Friday outdoors updates

A few odds and ends on this chilly Friday:

Bring on the cold
The onset of cold weather came none too soon for ice fishing enthusiasts across the region and the resorts and outfitters who depend on those ice fishing enthusiasts for their winter income.

Photos this morning on various social media sites show Lake of the Woods finally is capped over, as is the Rainy River, both of which had extensive areas of open water even yesterday. Creel Bay on Devils Lake finally iced up, as well.

What a difference a day makes. It’s about time.

I’ve seen several reports from resort owners on Lake of the Woods saying they hope to have their rental shacks on the ice sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. Whether that’s overly optimistic remains to be seen. Regardless, this year marks only the third time in about 25 years that resorts up there haven’t been on the ice before Christmas.

The cold snap also should help seal the cracks that formed this week on Upper Red Lake during strong winds. Walleye fishing on the big lake has been good, of late, but that was overshadowed Monday by a crack that opened along the south shore, forcing the rescue of nearly 50 fishermen who were stranded on the wrong side of the crack.

A few more days like this, and it will be back to business as usual. Bring it on.

Manitoba update
I was chatting with a Canadian friend yesterday, a retired game warden who lives near Selkirk, Man., and he was saying ice fishing is in full swing along the Manitoba portion of the Red River from Selkirk north to the mouth at Lake Winnipeg. That surprised me, given the unusually warm temperatures that have dominated winter to this point. There also has been a fair bit of ATV traffic on the river, he said, and after the 7 to 8 inches of snow that fell up there Wednesday, he said he expects there’ll be plenty of snowmobile traffic, as well.

I’m looking to make a trip up there over New Year’s, weather permitting, but even then, I’ll probably just walk out. That portion of the Red offers plenty of productive fishing spots within easy walking distance, so there’s no point in taking any chances. We’ll see what happens.

Go fly a kite
My cover story in the Herald’s Sunday Outdoors section features Jack Kukowski of Badger, Minn., who’s among a small, but loyal segment of outdoors enthusiasts who are into ice kiting and snow kiting.

Jack Kukowski of Badger, Minn., demonstrates ice kiting recently.  (Brad Dokken photo)

Jack Kukowski of Badger, Minn., demonstrates ice kiting recently. (Brad Dokken photo)

I met up with Kukowski a couple of weeks ago on a frozen pool of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area — “the Bog,” as locals call it — and he gave me a demonstration on ice kiting.

With very few exceptions, it seemed like every outdoors excursion I made this fall presented winds that were too strong for my tastes. Just my luck, then, that I’d pick a day when the wind didn’t blow to schedule my kiting story with Kukowski.

Ideally, Kukowski says, he likes winds of 8 to 10 mph — 12 mph is even better — for launching his kites and catching a wind-powered ride. By the time we met up two weeks ago, however, the wind had dropped to about 7 mph.

Go figure.

Still, there was enough wind to at least get a feel for kiting, and why it’s become such a winter passion for Kukowski since he got into the sport in 2007.

You can check out the story on Page E1 of Sunday’s Northland Outdoors section or under the Outdoors link on the Grand Forks Herald website. There’ll also be a short video of the kite in flight on the website.

Pike on ice
While you’re at it, check out the video of the northern pike I released Dec. 13 on Devils Lake while fishing with Grand Forks catfish guide and longtime fishing partner Brad Durick. Ice conditions still were on the shaky side last weekend, but we had about 5 inches of solid ice in the area we fished near shore on Six-Mile Bay. The big lake is loaded with northern pike, and as we found out last weekend, they’re usually willing to bite. As is the case with watching a bobber sink, there’s something about watching a tip-up flag pop that never gets old.

Close encounters of the ice kind

Today’s rescue of nearly 50 people from Upper Red Lake after several sheets of ice broke up along the lake’s eastern shore offers yet another reminder of how dangerous conditions are this winter.

Everyone got off the ice safely, the Beltrami County Emergency Management office reported, but it took the efforts of a number of state and local agencies to make that happen. Ice conditions are extremely unstable across the region, thanks to the unseasonably warm temperatures that have persisted into mid-December, and the reports of good fishing likely have lured some people into making poor choices, as the rescue operation on Upper Red confirms.

You can read a story about the incident here.

High winds and stormy weather in the forecast for the next couple of days will cause conditions to become even more unstable, and authorities in Beltrami County are advising people to stay off the ice until things improve.

It wasn’t Upper Red, but I got a first-hand look at the inconsistent ice conditions this past weekend when I joined catfish guide and longtime fishing buddy Brad Durick for a couple of days on Devils Lake. We played it cautious, opting to set up for pike in shallow water near shore on Six-Mile Bay. Dark spots in the snow that covered the ice after Friday’s snowstorm betrayed the presence of slush or wet spots we generally avoided.

