After a mild winter and an interesting ice fishing season, the big lake looks like it’s getting ready to shed its skin. On average, ice out is around the third week of April, but I have a feeling this year is going to be a bit earlier. Other than the two weeks of cold weather in February – the coldest February in 30 years – no one can really complain about the weather this past winter. Despite that cold snap, the ice on the big pond never did get as thick as usual.
Generally speaking, the goal is to be driving on the lake by Christmas, as that is a very busy holiday for ice fishing – not this year. I can remember ice fishing in Wigwam Bay in early December on 6 inches of ice and still hearing the waves crashing on the edge of the sheet at the mouth of the bay – that was an eerie sound. The main lake just refused to freeze shut. There were a couple mornings in early December that it looked like it was frozen all the way across. But the afternoon wind would pick up and blow it open again. When it finally did freeze all the way, it was very rough ice. There were actually sheets that got blown under other sheets, so when you drilled a hole to fish, you had to drill through multiple layers. According to my calendar, I did not drive my fishhouse out this year until January 6, a couple weeks later then usual.
The west side and the north side had it the worst this year with regards to ice formation. Some resorts had to resign to having their rental fish houses on the shoreline break for the first month of the season and did not have them out to the mud flats until early February. That is over a month later than average to access the middle of the lake. With the mild January, the ice just didn’t form at the usual pace on the areas that were last to freeze. It also snowed shortly after the lake froze, and that is generally not a good thing on new ice as it acts as insulation from the cold. Therefore, the ice under the snow does not form as quickly as it would have if it was snow free. It was also very windy and that created random drifts. That caused the ice thickness to be very inconsistent. One spot would be 9-10 inches thick, and a couple yards away would be 3-5 inches – scary stuff.
The north end also had a number of cracks that caused problems for ice travelers. There was a strong north wind the weekend of January 16 that opened the cracks. They got wide enough to strand fishermen on the other side until rescue parties were formed by resorters and neighboring lakeshore owners that had boats nearby. Usually under those circumstances, only the people are brought across the open water crack. And all their equipment stays on the ice floe to be gathered another day – if possible.
The sure signs of ice out usually start around the incoming streams and rivers. This water is warmer and it melts the ice more and more as it enters the lake. As the snow in the area melts, that will feed these streams. So the water flow in the spring is usually more than any other time of year. Also the shallow back bays will begin to thaw, especially on the north side of the lakes. The sun is getting more and more powerful as the season changes, and those with southern exposure will thaw first. Areas around bulrushes and pencil reeds will thaw first too, as they will attract the warmth of the sun as well.
Mille Lacs can be deceiving. The bays will go ice free before the main lake. Just the reverse of when it freezes. So looking out at the many bays when they finally open can lead people to believe the whole lake is open. But that’s usually not the case. The standard rule for declaring ice out has been the ability to navigate a boat between Isle and Garrison Bays without encountering any major ice floes. I’m not sure who declared this rule, but it makes sense. Since it’s such a big lake, there may still be some small ice floes and some shore ice here and there, but as long as the middle is wide open from Garrison to Isle, that is good enough to call it.
Wind, rain and temperatures are the biggest factor as to when the ice will clear. Once all the snow has melted off the ice, a nice steady rain will help to soften it up, along with some sunny days to let the building power of the sun melt the thickness of the ice. This is when it will take on the dark cloudy color as the lake water begins to saturate and honeycomb it and, in the end, finally reclaim it. Wind is the final component. When the ice is already loosened up from the shore, the entire sheet will begin shifting with the wind and pushing up onto the windward shore. As the wind direction changes, the sheet will change direction as well and push up on another shoreline. The velocity of the wind will ultimately determine when the lake will clear completely.
The combination of the waves breaking up and eroding the back edge of the sheet and the lead edge pushing and crushing on itself as it reaches shore will result in the lake clearing itself. Last year, the east side and Big Point in particular took the brunt of the ice as a strong northwest wind blew overnight on April 26 and cleared the lake. It pushed the honeycombed ice well on-to the shorelines and into houses and outbuildings as well.
Hopefully this year the ice will go out with a little less fanfare, but that is usually not the case historically on Mille Lacs. As I write this, the wind has been howling for days now, and the water along the shoreline is getting wider and wider. It’s nice to see the blue water and white cap waves after a long absence. But if this keeps up, the ice will definitely be pushing up on the shorelines and causing possible damage. I’m not sure if the ice will be out by the time you read this article, but I’m thinking it will be close. That would be around two weeks earlier than average, which would be about right after the mild winter we had.