By Jennifer Kotila
HOWARD LAKE, MN “There’s usually hundreds of fish houses on Howard Lake by now,” said Ken Durdahl, secretary of Howard Lake Sportsmen’s Club. As of Tuesday, there were only two.
Brooks Lake in Cokato had three fish houses, and Collinwood Lake, located between Dassel and Cokato, had several.
“We had early ice this year, and I thought we would be driving on it by mid-December, I was wrong,” said Josh Grangroth of Chartered Ice Fishing, Cokato.
Although there was 7 to 8 inches of ice on Lake Jennie, south of Dassel, by Dec. 3, according to Grangroth, the nearly 4 feet of snow in December weighed down and insulated the ice.
Once the snow fell, there was not an inch of ice made on Lake Jennie for three to four weeks, according to Grangroth.
“The cold weather was not even making ice because there was so much snow that insulated it,” said Joe Drusch, owner of Joe’s Sport Shop and Hardware in Howard Lake.
The insulation and pushing down of the ice caused slush to form between the snow and ice, making travel on the ice nearly impossible.
“Even with four-wheelers, people were breaking through the snow on top of the ice, sinking to the slush, and getting stuck,” Drusch said.
When asked how the weather has affected business, Drusch said, “We should be going gangbusters right now, but it just started to pick up [last] Friday. We’re about a month behind.”
Grangroth has also had some setbacks for business due to the weather, having to refund a few chartered ice fishing customers.
The rain over New Year’s weekend helped with the formation of ice on the lakes, according to Drusch, as it helped to harden the snow.
The cold weather in the last week also helped. Zero degree weather should make an inch of ice a night, Drusch said.
“For those who actually get out ice fishing, this could end up being a really good year for them, with less activity and competition,” said Chris Schultz, owner and outdoor columnist for Herald Journal Publishing.
Schultz did note that with the snow cover, there will be less oxygen in the lakes due to less sunlight being able to reach the plants.
Without sunlight, the photosynthesis process cannot take place, causing plants to die and begin to decay.
While the photosynthesis process adds oxygen to the water, the decaying process of the plants depletes oxygen in the water and adds more carbon dioxide, which could lead to a fish kill.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) places aeration systems on some lakes to try to alleviate this problem.
With all the early snowfall this year, the DNR started using the aeration systems early.
Aeration systems can cause open water on the lakes, so the DNR stresses that extra caution should be taken on lakes that have aeration systems.
“Open water areas created by aeration systems can shift or change shapes depending on weather conditions,” said Marilyn Danks, DNR aquatic biologist. “Leaks may develop in air lines, creating other areas of weak ice or open water.”
“Everyone must remember ice is never safe. Every outing I book, my customers ask me if the ice is safe. I have to tell them ice is never safe,” Grangroth said.
Ice doesn’t ever form consistently. With the snow this year, ice conditions are very inconsistent, even varying in thickness within a few feet, warned Schultz.
Before the snowfall this year, Howard Lake was two-thirds of the way frozen over, with two open spots in the middle that were easily seen by anglers, Schultz said.
When the snow fell, the open spots were covered by the snow because the water was cold enough to keep it from melting.
Those two spots still may not be completely frozen over, but anglers can no longer see them because of the snow, Schultz said.
The strength of ice cannot be judged just by its appearance, age, thickness, temperature, or whether or not the ice is covered with snow, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Strength is based on all these factors plus the depth of water under the ice, size of the water body, water chemistry and currents, the distribution of the load on the ice, and local climatic conditions.
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, according to the DNR.
Ice formed over flowing water and currents is often dangerous, such as near streams, bridges, and culverts, according to the DNR.
The insulating effect of snow slows down the freezing process, and the extra weight reduces how much weight the ice sheet can support.
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, according to the DNR.
“You have to know what you are doing when going out this year. Because the ice conditions vary, you need to take your time to check it out,” Schultz said.