The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is not issuing any rules about when ice anglers can put their fish houses on frozen lakes — instead they are allowing anglers to use their own judgment.
In the annual reminder to both fledgling and veteran anglers, the DNR stresses the importance of personal responsibility for their own safety.
Early December can be the best time for winter angling. Upper Red Lake 45 miles north of Bemidji has already seen high numbers of anglers. Yet two ATVs and two fish houses went through the ice on Otter Tail Lake last week proving the thickness of the ice is still in doubt.
“We haven’t had much for snow so that’s helping,” DNR conservation officer Troy Richards said. “However, it’s still varying quite a bit from lake to lake or even parts of the lake. They obviously need to check their own ice depth to be on the safe side.”
Many early season anglers fish on the ice and bring lightweight portables with them for shelter.
“There is some ice there that is 8-10 inches thick I’m guessing but there are still some spots out there that shouldn’t even have an ATV on,” Richards said.
Are most ice anglers cautious about putting out their houses for the first time?
“Usually they are but they are still human but if they want to get out there they try to find ways to get out there,” Richards said. “I have seen it too where if they see some other fish houses in an area they assume it is safe for them without actually checking the ice.”
Richards saw a fair number of winter anglers fishing over the weekend but before big permanent houses go out he recommends having them weighed. He pointed out there can be a big difference between a fish house being wheeled across the ice and one that is sitting flush.
“Once it’s down on the frame the weight distributes out pretty good but getting to and from there is a different story,” Richards said.
For this reason Richards recommends testing the depth of the ice where the house will be resting and checking the ice over the route the fish house owner plans to take.
The recommended minimum thickness for walking on new, clear ice is four inches according to the DNR. An ATV and a snowmobile both need 5-7 inches of ice. Cars should not venture onto lake ice until it is 8-12 inches thick. Trucks should stay ashore until the thickness of the ice reaches 12-15 inches. White ice and snow-covered ice requires these numbers be doubled.
Fish house owners should always have a weather eye out for winter storms when the ice is still thin. West-central Minnesota is in a snow watch Wednesday. Some Otter Tail County anglers may remember what happened to area lakes last winter when a foot of heavy, wet snow fell at the end of December.
“Even on 8 inches of good, solid ice if we get a fair amount of snow that puts a significant chance of it flooding around your house,” Richards said. “It can create quite a mess.”
Early in the season it is good sense to wear a life jacket or float coat on the ice. Some of the emergency gear that is good to have along includes ice picks, ropes, an ice chisel and a tape measure. One smart angler Richards ran into had a long portable drill marked off in inches for testing ice thickness.
Putting a house out alone is not the best idea and having a cellphone handy can also be a smart move.