By Starrla Cray
Ice fishing conditions have been fairly solid so far this winter especially compared to a year ago, when fish houses seemed to be falling through area lakes left and right.
“That was a bizarre winter we had last year,” said Meeker County Chief Deputy Brad Lindgren. “This year, we’re a little bit behind, but it’s been closer to normal.”
Several anglers have already been on the lakes for a while.
“Most of the foot traffic started a week or so before Christmas,” said Joe Stewig of the Minnesota DNR Montrose Area Fisheries Office, adding that some people are now taking vehicles on the lakes, too.
“Four-wheelers and snowmobiles should be fine, but I would caution against full-sized pickups,” he said.
“Vehicles can sink quickly,” Sergeant Brian Johnson of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office added. “We really never recommend for anyone to take vehicles out there.”
Last year, four Minnesotans died after falling through thin ice.
According to the Minnesota DNR, an average of six ice-related fatalities have occurred in the state each winter since 1976.
Fortunately, local agencies haven’t had any reports of people falling through the ice this season although one deer crashed through Winsted Lake the weekend after Thanksgiving.
In that instance, the lake had just frozen over the night before, and was almost one-half inch thick. The deer got about halfway across before it plunged into the icy water and had to be rescued by the Winsted Fire Department.
In Wright County, a few ice fishers were also eager to be the first ones on the ice.
“Very early in December, some people had their fish houses out there, and a couple kind of went through,” Johnson said. “But, we haven’t had any calls for service since we’ve had the really cold weather.”
Most of the reports Stewig has seen show 8 to 11 inches of ice on area lakes.
Johnson has heard reports of 13- to 15-inch ice thickness in some places, but said that doesn’t mean it’s safe everywhere.
“I’ve seen it very thick in one spot, and 20 feet away it’s very thin with open water,” he said. “There are some spring-fed lakes in Wright County, and those are more susceptible to open water.”
“Every lake is different,” Lindgren agreed. “Check with people coming and going from the lake, and ask about the thickness when you buy your bait.”
The DNR recommends at least 4 inches of clear ice for walking, 5 inches for a snowmobile or ATV, and 8 to 12 inches for a car. A medium-sized truck will need 12 to 15 inches of ice to support its weight.
When traveling on white ice, or “snow ice,” the DNR suggests doubling the thickness guidelines, because this kind of ice is only about half as strong as new, clear ice.
In Meeker County, many anglers have been parking their cars and trucks on township roads before walking onto the lake.
Although it is wise to keep vehicles off the ice, Lindgren said people need to park in safe areas.
“When people start parking on both sides of township roads, emergency vehicles can’t get through; it’s purely a public safety issue,” he said, adding that there was some parking congestion near Star Lake recently.
For those who do choose to drive a vehicle on the lake, Johnson advises keeping the windows rolled down, making it easier to escape if the vehicle starts to sink. Vehicles should be at least 50 feet apart, and be moved to a new spot every two hours.
Ice safety can vary greatly depending on the size of the lake, the temperature, sunshine, and snow cover, and conditions are ever changing.
“Just because it’s been cold doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen,” Johnson said. “It just takes one really warm day. Ice is never 100 percent safe.”