Over the last several years, the popularity of ice fishing has steadily risen as Minnesotans look to get back to nature. Now that COVID-19 has put a damper on so many recreational opportunities, southern Minnesota lakes are likely to be even busier this year.
Craig Finnesgard, the owner of Lake Country Convenience and Bait in rural Morristown, said that ice fishing makes a lot of sense as a COVID pastime. While some fishermen sink tens of thousands into ice castles, he said all that’s really needed is a pole, drill and some bait.
“A lot more people are fishing because they’re tired of sitting in the house, not being able to go to a restaurant or even to somebody’s house for Christmas,” he said. “With one person on either side of the lake, you can easily stay 6 feet away from each other.”
Thus it’s not much of a surprise that Finnesgard and John Kubinski, who owns John’s Bait and Tackle west of Faribault, say they’ve seen more people than ever coming into their bait shops. Many of the new fishers are newcomers with extra time on their hands, while others left the sport a long time ago and are now returning.
Even though COVID safety may be grabbing the headlines, one thing new fishers will also want to be especially careful about is ice safety. While fishers have been walking on most area lakes since Christmas, the ice isn’t as thick as some clearly think it is.
Just last week, a van plunged through the ice at Cedar Lake and went to the bottom. Kubinski said that with the milder weather, the ice at many lakes is inconsistent, ranging from a foot in the thickest parts to roughly half that in thinner areas.
“No lake is ever really 100% safe,” said Finnesgard. “If you’re driving on the lake they’ve got to be really careful, especially with the milder temperatures.”
Fishing in the open air is certainly the cheapest option, and it gives anglers additional flexibility as they’re able to move around to find where the fish are biting. However, it can also be extremely cold on the lake, especially if the wind is blowing.
“Even if it’s a calm day, it can be a little brutal out there,” said Finnesgard.
Lisa Dugan, Recreation Safety Outreach Coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, noted that anglers should beware before they make too many assumptions about how a day out on the lake will go.
“New anglers should plan for the unexpected,” she said.
According to the DNR, anglers should be sure to check ice thickness every 150 feet for safety, using an ice chisel, auger or cordless drill. Even if an area seems to have thick enough ice, that’s no guarantee of safety.
In general, 4 inches of ice can accommodate foot traffic, 5-7 inches can handle a snowmobile, 8-12 a car or small pickup and a foot to 15 inches a medium truck. Those numbers increase if some of that ice is “white ice” or snow ice, it’s only roughly half as strong.
Finnesgard said that fishing in the open air is a good way to get started, and it’s particularly popular when the weather isn’t too frigid. Those who are interested in investing in a fish house will find a wide variety of options that offer different amenities and prices.
For beginners who don’t have their favorite fishing spot picked out yet, bait shop owners are happy to assist their customers. Finnesgard said that Kelly and Dudley lakes near Faribault are a good beginner’s lakes for those intending to catch and release, offering abundant sunfish and poppies.