This past winter, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred many Minnesotans to head out on frozen lakes in pursuit of socially distanced recreation — and a few fish, if they were lucky.
On some lakes, the uptick in ice fishing meant the perennial problem of anglers leaving behind litter and debris also got worse.
“In some places, it was a little more than usual,” said Joe Albert, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “And that’s likely kind of reflective of the fact that there [were] more people out this year ice fishing.”
Items left behind by anglers run the gamut from cigarette butts to bait to plastic bottles to slabs of wood used to prop up fish houses.
On a visit to Medicine Lake in early March, conservation officer Brent Grewe filled the back end of an all-terrain vehicle with trash he collected, including beer cans, pieces of Styrofoam, plastic bags and even a tip-up flag that alerts anglers when they’ve caught a fish.
“It’s just kind of disgusting,” said Grewe, who’s based in Minnetonka. “I saw a lot more remnants from bonfires this year. Also, I noticed a lot more dog feces than normal. I don’t know if that’s because there [were] more people out staying out in their fish houses overnight.”
Grewe also noticed a more positive trend: People cleaning up other people’s messes.
“That was really a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Albert said he’s heard from other conservation officers who’ve witnessed the same phenomenon.
“It’s unfortunate we’re at this spot, but you get a lot of people that will go out and clean up trash that isn’t theirs,” he said. “They’ll go out on the lakes to pick it up before the ice goes away and it falls into the lake.”
Fred Berg frequently picks up trash along the shore of a small lake near his home in Virginia, Minn. Most of it washes up after the lake ice melts, he said.
“It’s quite a few bags every year,” Berg said. “Mostly beverage cans and chewing tobacco containers … A lot of times they’ll just chuck their beer cans out on the ice and figure they’ll just sink. But aluminum cans don’t sink. They float right up to the shore.”
Berg said he worries about the impact of all the trash on wildlife, such as young turtles getting caught in discarded plastic bags.
Jakob Gant of Edina frequently fishes on the Mississippi River and lakes in Minneapolis. He often carries a bag with him to collect garbage other anglers leave behind.
“Over time, all that stuff just collects at the bottom of the lake and sits there,” he said. “Most of it’s not biodegradable, so it’s just gonna float around, and it just makes everything look ugly.”
Most items discarded on the ice probably don’t pose a toxic threat. But Albert said he thinks of anything that goes into the lake as a problem.
“Some of it may not be the environmental catastrophe right away, but everything adds up,” he said.
Leaving trash on the ice is against the law, and could earn you a citation and a $100 fine, plus court fees.
Conservation officers do hand out tickets for littering. The DNR reports 27 citations and 42 warnings have been issued statewide so far this season, slightly fewer than last year. But it can be difficult to track down who’s responsible.
Albert said it would be better if anglers would follow a simple rule: Whatever you bring out on the ice, bring it off the ice.
“It’s a simple concept,” he said. “I think we’ve all kind of learned since we were children to clean up after ourselves.”