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Ice-out shaping up to be late: Brutally cold April will impact May fishing opener

The concrete boat ramp dips into a still ice-covered Spirit Lake at the Clyde Avenue boat landing on Sunday morning, April 15. Near record late ice-outs are expected across the Northland. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)1 / 5
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Wind-blown snow whips by a fishing dock at the Clyde Avenue boat landing in Duluth on Sunday, April 15. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)3 / 5
A section of dock sits in the snow at the boat landing on the still-frozen Wild Rice Lake north of Duluth on Sunday, April 15. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)4 / 5
Sunday’s snow obscures the shoreline and a dock near the boat landing on Wild Rice Lake near Duluth. Recent below-average temperatures will delay how soon boaters will be able to take to inland lakes. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)5 / 5

DULUTH — It has been the April of our cold discontent and the impacts of our frigid weather so far are going to last well into May, with near record late ice-outs expected across the Northland.

That means if you have plans to fish open-water lakes in far northern Minnesota on May 12 — that's less than four weeks away now — you may want to remain flexible on where and how you fish. Maybe try a river. Or bring an auger.

At a point of spring when many of Minnesota's 11,842 lakes should be shimmering blue, especially in the southern half of the state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources State Climatology Office reported that, as of Friday, none were ice free. None.

Assistant State Climatologist Pete Boulay said the spring is shaping up similar to 2013 and 2014, some of the latest ice-outs ever across the state. But this year might even be later.

"There were already some lakes that were ice free by this time in the south in 2013 and 2014," he said.

It probably won't be as bad as 1950, the latest ice-out for most lakes with records that go back that far, when virtually all northern lakes (even as far south as Mille Lacs) were still ice covered for the fishing opener.

And it certainly won't be like 1936, the year Gunflint Lake on the Ontario border didn't lose its ice until June 3, the latest of any Minnesota lake on record.

April colder than March

The first 12 days of April were bone-chilling cold, an average of 23.4 degrees in Duluth, a full 12 degrees below normal. Even the first 12 days of March were warmer at an average 25 degrees.

In some areas, ice anglers and others continue to report virtually no ice melt through mid-April. Ice melt on many lakes often starts in March, and once snow melts, speeds up in April as the increasingly intense sunlight bores into the darkening ice. But so far into April, many lakes remain covered in snow that reflects sunshine and protects the ice from rotting.

The short-term forecast looks slightly warmer for the Northland, with highs into the mid-40s by mid-week. But even that is short of the 50-degree highs we should be approaching. And it will take many days of temperatures into the 50s before lake ice melts in earnest.

This of course won't be the first time lake ice has hung on well into May.

The State Climatology Office confirms there was ice on some Minnesota lakes on fishing openers in 1950, 1966, 1979, 1996, 2008, 2013 and 2014. And those earlier dates were often later fishing openers, closer to Memorial Day. (By state law Minnesota fishing openers now must be the Saturday two weeks before Memorial Day weekend.)

At the other extreme, just six years ago, in 2012, ice was off all Minnesota Lakes by early April, after a non-winter and warm spring, the earliest ever. Gunflint Lake that year lost its ice March 23, six weeks head of the long-term average.

Need 27 days of warmth

Tim Armstrong, an Ontario pilot who writes the blog "Lake of the Woods Ice Patrol," said there was some melting in mid-March but that the lake has actually been adding more ice in recent weeks. Lake of the Woods ice remains solid, more than three-feet thick, ice anglers report.

"We had 10 below zero (centigrade) this morning so it's still making (new) ice up here. We're not losing any," Armstrong said. "I'm still seeing pickup trucks driving on the ice."

Based on a formula developed by a local soil scientist, Armstrong says he expects Lake of the Woods to lose its ice 27 days after the average daily temperature rises above freezing (more hours of melting than freezing). That hasn't happened yet but is forecast for midweek.

"If we finally get there then, I'm predicting Lake of the Woods will be 100 percent ice free sometime between May 15 and 18," he said, just in time for the May 18 Ontario fishing opener but after the May 12 Minnesota fishing opener. "But first we have to get above freezing."

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