ON FISH LAKE - It's been one tough winter for folks who like to ice fish on northern MInnesota lakes.
It's not that the fishing hasn't been good at times. It's that, for much of the winter, access to and egress from the lakes has been a nightmare. Slush and snow drifts have been overwhelming.
And now anglers face a Monday deadline to remove so-called permanent fishing shelters on lakes north of U.S. Highway 2 or face steep fines from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
DNR officials called attention to the deadline Wednesday, saying forecast rain and warm temperatures are only going to add to the problem for anyone with shelters still on frozen lakes covered in deep snow and slush.
"We're not granting any extensions. Monday is the deadline," said Kipp Duncan, a DNR conservation officer who patrols the Duluth area.
Anglers who miss the deadline face a $140 fine and additional pentialites covering the state's cost to remove the shelter. So get moving soon.
"The landings are going to be a mess, they're going to deteriorate pretty quickly with the rain," said Tim Wagner, owner of Hi-Banks Resort on Fish Lake near Duluth.
Duncan said most anglers in his patrol area worked over recent weekends to remove shelters, battling deep snow drifts and stubborn slush with four-wheel-drive plow trucks, jacks and elbow grease.
"But there are a few still left out there," Duncan said, including one on Fish Lake drifted-in and a mile from the nearest landing.
"The owner is making an effort. He's trying to find someone who has the equipment to get it out of there. But it's not going to be easy," Duncan said.
In some extreme tough situations - if they can't be reached by truck or are frozen into the lake ice - the best answer may be dismantling shelters piece by piece to get them off the ice, Duncan noted. It is not legal to burn the structure.
Citations also will be issued for any garbage left behind, including blocking material, Duncan said. Conservation officers GPS any late ice houses, record the owners and check back for anything left behind.
Heavy snow on thin ice caused a slush problem early on this winter, as the snow weighed the ice down and forced water up through fissures and holes. That water on top of the ice mixes with snow to create an oatmeal-like quicksand for vehicles.
Conditions improved some during the extreme cold of late January and in February. But record February snows quickly added deep snow drifts to the slush problem, making it hard for even snowmobiles, four-wheel drive trucks and ATVs to get on and off lakes.
The goal is to get shelters off lakes before ice thins and becomes unsafe for travel and the fish houses start falling through.
Ice fishing isn't over, Duncan noted, with panfish and some other species still fair game, and it's still perfectly fine to use temporary or portable ice fishing shelters. But after Monday, shelters can be on the ice between midnight and one hour before sunrise only when occupied. Storing or leaving shelters on a public access also is prohibited.
Minnesota's fish house removal deadline for lakes south of Highway 2 was March 4. Houses are still allowed overnight on Minnesota/Ontario border waters until March 31.
Wisconsin deadline Sunday
Wisconsin's deadline for shelter removal for the northern one-third of the state (north of State Highway 64) is March 17. The state's chief warden, Todd Schaller, said shelter owners experiencing problems can seek local assistance from fishing clubs, vendors and other anglers. If the deadline has been missed, please contact the DNR Violation Hotline at (800) 847-9367 to provide a status report of ongoing attempts to remove, as well as shelter location.
"The information will be passed on to the local conservation warden who will use discretion in the enforcement of the deadline," Schaller said. "The important thing is to continue to work to remove the shelter."