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Drop us a line? Ice anglers re-discover area lakes

Ice fishing is getting into full swing in the area, with 5-6 inches of ice now formed on Little Detroit Lake -- but caution is still needed because of high water levels in rivers that connect lake chains, according to Sheriff Tim Gordon.

"Due to high water in the Pelican and Otter Tail river chains, the ice will be thin quite a way out there compared to most years," Gordon said. "Give inlets and outlets a wide berth, even after solid freeze -- it will be a concern all winter long."

Gordon reported 5-8 inches of ice now formed on various lakes in the area, but "some spots have substantially less," he said. "Our main concern this year is the river systems because of the high water and increased flow."

That affects lakes like Detroit, Sallie, Melissa and others on the Pelican River Chain as well as lakes in and near the Tamarac Refuge that are part of the Otter Tail River chain.

And the concern applies to snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, ice fishermen and "anybody who uses the lakes for recreational purposes," Gordon said. Be careful even in areas that traditionally have had good solid winter ice, he advised.

John Store, owner of Quality Bait & Tackle on South Washington Avenue, said minnows are the bait of choice for ice fishermen.

"They're doing pretty fair," he said of those who have ventured out on the ice. "They're out there picking up a few crappies, a few walleyes, a few northerns -- they've been fishing Little Detroit and Deadshot Bay."

A few permanent fish houses have been brought out, but most people are still using portables at this point, he said Friday morning.

"Use a little caution," he said. "Common sense goes a long ways -- stay away from rivers, check ice depths, don't drive out on the lake and ask someone how thick the ice is ...

"You laugh," he tells a reporter, "but it happens all the time."

Detroit Lakes froze over on Nov. 24, and Store said, "it's at the point now where you should check the (ice) depth. Just because it's 5 inches here doesn't mean it's not 2 inches over by the river."

Thanks to the early ice-out date this spring, Detroit Lake enjoyed a relatively long ice-free season, according to Dick Hecock, senior advisor for the Pelican River Watershed District.

He tracks the ice-on and ice-out dates, and says the ice-on date was Nov. 24 -- three days later than the long-term average.

But, he adds, that's still five days earlier than the average of the last 10 years.

Detroit Lake became ice-free very early last spring, on April 2, leading to an ice-free season that was 236 days long -- 10 days longer than recent years and almost three weeks longer than the long-term average, Hecock said.

Checking ice thickness

No matter what you are going to do once you get on the ice -- be it fishing, snowmobiling, skating or even ice boating -- it's a good idea to contact a local bait shop or resort on the lake about ice conditions.

It's also important to do some checking yourself once you get there. Several factors affect the relative safety of ice, such as temperature, snow cover and currents. But a very important factor is the actual ice thickness.

Use an ice chisel, ice auger or cordless drill and long five-eighth inch wood auger bit to drill through the ice.

Some people claim they can judge thickness by where the chisel or drill suddenly breaks through, but that happens so quickly, it's easy to overestimate the thickness.

It's smarter to use a tape measure, or something like an ice fisherman's ice skimmer handle with inch markings, to put down the hole and hook the bottom edge of the hole to determine the ice's true thickness.

Other things to keep in mind when checking ice

Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water. It can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away due to currents, springs, rotting vegetation or school of rough fish.

You need to check the ice at least every 150 feet, especially early in the season or in any situation where the thickness varies widely.

Vehicles weighing about one ton, such as cars, pickups or SUVs, should be parked at least 50 feet apart and moved every two hours to prevent sinking.

It's not a bad idea to make a hole next to the car. If water starts to overflow the top of the hole, the ice is sinking and it's time to move the vehicle!

Some cold facts about ice from the DNR

• New ice is usually stronger than old ice.

Four inches of clear, newly-formed ice may support one person on foot, while a foot or more of old, partially-thawed ice may not.

• Ice seldom freezes uniformly.

It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away.

• Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous.

This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice on outside river bends is usually weaker due to the undermining effects of the faster current.

• The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process.

The extra weight also reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support. Also, ice near shore can be weaker than ice that is farther out.

• Booming and cracking ice isn't necessarily dangerous.

It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes.

• Schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl can also adversely affect the relative safety of ice.

The movement of fish can bring warm water up from the bottom of the lake. In the past, this has opened holes in the ice, causing snowmobiles and cars to break through.