GRAND FORKS — Earlier this week, a Facebook friend posted a photo of the lake he sees outside his home office window, which provides a window not only to the outdoors but to the changing of the seasons. The temperature was 60 degrees, and what little ice remained on the small northern Minnesota lake was disappearing fast.
“I’m declaring ice fishing over,” he wrote.
He’s definitely correct in that assessment.
Like this spring in general, which I believe is the earliest since 2012, the photo reminded me yet again of how drastically conditions can differ on a particular date from one year to the next.
Specifically, the observation that ice fishing was over reminded me of the Minnesota fishing opener in 1996, when four of us spent the day ice fishing on Lake of the Woods.
After one of the toughest winters in recent history, spring was particularly late that year, and much of Lake of the Woods remained frozen well into May.
Resorts or bait shops weren’t promoting the lingering ice, as I recall, but four of us ventured off Graceton Beach near Zippel Bay State Park to try our luck ice fishing, just to say we did it.
From what we’d heard, the last time the big lake had that much ice in early May was back in 1950. (Coincidentally, the latest ice-out ever recorded on Lake of the Woods was May 21, 2014, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.)
The lake might have been covered with ice, but the weather on opening day 1996 was beautiful. I don’t remember the temperature, but it was warm enough to fish in shirtsleeves, and it was sunny with very little wind.
Weather like that in and of itself would have made the opener a day to remember.
This was before the days of social media or we likely would have had lots of company, but we seemingly had the lake to ourselves. There wasn’t a boat to be seen other than the Grumman Sport Boat we pulled as a makeshift sled to carry gear and double as a rescue craft in case we got ourselves into trouble.
We didn’t get into trouble, and the day went off without a hitch. I wrote about the adventure in the Thursday, May 16, 1996, edition of the Grand Forks Herald:
There we were, four of us, standing on the shore of one of North America’s premier walleye factories. And we had it all to ourselves. No opening-day crowds. No outboard motors. Just morning silence, broken by the distinct drum of a male ruffed grouse looking for a mate.
And miles and miles … of ice.
The original plan that day was to spend no more than a couple of hours on the ice just to say we did it and then head a few miles east to the Rainy River, where the water was open. We even had boats hooked up behind the vehicles we parked back on shore.
The ice was dicey near shore, but it improved within about 50 yards, ranging from 18 inches to 24 inches thick. Think giant snow cone, and you’ll get an idea of what the ice was like.
The first couple of spots we tried that morning were unproductive, but our luck changed when we ventured out to 30 feet of water about a mile and a half from shore:
We found the fish in deep water. Apparently, someone forgot to tell them about the sheet of ice that covered the lake or they just didn’t care. Whatever the reason, they were aggressive. Saugers, walleyes, tullibees, perch. Most of the fish were too small to keep, but the action was fast. While our open-water counterparts scratched for one or two fish, we had a difficult time keeping two lines in the water.
We never did make it to the Rainy River that day. By day’s end, we’d caught over 100 fish, keeping 25 — keep in mind, limits were higher back then — that were big enough for the frying pan.
And fry they did that night, back at the friend’s house near Pitt, Minn., that served as our base camp.
I’ve had several great fishing openers in the ensuing years on Lake of the Woods, but none, perhaps, were as memorable as opening day 1996. Unfortunately, all of the photos I took that memorable day were destroyed when the Herald building burned in the Flood of 1997. But as the ringleader of our ice fishing adventure said in my story:
“The whole point was just to do it. We caught over 100 fish and kept 25 to eat, so that’s a good day no matter what time you’re out there.
“It was the fact that you were fishing through the ice on opening weekend that made it special. And I hope I never have the opportunity to do it again.”
One thing’s for sure: We won’t be ice fishing on the Minnesota fishing opener this year.