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The Winter that Wasn't: 2023-24 Ice Fishing Season Brings Record Warmth and an Early End

The warmest “meteorological winter” on record for the Ice Belt means dangerous ice–and a silver lining. 

The Winter that Wasn't: 2023-24 Ice Fishing Season Brings Record Warmth and an Early End

Public boat ramps across the Midwest have recently been taped off and their use has been restricted. (Thomas Allen photo)

Every night the ice grew a few feet farther into the lake. Waves washed over it and receded and left accruing layers of ice that grew into miniature mountains and volcanoes. As the ice proceeded it left those structures behind in a broad arctic landscape of slabs and ice hills and drifted snow.

-Jerry Dennis, The Windward Shore: A Winter on the Great Lakes


The February headlines are sobering, if you like winter that is and hope to enjoy the things that wintertime brings like ice fishing. This year, that season has been a virtual no-show because of a dearth of snow, occasional blips of below-freezing weather, and no real and lasting ice coverage in many spots. As a result public boat ramps across the Midwest have recently been taped off and their use has been restricted–well ahead of normal timing.

That lack of safe ice has also spurred headlines trumpeting cancellations of long-standing events like North Dakota's Fargo Youth Ice Fishing Derby, the "Fishing for the Cure" fundraising event in Alexandria, Minn., the “Battle on Bago” in Oshkosh, Wis., and similar events being scrubbed through Michigan, New York, and New England.

Even when ice derbies could be held, changes were often necessary, as evidenced by the hybrid model that was adopted by the famed Brainerd Jaycees Ice Fishing Extravaganza earlier this month in which the organizers allowed anglers to use the Fish Donkey app which allowed the tournament to be extended to other lakes through the Brainerd area that had safe ice. Such measures were necessary in light of iffy ice conditions in many spots, and news reports of several deaths and injuries across the Ice Belt due to thin ice that gave way to people, vehicles, and snow machines.

To illustrate how poor this ice season has been, take a glance at the Great Lakes and the news headlines being generated by those voluminous water bodies. Those headlines indicate that there's never been a winter season quite like this one, at least since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping records on seasonal maximum ice content covering the Great Lakes beginning in 1973. 

NOAA indicates that after a record-low ice coverage for the start of the year, an Arctic blast in mid-January brought record cold to some portions of the country and the development of some ice on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Ontario, Huron and Erie. That ice development brought the Great Lakes to the current seasonal ice maximum of 16 percent coverage on Jan. 22, 2024.

But things didn't get better with ice coverage on the Great Lakes steadily falling down to historically lows for mid-February.

How bad has the ice coverage, or the lack thereof, been on the Great Lakes in the past month? NOAA notes that on average, "...the seasonal maximum ice extent on the Great Lakes is around 53 percent of the lake area, and it occurs in mid-February to early March."

And this year? After the mid-January ice coverage peak, NOAA says that "...ice coverage has steadily fallen into never-before-recorded levels for mid-February. Daily record-low ice cover has persisted across the Great Lakes since February 8, 2024, and this week dropped to under 3 percent. As of February 15, 2024, Lake Erie is completely ice free and Lake Ontario has less than 1 percent ice coverage."

Why the alarming lack of ice this winter across those inland oceans? NOAA's temperature charts across the U.S. since the start of meteorological winter (Dec. 1) show an abundance of deep reds (above normal temperature readings) and shockingly little deep blues (below normal temperatures).

"Well-above average winter warmth has continued across much of the region surrounding the Great Lakes," notes the NOAA report. "Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are all experiencing their warmest meteorological winter (December through February) to date. Meanwhile New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio are experiencing their second, third, and fourth warmest meteorological winter to-date, respectively."

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Another measure of how mild this winter has been across the northern states can be found in the Accumulated Winter Season Severity Index (AWSSI) maintained by the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at Purdue University. A glance at the current AWSSI map as of Feb. 21, 2024 shows only one reporting station in South Dakota having an "average" winter thus far, while every other reporting station from the Dakotas through the Great Lakes and on into New England are showing either a moderate (non-severe) or mild winter so far. 

A spot of open water on the shore of a frozen lake.
There's never been a winter season quite like this one, at least since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping records on seasonal maximum ice content covering the Great Lakes beginning in 1973. (Thomas Allen photo)

Put simply, in an area of the country that was dominated by severe and extreme winter weather conditions only a year ago, the exact opposite is occurring this winter. 

Even where there is ice, in some cases it isn't safe, as a report from Cass County (Minn.) Sheriff Bryan Welk underscored this week for waters around Bemidji, Minn.

