By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
Winter is probably not the best time of year to take a swim, unless it’s in a heated pool. So for anglers who venture out onto the ice to drill a few holes, a healthy dose of respect is in order.
As a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer, Tyler Ramaker patrols the Mississippi River from Interstate 90 south to the Iowa border, and also keeps an eye on some of the lands to the West of the “big muddy.” The river watch includes part of pool seven, pool eight, and the Minnesota portion of pool nine. It’s a huge playground for outdoor enthusiasts. He spoke with the Argus last week.
How have ice conditions been on the river this winter?
“It’s different than last year in that we just haven’t had the cold weather to make ice in places that we had last year, but all the backwaters are frozen in places that we’ve seen in the past,” Tyler said.
“I think the big story this year is the fluctuating water levels. We had high winter water levels, and then the Army Corps (of Engineers) has been manipulating those levels... It was very apparent down in pool nine down in the Reno bottoms. Millstone Landing. Some of those ice levels changed by two feet or more. You could see ice hanging on trees when that water level came down, and then it came back up.
“So one of the ice conditions that we have to be aware of on the river that lake anglers don’t (have) is that there are these different layers of ice. Sometimes there are layers with no water underneath it for a foot, and then there’s a new layer below. It can be a little bit of a more complex condition to understand.
“When they raised the water level up again, it raised the whole sheet of ice,” he explained. “That created a separation between the bank and that ice sheet... So people were having to walk through open water to get from the sheet of ice back to shore.
“One layer of that ice may offer good support, while another may not,” Tyler noted. And although it’s not a drowning situation, breaking through one layer and landing on the one below can certainly cause some painful slips and falls. Plus, when the top layer of ice settled, it often left an angled surface, which is challenging to walk on. Ice cleats on shoes are worth their weight in gold in those situations.
Other valuable pieces of equipment for anglers to bring include a spud bar or ice chisel to check how solid the surface really is. And it’s also good to carry are ice spikes that you can hang around your neck that can be used to pull yourself out of the water if you do go in. Ramaker called those “the most important piece of equipment that any ice fisherman can have with them.” Also, try to avoid going out on the ice alone. If one person goes through the ice, the second can help out.
Another thing to consider on the river is currents. Those can be hazardous “in more ways than one,” Ramaker stated.
River currents often make for uneven freezing, and can even gnaw away at ice. “On Lawrence Lake, for example, when I’m out there and asking anglers how thick the ice is, the answers are usually different in spots not too far away from each other,” he said. “In the center of Lawrence Lake early on, we had about five inches of ice, while down closer to the marina, it was only about three inches.
“So when you’re fishing on the river where you may have current, you can count on ice thicknesses that are always going to be somewhat unpredictable, even on the same local body of water,” the officer concluded.
And, those aforementioned three inches of ice were barely enough to provide a solid walking surface, according to some.
MnDNR experts recommend four inches of clear, new ice for safe walking. A snowmobile requires around five to seven inches, an auto or small truck should have eight to 12, and a midsized pickup 12 to 15 inches, they report.
Are there some late-winter considerations anglers should also think about?
“Nature’s dirty little trick is that the ice is best early in the winter,” Tyler noted. “So in the late-season there’s a temptation to be out on the ice because the fishing is often good... And we also tend to have a healthier dose of caution in the early winter, while late in the season I think we can become complacent. We may take it for granted that the ice is good, when in reality it’s deteriorating under our feet.”
But that’s not necessarily a reason to stay on the shore, Ramaker added. Just be cautious, carefully check ice conditions, take your time, and go with a buddy.
“Just remember the basics of ice safely,” he said. “Check the thickness of the ice with a spud, or drill a few holes to measure the ice as you go (at least every 150 feet)... Don’t be in too much of a hurry and take things for granted.”
So, late-season anglers just need to remember that the “old ice” that’s out there is probably not as strong as clear new ice. “Four inches of ice in December is not the same as four inches in March,” Tyler concluded.