By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT, McLEOD, MEEKER COUNTIES, MN If you’re thinking about heading out for some ice fishing this week, don’t just assume the lake is ready for you.
“Believe me, the last thing we want to do is fish anything out of the lake that isn’t fish,” Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty said.
Meeker County Chief Deputy Brad Lindgren said that ice conditions are very unusual for the beginning of winter, so people should still be using “first ice” precautions.
“Know your lake and know your conditions,” Lindgren said. He advises drilling a hole every 10 feet with an auger to check depths. It’s also good to carry ice picks, for use if one should fall through the lake.
Since Dec. 22, three fish houses were reported to be slowly breaking through the ice and slipping into the water on Meeker County lakes, two on Star Lake near Litchfield and one on Lake Jennie near Dassel.
The evening of Dec. 23, an ATV went through the ice on the northwest side of Lake Washington near Darwin. Fortunately, the water was shallow and no injuries were reported to the Meeker County Sheriff’s Office.
A similar incident occurred earlier that day, when the McLeod County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a four-wheeler and trailer falling into Cedar Lake, northwest of Hutchinson.
A few days later, Dec. 27, a fish house near the dam on Winsted Lake was spotted floating in open water.
“On a warm day, the ice will melt around the fish house,” said Paul Diedrich of the Minnesota DNR Montrose Area Fisheries Office.
A slow start
“We’re definitely off to a slow start this year,” Diedrich said.“By the end of December, beginning of January, there are normally quite a few houses out there. This year, there are hardly any.”
So far, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t had any reports of recent ice incidents, water patrol deputy Joel Mackereth said.
“I think people have been careful, which is probably the reason we haven’t seen many accidents,” Diedrich said.
“Most people in our county are pretty savvy with the ice,” Hagerty added.
However, the county is preparing for emergency situations that may arise.
In June, Wright County acquired an eight-person airboat rescue craft, through a Homeland Security grant.
“Before, we had a hovercraft,” Hagerty said. “We had a lot of maintenance issues with that.”
The 550-horsepower airboat is designed for ice, but can be used year-round.
Melting and sinking
Ice safety can vary greatly by the size of the lake, the temperature, sunshine, and snow cover.
With no snow on the lakes to pack around the fish houses, Lindgren said that air is getting inside, circulating the warm air (particularly when heaters are left on and from the radiant sun) and causing the holes to expand.
“It’s a bit odd,” he said, to see fish houses sinking through the ice at the end of December. “Every lake is different and the conditions are ever-changing. Be extremely cautious . . . use all the same precautions you would use in November.”
Ice is usually weaker in areas where there are currents, inlets, or springs. Older ice that has been partially thawed and refrozen isn’t as strong as fresh, new ice. Marshy, reedy areas also can be treacherous.
Hagerty said that Pelican Lake in northern Wright County is being used heavily for ice fishing this year, and he heard that cars were on Buffalo Lake more than a week ago.
Other areas of the county aren’t quite as solid.
“We’ve heard about some open water on Waverly Lake, but I haven’t been down there to confirm it,” Diedrich said. “Also, on the east side of Howard Lake, there’s a ridge that keeps breaking up. Those are the spots you have to watch for.”
Diedrich said that people often call his office asking if the ice is safe.
“We can’t guarantee that for anybody,” he said. “Exercise judgment and caution.”
Inch by inch
Ice thicknesses measured by the Montrose DNR office averaged about 6-7 inches for area lakes recently, Diedrich said.
According to the Minnesota DNR website’s general guidelines, 8 to 12 inches of ice is needed to support a car or small pickup.
The guideline for ice fishing or other activities on foot is at least 4 inches of new, clear ice.
As for fish house readiness, Diedrich said that depends greatly on the weight of the house.
“Now, more people are using portable houses,” he said, adding that those can weigh less than 50 pounds, while large permanent ones can weigh several hundred pounds.
“I would just caution people to be very careful,” Hagerty said. “The big thing is to let someone know where you’re going, and preferably, have someone with you.”