Focused on playing it safe, we carried ice picks and tested the ice every few steps with a spud bar to make sure the area we planned to fish had enough ice for walking. Using that approach, we didn’t have any problems and were able to set our tip-ups atop 5 to 6 inches of hard, black ice.

Saturday afternoon, after landing several pike, we decided to move out to slightly deeper water and try a nearby walleye spot before dark. Again, we used the spud bar to test the ice and ensure it was safe enough for walking.

Several portable shelters also were set up on the ice nearby so we weren’t blazing any trails.

The walleye fishing was forgettable, but there was a defining moment Saturday afternoon when we decided to check a dark patch in the snow that looked like a patch of bare ice from a distance.

It wasn’t.

A dark spot in the snow Saturday on Six-Mile Bay of Devils Lake betrayed a patch of open water about 12 feet wide and perhaps 3 times that long. The ice near the edge of the dark spot was about 5 inches thick. (Brad Dokken photo)

A dark spot in the snow Saturday on Six-Mile Bay of Devils Lake betrayed a patch of open water 6 to 8 feet wide and perhaps 3 times that long. The ice near the edge of the dark spot was about 5 inches thick. (Brad Dokken photo)

Several hard jabs with the spud bar suggested the ice was probably 5 inches thick all the way to the edge of the dark spot. The spot itself, though, was open water, a patch of open water large enough that it likely would have resulted in an icy dip for anyone who wasn’t paying attention.

We stayed clear of the dark spots the rest of the weekend and spent the second day fishing familiar territory close to shore.

As a result, the first ice fishing excursion of the winter will be remembered for the pike that cooperated. If we hadn’t been cautious, it might have been remembered for something else.


Big lakes remain mostly ice-free

OK, this is just getting weird.

The waiting game for ice — especially on larger bodies of water — continues, and the extended forecast offers little reason to be optimistic about the wait ending anytime soon.

Today’s satellite view of Lake of the Woods shows all but the far northern end of Big Traverse Bay remains mostly ice-free as the prevailing south winds of recent days shifted what little ice there was farther north.

Most of the ice visible on the satellite image is confined to the shoreline variety.

Satellite image of Lake of the Woods and Upper and Lower Red Lake to the south taken today.

Satellite image of Lake of the Woods and Upper and Lower Red Lake to the south taken today.

The attached photo shows the difference between Lake of the Woods and Upper Red Lake to the south, which is shallower and quicker to freeze. Upper Red Lake appears to be mostly white, while the ice on the southern half of Lower Red Lake — all of which lies within the Red Lake Indian Reservation — has shifted north with the recent southerly winds.

Anglers have been walking out on the state-owned portion of Upper Red Lake outside of reservation boundaries, but it’s been a dicey proposition in places.

Lower Red Lake is considerably deeper than Upper Red and as a result is slower to freeze.

As the satellite image shows, the picture’s not much better on much of Devils Lake and Stump Lake. Pelican Lake at the far northwest end of the satellite photo looks to be covered in ice, as does Lake Irvine to the north, but large portions of Main Bay, East Bay and East Devils Lake still appear to be mostly open, as does Stump Lake.

The Devils Lake Basin as seen in today's satellite imagery.

The Devils Lake Basin as seen in today’s satellite imagery.

There’s a photo on Facebook from the Township of Sioux Narrows and Nestor Falls in Ontario showing the wake from an outboard motor with a brilliant sunset in the background as a boat travels Lake of the Woods.

The photo was taken yesterday.

Meanwhile, Royal Dutchman Resort in Baudette, Minn., posted photos showing a person fishing off a dock along the Rainy River yesterday and another photo taken today that shows the river is wide open.

Barry “Woody” Woods of Woody’s Fairly Reliable Guide Service on Rainy Lake shared a photo he took yesterday while trolling the border lake near International Falls, Minn. Woods says this is the latest he’s ever had his boat in the water.

Widely known as the “Icebox of the Nation,” International Falls has some serious work to do to live up to that designation this year.

Frank Walsh of Bay Store Camp on Oak Island in the Northwest Angle of Lake of the Woods said today in an email the lake near their camp had been frozen as far as he could see but there’s now a line of open water from the corner of Oak west to adjacent Flag Island. Walsh, who has owned the camp more than 20 years, said the latest freeze-up he and his wife, Laura, have seen was in 2009, when that portion of the lake froze Dec. 5. That year, they had a few groups in camp ice fishing the week before Christmas, but that likely is optimistic this year.

The week after Christmas might be more like it.

For now, ice fishing largely is limited to smaller bodies of water, and even on small lakes, conditions can marginal. Be careful out there.

I remember several years ago writing a story about extreme fire danger brought on by widespread dry conditions. Within a couple of days after the story’s publication, the skies opened up, and fire danger quickly became a distant memory.

Hopefully this blog post can have the same effect on ice conditions. It’s winter, for crying out loud, so let’s have winter.