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Anglers struggle to retrieve frozen ice houses after festival

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A skid-steer rescues Jack Shriver's stranded ATV.
A skid-steer driven by Jordan Maland rescues Jack Shriver's stranded ATV.
John Enger | MPR News

The surface of Leech Lake looks like a ghost town more than a week after it was buzzing with anglers during the annual Eelpout Festival. Clusters of ice houses sit abandoned in feet of crusty slush and drifting snow. Trucks are buried to their axles and frozen solid.

Monday is the deadline to remove fish houses across the southern two-thirds of Minnesota. Northern Minnesota anglers, including those on Leech Lake, have until March 18 to clear the lakes. But record-deep snow is making the job almost impossible for some.  

"Mother Nature, she's mean," said Mark Kimmerle, who works for Shriver's Bait Co. in Walker, Minn.

The business rented out five ice houses to anglers during the festival. But by the third day, ice roads across the lake were covered in 2 feet of slush. The combination of heavy snow and heavy vehicle traffic cracked the ice sheet. Water oozed out and partially refroze. Everyone should have left right then, said Kimmerle, but it was a party and people were drinking.

"That's what Eelpout Festival is. Just let some steam off in the middle of winter," he said.

Now, roughly 50 ice houses are stranded on the lake. Five belong to Kimmerle's boss, Jack Shriver, who regrets not pulling his houses earlier.

"You don't sleep too good at night, let's put it that way," he said. "We just hope things work out, and we catch a break, and we can get them off without breaking all our equipment."

Jack Shriver has five ice houses, stranded on Leech Lake
Jack Shriver has five ice houses stranded on Leech Lake.
John Enger | MPR News

In the days since the Eelpout Festival, the slush developed a crust that feels solid. But it's only a few inches thick.

Sustained cold weather would help freeze all of the water underneath the crust and allow vehicle traffic to resume on the ice sheet. But with spring fast approaching, Craig Nelson, who owns 13 stranded ice houses on the lake, wonders if that will happen.

"It takes a long time for that water to freeze," he said.

Nelson has a lot to lose if his ice houses can't be recovered, but he knows others who have it worse. Some out-of-town anglers had to rent cars to get home, he said, after their ice houses and trucks were stranded.

Craig Nelson runs 17 ice house rentals
Craig Nelson runs 17 ice house rentals, most of which are still stranded on Leech Lake. He uses a hand-held auger to test the ice thickness. Right now there are 6 inches of water sandwiched between a 2-foot-thick base layer of lake ice, and a thin crust of surface ice. The conditions make it impossible for him to remove his ice houses.
John Enger | MPR News

Leech Lake isn't the only problem spot. Deep snow statewide means anglers in many places are fighting to retrieve their ice houses. People who miss the deadlines face a fine. But it's the prospect of a more expensive recovery effort that worries Shriver.

Pulling an ice house off the bottom of a lake isn't cheap. On a recent morning, he took out his ATV to check on his houses.

He made it about a quarter mile onto the lake before the wheels sank through the crusty top layer of ice and spun up streams of slush.

"I need a shovel," he said, "and a tow rope."

Eventually, he recruited a daring Bobcat driver to pull the ATV to safety.

"I gave him 20 bucks," Shriver said. "It's the only thing I had in my pocket."

This truck is frozen in place on Leech Lake
This truck is axle deep in slush, and frozen in place. In some places on Leech Lake, the ice is covered in several feet of slush and snow, making it impossible to retrieve stranded vehicles and ice houses.
John Enger | MPR News

Shriver's ATV was the only thing coming off the ice that day, and maybe for a while.

The bait shop might have to pay a fine if it misses the state department's removal deadline. Kimmerle says that's fine. He just hopes the ice is still strong enough to support vehicles once the snow melts away.

"If it melts way too fast," he said, "then we're in trouble."