On scale not seen since 1950, Minnesota fishing opener on ice

GRAND RAPIDS -- On Thursday morning, just two days before Minnesota's fishing opener, Mark Lease of Grand Rapids had a problem. It was the same problem thousands of other anglers were facing: Most northern Minnesota lakes were still sealed under ...

Lake Winnibigoshish iced in
Bill Heig, co-owner of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish, northwest of Deer River, gestures over the still-frozen lake on Thursday afternoon. Bill and Gail Heig told their opening-weekend guests not to make the trip because of the ice. (Steve Kuchera /

GRAND RAPIDS -- On Thursday morning, just two days before Minnesota's fishing opener, Mark Lease of Grand Rapids had a problem. It was the same problem thousands of other anglers were facing: Most northern Minnesota lakes were still sealed under a few feet of ice.

"My grandson says, 'Bumpa, are we going to go fishing?'" Lease was telling Ben Kellin of Ben's Bait in Grand Rapids. "And I think, 'Where am I going to take that little guy?' "

On a scale not seen since 1950 across much of Northeastern Minnesota, a bully of a winter is changing the face of one of Minnesota's most hallowed traditions. While a few smaller lakes and areas of current have opened up, most lakes remained icebound on Thursday with little prospect of opening by Saturday. The ripple effects are spreading through Grand Rapids and Deer River, where the tourism economies are powered by fishing.

"I've been guiding 34 years, and I've never seen anything like it," said Grand Rapids fishing guide Tom Neustrom. "It's a disappointment. It's the biggest weekend of the year. It's a tremendous revenue loss. Are they going to make it up? No."

Bait shops, already scraping for bait in this overdue spring, will be among those hardest hit by a slow opener.


"I'm sure the second weekend will be good, and the third weekend will be good," Kellin said. "But you can't make it up."

At his shop Thursday morning, the occasional angler trickled through, looking more for conversation than for minnows.

"Look at this place," Kellin said. "It should be packed."

Traffic was much the same at Fred's Bait in Deer River.

"It's really off. I think it's going to be really slow," said Bill Powell, owner of the shop. "A lot of resorts had to cancel their customers."

On popular Lake Winnibigoshish northwest of Deer River, ice still covered all but a bit of the western side of the lake. Bill Heig, owner of Bowen Lodge on the east side for 30 years, looked out over the blackened ice of Big Winnie. He had called all of his opening-weekend guests and recommended they cancel their plans because of the ice.

He can't remember another opener like this.

"We had a couple that were close," Heig said. "We put the dock in on Friday afternoon one year."


At the Cut Foot Sioux Inn on Highway 46 north of Deer River, owner Bob Mohrman still had several of his docks to put in and one water heater to replace. The ice on the Cut Foot Sioux River in front of his resort had just gone out, he said. The banks of the river there usually are lined with anglers on opening weekend. This year, to protect spawning walleyes, the area is closed to fishing.

"It's going to be terrible," Mohrman said of the opener. "We had 14 cabins (booked) for this weekend. Every one canceled. We're going to lose $10,000. But it's not just us. It's the whole scenario -- Mother's Day, greenhouses, liquor stores."

Some pieces of water in the area are open, including the west side of Big Winnie. A portion of Bowstring, north of Deer River. The Mississippi River where it flows through Grand Rapids.

"There will be a whole lot of people in the river," said Bob Affeldt of Grand Rapids.

Bait shortage

Compounding the ice issue is that bait probably will be in short supply for the weekend. No bait shops can get leeches, because the ponds where they're produced in western Minnesota remained frozen too long. Golden shiners aren't available, dealers say. Fatheads (chubs) will be in ample supply. But spot-tailed shiners, a staple on Big Winnie and other Grand Rapids-area lakes, haven't moved into the shallows yet, so trappers cannot get at them. Spot-tails aren't likely to be available.

Beyond that, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe have placed a ban on spot-tail trapping starting May 22 because of the newfound presence of zebra mussel larvae on Lake Winnibigoshish. The ban is to prevent the spread of the larvae to other waters.

Shiners represent a big part of annual income for bait shops in the Grand Rapids/Deer River area. Sales of shiners make up about one-third of his total sales for the year, said Powell, of Fred's Bait.


Multiple challenges

Heig ticked off a litany of events that have affected the tourism industry in the area since last summer's big windstorm north of Deer River that blew down thousands of trees.

"There was the windstorm, the (discovery of) zebra mussels, this year's ice thing, and the minnow situation," Heig said. "It just keeps coming."

In addition, the forecast for Saturday calls for cold, northwest winds gusting to 35 mph.

"Saturday's going to be pretty nasty," said Powell, of Fred's Bait. "By Sunday afternoon, I think there will be places to fish."

Most people think lakes will be ice-free by the second weekend of the season.

DNR fisheries crews at Grand Rapids hope to place nets in the Cut Foot Sioux River on Saturday, the latest they've ever done so. The DNR traps walleyes there and takes eggs from them for future stocking. The previous late date for placing the nets was May 7, said Chris Kavanaugh, DNR area fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, bait shops wait for deliveries of whatever bait they can get. Anglers are scheming ways to access the little open water available.

Some anglers plan to avoid the problem altogether.

"I'm going to the camper, going to build a deck and drink some beer," said Grand Rapids fishing guide Roy Girtz.

Around the region

Duluth area

On Thursday, area lakes remained mostly ice-covered, although the ice was dark, according to reports from bait shops.

Fish Lake is partially open near the Lavaque Road bridge, said Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman's Corner. Island Lake is open at the bridge under St. Louis County Highway 4 and where the Cloquet River enters, although getting to the latter area may present problems.

"This is going to be the wildest opener ever," said Sue Chalstrom of Chalstrom's Bait and Tackle. "I keep waiting for that miracle."

Ely area

Many lakes were still ice-covered as of Thursday. Part of Pipestone Bay of Basswood Lake near Pipestone Falls was open. Fall Lake was mostly open, said Ely fishing guide Jim Orcutt. Whiteside Lake is open, he said. Garden Lake is open. But Shagawa Lake, near town, "isn't looking too good," Orcutt said.

Gunflint Trail

"We've got our snowmobiles all ready," said Claudia Blake at Sea Gull Creek Fishing Camp at the end of the Gunflint Trail. She was kidding, mostly, but Saganaga Lake remains ice-covered, said Sea Gull Creek owner Mike Berg.

"Sag is pretty stinking tight," he said. "Sag for the Canadian opener (May 18) will be a big question mark."

Lake Vermilion

Pike Bay is open, and the ice has pulled away from shore about 8 to 10 feet near BayView Lodge on the east end of Lake Vermilion, said Ryan Horan, general manager of the lodge.

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