The ice is receding as Minnesota's fishing opener approaches, and that has longtime Leech Lake resort owners Steve Jacobson and Roy Huddle breathing a little easier and optimistic for a strong start to the season.
Despite a record cold winter, more of Minnesota's lakes are expected to be ice-free when Minnesota's walleye season opens on Saturday than were clear for last year's opener. Gov. Mark Dayton had to fish on a river last year because the lakes near Park Rapids were still frozen over, but Gull Lake near Nisswa is expected to be wide open for the 2014 Minnesota Governor's Fishing Opener.
The Department of Natural Resources' online ice-out map for the state showed that many lakes across the southern two-thirds of the state were ice-free by Friday. The dividing line closely followed U.S. Highway 2 from Duluth to East Grand Forks. Even north of that line, many smaller lakes should be open and many larger lakes should at least have some open water come next weekend.
Leech Lake in north-central Minnesota is right on that dividing line. It's become a success story in recent years with a resurgent walleye population that has allowed the DNR to relax the lake's size restrictions for the upcoming season. Anglers will be allowed to keep four walleyes up to 20 inches long instead of 18 inches like last season. All walleyes within the 20- to 26-inch "slot" must be released, although one trophy walleye longer than 26 inches may be kept.
That's exciting for Larry Jacobson, owner of Hiawatha Beach Resort on the west end of the lake, who was looking out at a wide open Steamboat Bay on Friday.
"The number of keep-able walleyes in the lake has almost doubled because of the change in the slot," Jacobson said. "So there's kind of a phenomenal potential for fishermen on Leech - absolutely phenomenal."
On the south side of Leech, Roy Huddle at Huddle's Resort said ice that close to his shore on Thursday had drifted out 2 miles by Friday and was breaking up fast. He was confident enough that he spent his Friday putting boats in the water.
The DNR lists Leech Lake's walleye population as "abundant" and says its northern pike and largemouth bass populations are also healthy. Huddle said he gives a lot of credit to the DNR's efforts to control the fish-eating cormorants that nest on the lake and its walleye stocking operations.
"We've had some very good fishing over the last few years," Huddle said.
Optimism also abounds in the Brainerd Lakes area of east-central Minnesota, where Grand View Lodge is hosting the official governor's opener. Marketing director Frank Soukup said only one chunk of ice was still floating around on Friday.
"It's going to be fantastic. All of the guides I've talked to say it's the perfect situation," Soukup said, explaining that water temperatures should be just right. "The old reliable fishing spots will probably be good producers next weekend."
Ray Gildow will be Dayton's guide on Saturday. He said the north end of Gull Lake is usually good on opening weekend, but their choice will depend on whether the governor wants to fish right after midnight or wait until Saturday morning, and whether Dayton, who's recovering from hip surgery, wants a regular boat or opts for the ease of a pontoon.
"If we go opening morning there's going to be a lot of boat traffic on the north end of the lake, so we might have to get creative and find some different spot," Gildow said.
But DNR officials warn that anglers need to be cautious wherever they go. Water temperatures may still be in the 30s and 40s, said Kara Owens, the agency's boat and water safety specialist.
"Falling into that icy water can be deadly," Owens said, noting that cold-water shock can cause cardiac arrest or an involuntary gasp that causes drowning.
And water levels are high because of all the recent rain, she said, so currents and waves could be challenging for even the most experienced boaters.
"That's why it's important to wear a life jacket any time you step on a boat," Owens said.