BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Compared to the hundreds of anglers who normally flock to the ice, Lake Bemidji has been somewhat of a ghost town this winter.
It’s not for a lack of interest, though. This season’s winter weather has produced some of the worst ice conditions on the northern lakes in years. Because of that, anglers have had to take their augers and ice houses elsewhere.
“I can’t remember a year like this in a long, long time,” said Dick Beardsley of Dick Beardsley Fishing Guide Service.
In a normal year, ice houses would be scattered across the lake. Students at BSU often would use the shoreline behind campus as makeshift parking space to cut down on their walking time. This year, the ice traffic is a lot lighter.
Some of the blame goes to the snowfall that hit the area earlier in the season after the ice began developing. That blanket of snow provides a layer of insulation, which prevents the ice from getting thicker.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends at least 4 inches of clear ice to walk on, 5-7 inches for a snowmobile, and 12-15 inches for a medium-sized truck. As of Friday, there was at least one report of ice as thick as 12 inches off of Diamond Point Park.
Even if the ice is thick enough to venture onto in some spots of the lake, the conditions still aren't optimal. In addition to the snow acting as insulation, it also has been heavy enough that it pushes the ice down and causes flooding on the surface.
Matt Breuer of Northcountry Guide Service said even though there's a couple reports of thicker ice near Diamond Point, there's also spots around the same area that only have around 6 inches of "actual ice."
"You have water or slush on top of the ice, and then another layer of ice on top of that. And, you can only count on that actual base layer of ice," Breuer said.
Local Bemidji anglers aren’t the only ones adjusting to life without adequate ice. Lakes around the region have seen a similar trend this season. Chad Benson with the business Mort’s on Upper Red said it’s been difficult since they received a heavy, wet snowfall shortly after Christmas.
Benson said there's anywhere from 12 inches to 20 inches of ice on Upper Red Lake. However, the snow cover is still heavy enough that it has caused issues for anglers.
"Trying to keep a navigable road is very hard because it ends up sinking," Benson said. "It gets really hard to plow, because if you fall through a slush pocket, you're stuck right there. It locks you in because you go through 3, 4 inches of ice and you drop into a foot of water underneath...it about scares the you-know-what out of you."
Anglers initially had some luck this winter, but that didn't last. Breuer said he had to take three of his ice house rentals off the lake when one of the snowfalls hit. Breuer said they had been on the ice for approximately a couple weeks when he had to take them off.
Even though January is normally prime ice fishing season, there’s doubt about whether the conditions will improve before it’s too late for the year. Breuer said there are, theoretically, a couple ways the ice could improve. One is that it could get really cold and stay really cold for an extended period of time. Another is that it could get warmer, melt some of the cover on the lakes and then refreeze.
However, he’s not optimistic about the prospects.
"Right now is the second worst I've ever seen," Breuer said. “The rest of the season is going to be ugly; no matter what happens from here on out, we started behind the eight ball and we’re going to stay there.”
Looking at the upside, Beardsley said the fact that fewer fish are being caught this winter could bode well for the open water season.
Lake of the Woods has largely been the benefactor of such poor ice since it’s one of the few places that has maintained solid fishing conditions, according to multiple sources. Bryan “Beef” Sathre of Fathead Guide Service said it’s not hard to find ice on Lake of the Woods that’s between 21 and 24 inches thick. He said he would not be surprised if it’s the best ice in the state.
Anglers from across the region apparently have heard the same thing.
“I’ve never seen so many fishermen, wheelhouses, portables, trucks -- whatever you want to call it -- on the lake. In the evenings on Friday and Saturday, it looked like downtown Minneapolis-St. Paul out there,” Sathre said.