According to Welk, ice travel is currently unpredictable and unsafe in his part of Minnesota, as well as quickly changing on large bodies of water in the area including Leech Lake.

"The high winds that we have been experiencing for two days has shifted ice, creating large open cracks and heaves," said Welk in a news release. "It is extremely important if you are traveling on the ice, especially during the dark, to know and understand the conditions and check ahead as the path you might have taken out is no longer safe to be traveled on."

The release also notes that "ice conditions are expected to continue to deteriorate, making any ice travel unsafe and unpredictable."

The headlines out of the fabled North Country have certainly screamed unwelcome news as one ice fishing event after another has been cancelled. In many cases, it isn’t because there isn’t ice on the water, but what ice is there is simply not safe enough as Sheriff Welk recently reported.

It’s probably necessary to point out here that none of this doom-and-gloom means that there’s no ice to fish at. Because in some cases, enterprising anglers are still finding the opportunity to drill a few holes and drop in a line.

In-Fisherman Editor-In-Chief and Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member Doug Stange confirmed that earlier this week via e-mail when he noted that he was actually observing people actively fishing out of Leech Lake’s Horseshoe Bay Lodge in Minnesota. Stange also noted that there was ice fishing occurring in recent days on and around Lake Mille Lacs and even an almost daily ice fishing update coming out of nearby Johnson Portside.

"If the fish are there and there’s ice, people will come," indicated Stange. "Big lakes didn’t get as much ice this year as some of the smaller lakes. Usually it’s the opposite, so there may still be some fishing to be had around the area."

Stange quickly noted however that fishing opportunity or not, safety is of key importance at any time. 

“(The) main thing is no ice is ever guaranteed safe," he said. "If in doubt, as would be the case now, and at first and last ice no matter the time of year, always check your way out with an ice pick. Punch (the ice). If the pick doesn’t go through you walk five more steps and punch again. Resorts always have marked routes to checked fishing areas, which is why you usually go out of those spots on lakes with traffic."

In addition to Stange's comments, now is a good time to review basic ice fishing safety guidelines like those published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; North Dakota Game and Fish Department; Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks; Take Me Fishing; Humminbird; Pure Fishing; and numerous others. Check a few of these out since there's a wealth of safety information for late season ice anglers, as well as some graphics that drive key safety points home visually. 

It never hurts to have a general refresher course on ice fishing safety anyway, including the importance of knowing what constitutes safe ice. Add to that the importance of getting local information, dressing warmly in layers, not going ice fishing alone, not traveling on the ice at night or in unfamiliar areas, avoiding areas that narrow and may have underlying current, looking for clear ice rather than ice covered with snow or clouded with bubbles, and having basic safety gear—which can include things like an ice claw, ice pick, a cell phone in a waterproof bag, a life jacket, and a length of rope—handy.

A boat ramp on a frozen lake with cleaves of ice piled up at the base.
Ice travel is currently unpredictable and unsafe across much of the Ice Belt, though that doesn't mean all lakes are dangerous. (Thomas Allen photo)

Believe it or not, for all of the tough news of this year’s ice fishing season, there is actually some good news looking ahead. And that’s that in such a mild winter as this one, wildlife and fish species are generally taking Old Man Winter’s long nap this year in stride.

In Brad Dokken's piece for the Grand Forks Herald earlier this month, he contrasted last year's severe winter with the current mild one, and noted that almost across the board things are trending better for fish and game.

That means that wild critters and piscatorial species in the two states he examined (North Dakota and Minnesota) are much more likely to avoid any winter kill issues this winter season as opposed to a year ago. Generally speaking, conditions are milder and wildlife and fish are able to find food this winter, which should mean greater survival rates, better reproduction, and solid recruitment for white-tailed deer, pronghorn antelope, pheasants, ruffed grouse, sharptails and all kinds of fish species now trying to fatten up as springtime spawns approach.

For angling interests in the region, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries chief Greg Power indicated that this year is much different from a year ago when around 40 lakes in his state experienced some fish die-offs and around 30 lakes experienced significant winterkill.

“Conditions are scripted better for survival under the ice,” Power told Dokken of the current season. "Lack of runoff could be an issue come spring, but at least there won’t be back-to-back severe winters with significant winterkill.”

And with that, the winter of 2023-24 is almost in the books. Meaning that hopefully ice fishing enthusiasts will find better luck next year, and good fishing action this spring.


Lynn Burkhead is a Senior Digital Editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group. 




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