hope everyone can call me a liar.”

On Lake Winnibigoshish north of Deer River, Rick Leonhardt of High Banks Resort says it will be close.

“I think it’s going to go off probably the day before or the day of opener,” Leonhardt said Tuesday. “Or the day after. I’m not too worried about it.”

He noted that Little Winnibigoshish Lake, just downstream from Big Winnie, was open. Areas along the dam on Big Winnie are open, Leonhardt said.

“I think there will be enough room for people to fish,” he said. “It’s going to be crowded, but there will be areas.”

Markgraf agreed about the crowds. He assumes lots of anglers will resort to fishing the moving water of the Mississippi River near Grand Rapids, where the ice is out.

“I think the DNR will have to give passes to let people in and out of there,” he said.

And in some places where the ice is likely to be out for the opener, the Department of Natural Resources has posted fishing closures to protect spawning walleyes. The fish are spawning much later than usual this year and could still be concentrated and vulnerable to angling.

At Voyageur North Canoe Outfitters in Ely, Kevin Marolt said some of the firm’s opening-weekend canoe parties might have to be switched from lake entry points to rivers such as the Nina Moose or Little Indian Sioux off the Echo Trail. Marolt assumes that smaller lakes along those river routes will be ice-free.

On Tuesday, the ice had not even begun to pull away from shore on Gunflint Lake, northwest of Grand Marais along the Gunflint Trail.

“Where the Cross River comes in, there was one area of open water about 5 feet by 10 feet on Monday,” said Shari Baker of Gunflint Pines Resort.

Her husband, Bob Baker, thinks the ice will go off Gunflint on May 15, four days after the opener.

The St. Louis River in Duluth opened last week. It’s always a popular spot with walleye anglers on the opener. This year, the river could be even more crowded than usual because anglers shut out of iced-over lakes may be seeking open water, said Dave Nelson, president of the Twin Ports Walleye Association.

At Babe’s Bait in Ely, Russ Brzoska is holding out hope for an ice-free opener.

“I think it’ll go,” Brzoska said Tuesday. “We got the snow melted. Now we have to get rid of the ice. We’re all keeping the furnaces turned up and the windows open.”

At Scott’s Peaceful Valley Resort on Crane Lake, Rob Scott thinks anglers will be able to work the edges of the ice sheet and get to open water where there’s current.

“Fishermen will be boxed in a little bit, but I’m optimistic,” Scott said. “I think people will be able to have walleye fillets instead of shiner sushi.”

Some anglers have told Markgraf at God’s Country Outfitters that if ice remains on lakes for the opener, they might go out ice-fishing just to say they did it.

“I’d caution people not to do that,” said Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids. “That’s risky any way you cut it. That ice is deteriorating.”

Lakes as far north as St. Cloud are opening, but many are 10 days to two weeks later than their median ice-out dates, according to the DNR’s climatology office.

Wisconsin woes

Wisconsin anglers are in even more of a touch-and-go situation with their fishing opener this Saturday. Although some lakes are opening, many are likely to remain frozen on Saturday.

The Governor’s Fishing Opener, to be held on Lake Namekagon, will rely on creativity, said James Bolen, executive director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce. Lake Namekagon was just beginning to open along its north shore on Wednesday, Bolen said.

“But we need it to open by some boat landings to get some boats out,” he said.

Some guides will paddle guests down stretches of the Namekagon River, which is open, Bolen said. A few area lakes, such as Bony and Middle Eau Claire, were expected to be open, he said.

“But some of the bigger, deeper lakes are not going to be open,” Bolen said. “I live on Owen Lake, and I guarantee you it won’t be open for another two weeks.”

Bolen joked that he had called the U.S. Coast Guard in Duluth to get its cutter, the Alder, on Lake Namekagon for some ice-breaking work.

About 200 guests are expected for the Governor’s Fishing Opener, Bolen said.

Record ice-outs

Here are some record-late ice-out dates for selected lakes in northern Minnesota:

  • Island Lake (Duluth): May 8
  • Lake Winnibigoshish: May 10
  • Shagawa Lake (Ely): May 16
  • Saganaga Lake (Gunflint Trail): May 16
  • Rainy Lake: May 22
  • Leech Lake: May 23
  • Lake Vermilion: May 23
  • Gunflint Lake: May 26

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources climatology office

Article written by Sam Cook of the Forum News Service

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