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Brainerd area lakes should be free of ice by fishing opener

A a big temperature swing the past week has decimated a near-record snowpack and forced ice on area lakes to start receding.

Whipple Lake ice is melting and pulling away from the shore.
The gap between lake ice and sand on Whipple Lake is growing with the warm weather Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Baxter. Recently, someone has built a sand sculpture on the newly exposed beach.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

BRAINERD — Even just a week ago, the idea that ice might not be out on area lakes in time for the Minnesota fishing opener was not that far-fetched.

In fact, last week the entire state of Minnesota was a week to 10 days behind median ice out dates, said Pete Boulay, climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“If you would have told me on April 1 we’d see temperatures in the 70s by the second week of April, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Boulay said.

But it did happen, and in quite a dramatic way.

The average temperature in Brainerd for this time of year is about 50 degrees. On Tuesday, April 4, the high temperature in Brainerd was 33 degrees — the first of three days where the high temperature was in the low 30s — and the area was in the midst of a winter storm bringing freezing rain and snow. By Saturday, the temperature in Brainerd rose into the 50s, by Monday into the 60s and Tuesday through Thursday eclipsed the 70s.

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It was such a big swing from below average to above average temperatures that a near-record amount of snowfall that blanketed the Brainerd lakes area was quickly decimated, leaving only remnants in shaded areas and banks built up by snowplows.

“This is exactly what we needed,” Boulay said.

Last year, ice was off all lakes in Crow Wing County by May 8. The median ice out dates for most county lakes is April 14 to April 26. When the ice will go out this year is hard to predict, Boulay said.

“It all depends on the weather,” he said. “Right now we’re rapidly making up ground. We’re eroding ice very quickly.

“This is a good sign. People were hoping this would happen, that we’d have a streak of above normal temperatures and even record temperatures. We’ve got a good foothold on melting ice.”

All of which led Boulay to not have much concern about ice being out on Brainerd area lakes when the state fishing opener rolls around May 13.

We are set up and equipped to do ice rescues if we have to, but we prefer not to if we don't have to.
Mille Lacs County Sheriff Kyle Burton

Boulay noted the latest ice out date for Gull Lake was May 18 in 1950 and for Pelican and Whitefish lakes it was May 14, 2013. Other last ice-out dates for popular fishing opener lakes include May 13, 2013, for North Long; May 16, 2023, for Mille Lacs; May 23, 1950, for Leech; May 6, 2022, for Round; and May 5, 2022, for Edward.

“Our weather pattern is not even close to that right now,” he said of conditions during late ice out years. “We’re not following any of those really late ice outs right now.”

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Already helping, too, has been the lack of a deep frost this past winter, Boulay said. And the forecast, while pulling back a bit toward more normal high temperatures for this time of year, offers more help in the form of rain, possibly a thunderstorm, this weekend. Temperatures are expected to be in the upper 40s to low 50s Saturday through Monday, then into the upper 50s and 60s Tuesday into Wednesday.

“Any of that kind of thing will help,” with melting ice, Boulay said.

Where the quick melt off of a near-record snowpack hasn’t helped is with flooding. The National Weather Service in Duluth Thursday issued a flood warning until further notice for the Mississippi River at Aitkin. Minor flooding was already occurring in Aitkin, the weather service reported, and moderate flooding was in the forecast.

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A flood warning was also issued Thursday for the Long Prairie River in Todd County. The Mississippi River at Fort Ripley remains in a flood watch until further notice and flood advisories were in effect for all of Aitkin, Cass and Crow Wing counties.

Ice still on lakes is not safe

While area lakes remain frozen over for the time being, area sheriff’s offices are warning people about the dangers of traveling onto the ice this time of year.

“I just wanted to give a reminder that, although the ice still has some substantial thickness, it generally is extremely weak this time of year,” said Capt. Adam Kronstedt with the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office. “Last week, we had probably pretty good ice where people could potentially still drive. But this week, the weather has changed pretty quickly.”

The change in the weather is making ice even more unpredictable, said Mille Lacs County Sheriff Kyle Burton.

“When we're having temperatures like we've had the last few days, it's even riskier to go out there,” said Burton.

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Cass County Sheriff Bryan Welk said ice conditions are also deteriorating rapidly in his county and cautioned anyone from traveling out onto the ice without taking proper precautions.

Though law enforcement officials recommend against it, if people plan to go out onto the ice a few precautions can be taken to mitigate the amount of risk.

If you would have told me on April 1 we’d see temperatures in the 70s by the second week of April, I probably wouldn’t have believed you.
Pete Boulay, climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“A lot of people are still out there fishing and doing things like that, just make sure you're never alone and that you have the right equipment with you, if you're going to do that,” said Morrison County Sheriff Shawn Larsen. “Life jacket, ice picks, a chisel so you can continue to check the ice, making sure it's solid enough. And we always say a whistle, cell phone, ice cleats, a rope and use the buddy system. So you're always with somebody so you can get help if needed.”

They also advised people to let someone know where they are going and when they will be back.

Along with the lakes in the area, rivers also present a danger, Larsen said, as the ice begins breaking and flowing downstream.

“There's obviously a heavy current right now and with the heavy current,” Larsen said. “It takes a lot of the broken up ice with it. So it is dangerous. And I just heard locally on the news, in the St. Cloud area, they also had a kayaker that their kayak overturned. So it's just a good reminder for people just to wait until things are safe before they go out.”

On Saturday, April 8, emergency personnel rescued a kayaker from the Sauk Rapids River near St. Cloud after he capsized and could not locate his son.

The incident reminded Larsen of a similar incident in 2022, where his department rescued a stranded kayaker from the Mississippi River after she became trapped in between sheets of ice.

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“It's melting, It's melting fast,” said Burton. “We are set up and equipped to do ice rescues if we have to, but we prefer not to if we don't have to.”

Cass, Crow Wing, Mille Lacs and Morrison county sheriff’s offices all recommended waiting untill the conditions are safer to enjoy before heading out onto the water.

MATT ERICKSON, Editor, may be reached at matt.erickson@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5857.

Matt Erickson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in 2000 as a reporter, covering crime and courts and the city of Brainerd. In 2012 he was promoted to night editor and in 2014 was promoted to editor of the newspaper.
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