Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Fishing Opener Forecast: Ice Expected

By Shawn Perich

Up here at the tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead, the fishing opener seems far, far away. Sure, DNR officialdom says it will be legal to cast your lines on Saturday, May 11, but Mother Nature has the last word. Throughout April, her only word has been “snow.”

Last week, stuck at home during a record-setting snowstorm, I called some folks who pay attention to the nuances of Nature to get their perspective on our wintry spring. I had trouble finding folks who were around, especially along the Gunflint Trail, where everyone was taking a between-seasons vacation. At Golden Eagle Lodge, Deb Smith was holding down the fort while Dan and Teresa Baumann were away.

The Flute Reed River at Highway 61 on April 22
The Flute Reed River at Highway 61 on April 22
Golden Eagle caters to cross-country skiers, so they keep careful records of snow depths. Smith had measured 22 inches of new snow that morning, April 19, while it was still coming down. When we talked, Golden Eagle had recorded 43 inches of snow—nearly four feet—during April. The running total for the year was 110 inches, which is about average for the Gunflint Trail. Looking at the Golden Eagle records, Smith said 128 inches fell during the winter of 08-09. The following year, only 42 inches fell during the winter of 09-10.

At the end of the Sawbill Trail, Bill Hansen at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters said it wasn’t the first time he’d seen a big snow in April. He remembered a storm that dumped 17 inches of snow on April 17. He’d recently measured 28 inches of ice on Sawbill Lake and noted the ice was covered with two feet of snow. When would the lake open? Hansen was unwilling to venture a guess.

He said the late Dick Raiken, a former owner of the now defunct Sawbill Lodge, once told him so many variables affect ice-out that it is impossible to predict when it will occur. The latest ice-out Hansen recalled from his 57 years at Sawbill Lake was May 24 one spring during the mid-70s. The winter had been especially cold, he said. Lake Superior completely froze over and Sawbill Lake had 48 inches of ice. Another year, he remembers going ice fishing for brook trout in the BWCAW with Duluth outdoor writer Sam Cook and dog musher Lloyd Gilbertson at the end of March. Nighttime temps reached 30 below.

Over the years, Hansen said there have been a handful of fishing openers when the ice wasn’t out at Sawbill Lake. But an opening day bust isn’t a ‘make or break’for his business.

“The opener isn’t a big thing for us, mostly because the early fishing isn’t very good. It used to be bigger,” he said. “However, the weekend after the opener is a big thing.”

The Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park on April 22
The Brule River in Judge C.R. Magney State Park on April 22
Orvis Lunke of Grand Marais thinks it isn’t likely that Cook County lakes will be open for the fishing opener. He recalled a recent opener when he watched fishing boats make like ice-breakers on McFarland Lake as they attempted to reach fishing areas. Another year the ice lingered until the opener was 1996. He pointed out that early May ice-outs are common in Cook County.

Down in Silver Bay, my friend Pete Lenski had just canceled his opening weekend plans for Birch Lake near Babbitt when we talked on April 20. His decision was based upon the weather. The previous day’s snow storm had been pushed out by a high-pressure front of cold Arctic air. As a result, the previous night’s low in nearby Embarrass was 14 below. That, and an extended forecast of below-normal temperatures, led him to believe the Arrowhead is locked into a winter weather pattern.

“Right now, the snow and ice conditions are more like early March than mid-April,”Lenski said. “I can’t see the conditions changing very quickly.”

Lenski was willing to go out on a limb and predict ice-out dates in Lake and Cook counties will be around May 18. He based his prediction on a simple observation. Generally, streams and rivers open up about two weeks ahead of the lakes. At this writing, the frozen rivers are buried beneath two feet of fresh snow, with more snow in the forecast. Even if the rivers were to open a by the end of the month, it is unlikely the lakes would be open by May 11.

The Devil Track River at Highway 61 on April 22
The Devil Track River at Highway 61 on April 22
He made another unscientific, but likely true observation. State Highway 1 runs north-south from the North Shore near Silver Bay to Ely. Spring generally arrives about 10 days later to the east of Highway 1. So they’ll be fishing around Grand Rapids long before ice-out arrives on the Gunflint Trail.

My final call was to Bob Olson, the sage of Clearwater Lake and the author of “Two Bucks and a Can of Gas, Model A Adventures on the Gunflint Trail.” He’d been busy shoveling snow off cabin roofs for his friends and neighbors. This was the most snow he’s ever seen this late in the year on the Gunflint Trail.

“Some of the snow banks along the Clearwater Road are five feet high,” Olson said.

Latest ice-out he recalled for Clearwater Lake was May 24. He wasn’t sure of the year, but it may have been 1996. The earliest ice-out was in 2012, when it occurred March 31. The average ice-out is May 4. Deep, narrow and shrouded with rocky palisades, Clearwater is usually one of the last lakes in the state to lose its ice. Olson said nearby lakes such as Bearskin and Poplar are usually ice-free a week ahead of Clearwater. This year, the weight of all the snow on the ice is forcing water through holes left by ice anglers in late March. Even so, Olson doesn’t anticipate ice going out by the fishing opener.

Olson did pass along an observation he made last year, following a very early ice-out. In normal springs, common loons arrive at Clearwater just as the ice is going out. He always assumed the loons waited on open water, perhaps on Lake Superior, for the ice to leave the inland lakes where they nest. Since the ice was out early, he figured the loons would arrive early as well. Instead, they surprised him by showing up on schedule during the first week of May. As for what the loons will do this year, Olson will have to wait…and wait…and see.

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