BEMIDJI – The opening day of the walleye and northern pike fishing seasons on Minnesota inland lakes is less than three weeks away. In a normal year, Bemidji area anglers have already tested their boats, motors and trailers on the open water and have made all of the necessary preparations to guarantee a trouble-free day on the water.
But this is not a normal year.
“Usually, by the end of March, you can’t get onto the ice on Lake Bemidji because it is broken from the shoreline and has deteriorated. But last week I saw snowmobilers driving on the lake,” said John Fylpaa, the naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park. Fylpaa also doubles as the official monitor of the lake’s ice-out dates and has held that position since the early 1990s.
In addition to snowmobilers, portable ice fishing shelters can currently be seen on Lake Bemidji as anglers try to find the late-winter haunts of the perch. Those fishermen are reporting the need to use their auger extensions to penetrate the more than 2.5 feet of solid ice and reach the water.
Unless the weather patterns take a dramatic turn, drilling a hole through the Lake Bemidji ice might be the only way to get to the walleyes on opening day this year.
Because of the diligence and observations of L.C. Lundsten, Chuck Holt and Fylpaa, the ice-out dates on Lake Bemidji have been compiled since 1932 and there is data for 74 of those 80 years. During that span the ice-out has occurred 21 times during May. Since 1997, however, the lone May ice-out came in 2008 when Lake Bemidji was declared ice-free on May 12.
The average date is April 26 while the record late date came in 1950 when the ice-out occurred on May 22.
In contrast, the earliest ice-out date came last spring when the ice left Lake Bemidji on April 2.
Fylpaa’s definition of ice-out is when you can navigate to shore from anywhere on the lake.
“I monitor the ice-out by driving around the lake,” Fylpaa said. “The ice usually goes out on the south end of Lake Bemidji first.
“I would be surprised if we top the ice-out of 1950 but this is going to be a year to watch,” Fylpaa continued. “I suppose, if at some time we are going to set a record, it may as well be this year.”
Before the ice can leave, the snow covering the ice must melt. When the snow is gone the sun’s powerful rays can attack the ice. When the ice changes color from white to gray it is only a matter of time before the shorelines become clear. Once that happens, the process goes into overdrive.
Warm temperatures, wind and rain can also help spur the melting.
“Sometimes the ice goes out gently but some years it is forceful,” Fylpaa said. “Once the snow is off, the ice can absorb the sunlight and it will quickly darken. The sun’s position in the sky right now is similar to where it is during August so, even though we might not sense it, there is a great deal of heat coming from the sun.”
Only time will tell if the sun’s heat will be sufficient to provide opening-day anglers on Lake Bemidji access to the walleyes on May 11.
“I think it is too early to predict,” Fylpaa said. “One would hope the ice will leave in early May but, based on our current situation, I don’t think that is likely."