Warm weather scotching ice fishing tournaments

Business down 50 percent
Hooked on Fishing owner Mike Smith says his business is down by fifty percent. He blames it on the weather and what he calls "media hype."
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

2007 would have been the 24th year for the Golden Rainbow ice fishing tournament at Forest Lake. Instead this will be the fourth year in a row the tournament has been cancelled due to thin ice.

The Hopkins Area Jaycees runs the tournament. Jaycees President Brenda Sadowski says at its peak the competition drew 9,000 participants. All those people were great for area businesses.

"Forest Lake the community and that city have been a great partner ands it's a great opportunity for them as a city and us as a chapter with them," Sadowski says. "But unfortunately Mother Nature hasn't cooperated and it's a financial risk to hold the contest."

Some ice is safe
Hooked on Fishing owner Mike Smith says there is safe ice in the Rochester area, but the air isn't cold enough to convince anyone.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Pokegama Lake in Grand Rapids will be the tournament's new home starting in 2008.

It's not clear how many ice fishing tournaments have moved farther north, but there are dozens of tournaments in Minnesota.

Last season, the state had 86 scheduled competitions of 150 anglers or more according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza on Gull Lake is one of the largest. Last year the event drew 11,000 entrants.

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DNR fisheries chief Ron Payer says of the 86 events, more than one fifth were cancelled, mostly in southern and central Minnesota. He says the DNR didn't track how many of those were due to weak ice, but he says Minnesota has had unseasonably warm winters. He expects at least that many cancellations this year, with lack of ice being a major factor.

"If we got a two-week cold stint it could certainly build enough (ice) for a small tournament," Payer says. "If you're looking at something like the Forest Lake or Gull Lake tournament where you have literally thousands of anglers, then (we're) looking for some thicker ice under those circumstances. But looking at the forecast over the next couple weeks, I haven't seen where we're looking at that big cold snap."

If that trend continues, and there are a lot of indications that it will, it certainly will shrink up the amount of time of good ice (for ice fishing tournaments), particularly in the southern half of the state.

Payer says southern Minnesota may become too warm to sustain any tournaments at all. He points to a University of Wisconsin study that shows a steady warming trend in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He says the number of days ice is safe for recreational use has shrunk by 30 to 60 days in some parts of the states.

"If that trend continues, and there are a lot of indications that it will, it certainly will shrink up the amount of time of good ice, particularly in the southern half of the state."

Payer says that affects the economy. In Minnesota he says the sport fishing industry draws in $1.5 billion to $3 billion each year.

Off Highway 63 in Rochester, Hooked on Fishing is completely deserted. And its muddy driveway is a testament to the unseasonable warmth. Owner Mike Smith says his business is down by 50 percent. He blames it on the weather and what he calls "media hype." Smith says there is safe ice in the area. But he says the air temperature isn't cold enough to convince anyone.

"Almost all the little lakes around Rochester have walk-able ice. The only one that doesn't is Lake Zumbro," Smith says. "I've been ice fishing quite a bit down by Wabasha and the Kellogg area in the Mississippi River backwater. The ice back there is almost thick enough to drive a four-wheeler on already."

That's about eight inches thick. Smith says the warm weather has prompted people and tournament organizations to be more cautious.

Last year even the Walker Eelpout Festival in northern Minnesota kept cars off the ice.

But whether it's warranted or not, Smith says the growing caution is putting a serious chill on his business.