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Mild December creating headaches for ice fishermen

Photo provided. An angling house fell through thin ice on Barrett Lake in Grant County Tuesday. Unseasonably mild temperatures combined with wind and a lack of snow have created problems for some Minnesota ice fishermen this winter.1 / 3
Photo by Brian Hansel. Paul Olinger of rural Clitherall fishes through the ice on West Battle Lake Tuesday evening. Olinger was using sucker minnows as he fished in 16 feet of water for walleyes and northern pike.2 / 3
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Ice fishing has been a difficult sport for some this winter as unusually mild temperatures prevail in west central Minnesota. Houses have already gone down on Otter Tail County lakes like Buchanan and Dead. The Grant County Sheriff's Office reported that five fish houses went down Tuesday - one day after a terrific wind and temperatures near 50 degrees.

There are several ways to turn your fish house into the Titanic during a warm Minnesota winter. One of the best ways is to pretend that no problem exists. As recently as mid-December many of the larger Minnesota lakes had stretches of open water.

It is common practice to "bank" snow around the outside of a fish house to block the flow of wind but when that snow melts the wind has a chance to work on any open water it can find and expand it. Water on top of the ice is also bad because the wind will swirl it about and melt holes in the ice.

It is also common practice to "block up" a fish house by putting wood boards under the runners. This is a good way to ensure that your house does not flood if a heavy snowfall weighs the ice down, causing lake water to spill onto the surface of the ice. All this pre-supposes that it will snow in Minnesota during the winter and the temperatures will be cold enough to keep that snow in place. In a normal Minnesota winter, these are safe bets in the three coldest months of the year: December, January and February.

"We haven't had sub-zero nights that make ice," Fergus Falls Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Manager Arlin Schalekamp said. "We've had temperatures that melt ice."

When a warm wind gets under a house it can expand the spearing hole or the fishing holes to the point where the house does not have enough ice beneath it for support.

You can add to this problem by leaving the heat on inside your fish house. There is nothing wrong with this shortcut when the weather is cold enough. It keeps the holes open so the angler does not have to chip any ice. They can just drop their bait down the hole and fish. But this is not a typical Minnesota winter and some fishermen have not adjusted to it. A warm fish house melts the ice under it and sooner or later the weight of the house is too much for the remaining ice.

The size and weight of fish houses, not to mention the expense, has increased dramatically in recent years. The days when fish houses were only small shanties or plywood-built structures weighing a couple hundred pounds at the most are over. A lot of the physical demands of ice fishing have been eliminated. Instead of taking two or three people to load and unload a house from the back of a pickup or from a trailer, some houses take only one person to place. These houses are towed down the road on their own undercarriage and tires and then placed on the ice wherever the angler wants it. The catch is that these big angling houses are too heavy to be pushed so the ice must be thick enough to support their weight before the house can be placed on a lake. It is not uncommon to find houses on area lakes that weigh 1,500-2,000 pounds. If they are clustered into a good fishing spot the stress on the ice becomes all the greater.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said four inches of ice is safe enough for walking and five inches are enough for a snowmobile or an All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV). Eight to 12 inches are OK for a car or a small truck but 12-15 inches are needed before you can take a medium-sized truck onto the ice.

If a fish house goes through the ice the owner must either remove it himself or hire someone for the job. DNR Conservation Officer Troy Richards of Fergus Falls said that a house that goes through the ice is considered litter and is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $700.

What some people do not take into account is that ice is not of universal thickness. A strong current can lead to weak ice in the same proximity as strong ice. Shallow lakes freeze early but they can also open first. Richards noted that pressure ridges are a danger that some ice anglers have faced on Otter Tail Lake this year. A pressure ridge is formed by the expansion and contraction of ice. The ridge ice is weaker and can be dangerous to cross.

"You have to be more cautious, that's for sure," Schalekamp said.