Icy lakes put chill on business for walleye opener

Linda Eno in Lake Mills Lacs
Linda Eno owns Twin Pines on Lake Mille Lacs near Garrison. She says business is down this year because of the weather. "After living on this lake for any extended amount of time, people know, you can't mess with Mother Nature and there's no sense getting upset because there's not much you can do. She waded in the lake near Garrison, Minn., on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

On the shores of Lake Mille Lacs, just south of Garrison, it finally feels like spring. But the lake looks more like winter.

There is so much ice, that Rick Bruesewitz, a fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources, said it would be difficult to get a boat in the water in most places around the lake.

"We've got maybe ...150 yards of open water," Bruesewitz said. "And that's just in front of a creek. When you go away from the creeks in a lot of areas it's still tight to shore even or has 10 yards or 10 feet of open water."

This year, many of the lakes in northern Minnesota still have ice on them. Given such conditions, it is expected to hinder fishing this weekend during the state's walleye opener -- normally one of the busiest weekends for resort communities.

As a result, the walleye season could get off to a slower start than usual. That could hurt communities around Lake Mille Lacs, which is important to the economy in east-central Minnesota.

"After living on this lake for any extended amount of time, people know, you can't mess with Mother Nature."

On a typical year, thousands of anglers launch boats into the lake for the opener, many with the hopes of emerging with a walleye for a shoreline lunch.

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According to the Minnesota State Climatology Office, lakes north of the Twin Cities are approaching record late ice out dates set in 1950. Just last year, many of the same lakes set records for the earliest ice out dates.

Further up the Mille Lacs shoreline, at Twin Pines Resort, the ice comes even closer to shore. The docks are still sitting in the yard. So are the boats.

The temperature bounces from icy cold to summer breeze almost instantaneously, depending on whether wind is blowing off the frozen lake. On a typical walleye opener, the resort is booked solid for the weekend, owner Linda Eno said.

"Packed! All my overnight accommodations, packed! People staying in fish houses, packed! Lines at the landing," Eno said. "People pulling up to my dock for breakfast, lunch and dinner ... A lot of craziness. A lot of frenzy."

But this is not a typical year. About 8 of Eno's 13 rooms are booked. She hopes no one cancels and that a few more might decide to make a last minute trip. But with slim chances for the type of fishing many are accustomed to, she knows that might not happen.

"After living on this lake for any extended amount of time, people know, you can't mess with Mother Nature," Eno said. "And there's no sense getting upset because there's not much you can do."

Metal docks stand ready to be put in
Ice still covers much of Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota. Resorts say business is down, but people are still coming to fish where they can. Metal docks stand ready to be put in the water near Garrison, Minn., on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

To the north, the odds of casting a line into open water decrease even more.

If anglers don't come, it could be a lost weekend for the region's economy, said Paul Nelson, a fishing guide in Bemidji.

"I don't know how many people are going to show up," Nelson said. "But if there's nowhere for them to come in the boats, I mean, are people still going to come? ...Anywhere you can get a boat in is going to be crowded."

At Mille Lacs, ice may not be the biggest challenge facing the lake. Test results last fall showed the lake had one of the lowest walleye populations in decades.

That prompted the state and Indian bands that also fish the lake to cut in half the amount of walleye that can be caught this year to 250,000 pounds. About 70 percent will go to sport anglers. The rest goes to the Indian bands.

To keep sport anglers within their harvest limit, the state Department of Natural Resources implemented stringent fishing regulations. This year, the DNR will let anglers keep up to two walleye that are between 18 inches and 20 inches long, or one in that range and one trophy walleye over 28 inches.

Terry MvcQuoid at work on his dock
Terry McQuoid owns McQuoid's Inn in Isle, on Lake Mille Lacs. McQuoid spent Wednesday, May 8, 2013, finishing up new dock construction at his resort. He says he's looking forward to this year's walleye opener, despite the fact ice is still covering most of the lake. "Actually it's kind of neat," he said. "It'll be something special. You can tell your grandkids about it later on."
MPR Photo/Conrad Wilson

The agency is trying to help the declining walleye population recover. At the same time the DNR wants anglers to be able to fish, without implementing catch and release mid-way through the season. Some resort owners say that would be devastating for business. But it could happen if the state reaches its walleye limit.

A late start could help sustain the fish population and extend the season on Mille Lacs, said Terry McQuoid, who owns McQuoid's Inn near Isle.

"Actually with this late ice out it's probably going to be the best thing that we can have," said McQuoid, who earlier this week finished construction on several new docks.

McQuoid said bookings are a little down for this weekend, but the rest of the season is shaping up to be a good one. The fact there's still ice on the lake, he said, is history in the making.

"It'll be something special," McQuoid said. "You can tell your grandkids about it later on."

The 2013 walleye season starts just after midnight.