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Lake Superior ice off Duluth draws crowds of anglers, ice skaters

Safe ice formed this past week, but strong winds could blow it out at any moment.

clear ice Duluth
Joey Pesik, a senior at the University of Minnesota Duluth, jigs for herring, salmon and trout on frozen Lake Superior just off the Duluth shoreline on Thursday, March 3, 2022. Pesik and his UMD buddy, Hunter Madsen, brought the kayak along in case winds increased and cracked the ice, cutting off their return to shore.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Hunter Madsen and Joey Pesik weren’t taking any chances heading out onto the smooth Lake Superior ice off the city's shoreline Thursday morning.

big lake trout
Hunter Madsen, a University of Minnesota Duluth senior, caught this 30-inch lake trout through the clear ice of Lake Superior on Wednesday.
Contributed / Hunter Madsen

In addition to their ice fishing sled loaded with gear, the two University of Minnesota Duluth seniors were towing a kayak, just in case. It was a little added safety precaution, but mostly to make sure they didn’t lose any gear.

“I’m not going to lose a $3,000 LiveScope," Pesik said of his fancy fish-finding electronics. “We’ve already agreed that if we have to take the kayak back, the gear is priority. One of us would have to stay behind.”

But there was no need to use the kayak on Thursday morning as Pesik, Madsen and throngs of other anglers, skaters, walkers and even some fat-tire bikers were out on about 5-6 inches of glass-like, gin-clear ice that was fastened tight to shore — even though cracks of ice with open water were visible from Duluth's Skyline Parkway.

It’s one of those rare, late-winter phenomenons that happens maybe once or twice a decade, when Duluthians can get out on the big lake ice and play, if only for a few days.

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Duluth ice
Two anglers haul their gear onto Lake Superior on Thursday morning, March 3, 2022. Lake Superior ice as formed along the Duluth shoreline enough to allow ice fishing, skating and even a few pickup hockey games.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
skating on lake superior
Sarah Priest and Troy Rogers, of Duluth, were skating with their dogs, Ollie and Dory, on Thursday morning, March 3, 2022, on the ice of Lake Superior just off the Duluth shoreline. Rogers has logged more than 50 miles skating on the lake over the past week.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s fleeting. It can be here today and gone tomorrow — or gone this afternoon," said Troy Rogers, of Duluth, who was out skating with his friend, Sarah Priest, and their dogs, Ollie and Dory. “It’s been a big skating and fishing party this week. There have been more people every day as word gets out. People were even playing hockey out here the other day.”

Rogers has already logged more than 50 miles on skates on the big lake in recent days.

lake superior skating
Sarah Priest and Troy Rogers, of Duluth, were skating with dogs Ollie and Dory on Thursday morning on the frozen surface of Lake Superior just off the Duluth shoreline. The lake rarely freezes this smooth to allow for good skating.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

“I’ve skated all the way over to Uncle Harry’s Mausoleum. It’s so cool having ice like this. You can see right through it," Priest added.

The ice became safe about a week ago, but could crack and blow away at any point with the next big wind. That happened one day last winter, and 27 ice anglers had to be rescued in boats off a fast-moving ice floe that broke away from shore. No one was hurt, but most of the anglers lost their gear, much of which is likely at the bottom of Lake Superior.

The floating ice sheet is deteriorating in high winds as it drifts further out into Lake Superior.

That’s why most people on the ice Thursday morning were paying attention to the wind speed and direction. A strong east wind can break up the ice fast. But it’s a strong westerly wind that can separate the ice from shore in an instant and strand people. The Duluth steam plant smoke stack plume offers a telltale indicator for when to panic or not.

“I’m not liking the direction now, out of the west. But it’s pretty light. I think we’re OK," said Brett DeBruyne, of Duluth. He had already caught a few coho and herring.

bucket full of herring and coho slamon
A 5-gallon bucket full of eight Lake Superior herring (also called ciscoes) and eight coho salmon caught Thursday by Duluth anglers Justin Schliep, Jeff Schliep and Riley Leslie. Fishing has been good the past week as fishable ice formed off Duluth.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

“It’s been good fishing. You can see the pods of fish moving round down there," he noted. “But they can hear and see everything you do up here. They scatter around a lot.”

Rogers said he was able to skate briefly last winter and some in 2019, but that snow or rough ice — or, often in recent years, no ice at all at this end of Lake Superior — usually puts a damper on the fun. Most years, the ice is simply too rough or snow covered for much skating.

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ice skidding on lake superior
Linnea Turner, left, and Teagan Weiss, both University of Minnesota Duluth students, were out "skidding" on the frozen surface of Lake Superior on Thursday morning, March 3, 2022. The two had never been on Lake Superior ice before.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

University of Minnesota Duluth students Teagan Weiss and Linnea Turner were out for a morning stroll on the Lakewalk when they saw groups of people out on the ice, so they decided to join them. They didn’t have skates, but were “skidding" over the smooth ice in shoes.

For both, it was their first time on Lake Superior ice.
“This is unreal. It’s so clear," Weiss said.

The last time Duluth ice-party ice formed in a big way on Lake Superior, with safe, smooth ice farther out and up the shore, was in 2007, when thousands of people took advantage of snow-free ice and skated and fished off Duluth’s shores for days on end.

fat bike on lake superior
Joey Pesik, a University of Minnesota Duluth student out fishing on Lake Superior ice off Duluth, looks up as a man rides by on a fat-tire bicycle Thursday, March 3, 2022. The man appeared to be commuting to work in downtown Duluth.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

The forecast for wet, heavy snow and freezing rain Saturday could bring an end to smooth ice. And gusty east winds could break up the ice even for fishing.

Lake Superior officially had some ice on about 60% of its surface as of Thursday, according to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. That's slightly more than average for this time of winter. But a satellite photo showed much of that ice appeared thin, disconnected from any shore and floating around with the wind.

The big lake has fast ice that is fastened solidly to shore, mostly in its narrow areas, bays and islands where wind and waves have less impact, and at its western zenith along the Twin Ports shoreline.

“I wish we had this ice all winter," DeBruyne said. “But at least we’re getting it for a few days this year. It’s just a blast to be able to fish right here in town.”

Duluth ice fishing
Ice anglers head out to fish just off Duluth's shore of Lake Superior just after sunrise on Thursday. A small strip of clear, fast ice — fastened to the shoreline — has formed off the city for the past week. Strong winds could blow it out any day.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
herring on ice
Joey Pesik, a University of Minnesota Duluth senior, tries to jig up another herring through the ice of Lake Superior. Pesik and other anglers say they can see schools of fish through the ice — mostly herring and coho salmon — but that any noise or motion spooks the fish away.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
Lake Superior satellite photo
A satellite photo of Lake Superior taken Wednesday, shows much of the lake still open water, with some cloudy, floating ice in some areas. Solid or fast ice, which shows up as bright white in this photo, has formed near Duluth and Superior, even though open water is not far off shore.
Contributed / NOAA
Duluth ice fishing
Anglers fish on a frozen Lake Superior just off the Duluth shoreline Thursday.
John Myers / Duluth News Tribune
READ MORE ABOUT LAKE SUPERIOR
The chemical cocktail created an orange colored vapor cloud measuring 20 miles long and 5 miles wide — and it parked itself over the populated area of Superior, Wisconsin, and neighboring Duluth, Minnesota, prompting a mass evacuation of more than 50,000 people.
Radar tracks put Michael Bratlie, an experienced military and commercial pilot, just past Two Harbors, Minnesota, in his two-engine plane. There the flight path ended, drawing exhaustive searches of Lake Superior and the thick woods and rugged terrain on shore.
The multi-agency effort will help verify data collected by traditional research boats and crews.
The Department of Natural Resources' annual lake trout assessment was the highest ever for western Lake Superior.
The EPA-funded project could help protect water quality and steer fisheries management.
Did the 2012 flood make St. Louis River Estuary walleyes harder to catch? Or are there fewer of them?

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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