Be careful when heading onto ice

With unusually warm weather this December, anglers have been itching to enjoy the Minnesota pastime of ice fishing in these more comfortable conditions.

But, as every year, officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and local public safety and law enforcement offices are reminding folks to be careful.

According to the DNR, ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water. It can be two feet thick in one place and one inch thick a few yards away due to currents, springs, rotting vegetation or schools of rough fish. Anglers need to check the ice at least every 150 feet, especially early in the season or in any situation where the thickness varies widely.

The recommended minimum thicknesses for new clear ice is four inches for ice fishing and small group activities; five inches for snowmobiles and ATVs; and 8-10 inches for small to medium cars and pickups.

White ice, sometimes called “snow ice,” is only about one-half as strong as new clear ice so the above thicknesses should be doubled.

DNR and law officials say locally supplied information about ice thickness is usually the best. Bait shops and resorts deal with winter anglers every day and often have the most up-to-date information on how thick the ice is on local lakes as well as any spots that are especially dangerous.

Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren agrees with that advice.

“Always check with the local resorts who are checking the ice conditions daily,” he said.

But when things go terribly wrong, members of the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies are ready to help. Lindgren said the unusual weather has lead to an unusually high number of calls to his office.

“With the mild fall and warmer-than-usual temperatures, the ice conditions this year are progressing slowly,” Lindgren said. “On a good note, we do not yet have the snow cover that would slow good ice development even more.”

In the winter months of 2011, Lindgren said the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office has had to call on the Search and Rescue Team with its hovercraft  five times already — more times than it typically has been used in its 20-year-history.

“In years past we may only have to go out once in the fall and once in the spring,” Lindgren said.

Lindgren said anglers are not charged a fee when rescues crews use the hovercraft to return them to the shore. But he did offer some advice to avoid having to use the equipment more than usual for the remaining winter months.

“Things anglers should keep in mind are to always make sure someone knows where you are going out from and where you should be, carry your charged cellular telephone and have its GPS enabled should you need to call for help,” Lindgren said. “Remember that even if you go out on ice that appears safe and is eight to nine inches, the changing winds on Lake Mille Lacs can move large sheets of ice when there are open areas on the lake and you could find yourself separated from shore without a way off floating ice.”

With 2012 proving that Minnesota winters can only stay mild for so long, Lindgren and others are expecting ice conditions on Minnesota lakes to improve.

“In a few weeks when temperatures decline, better ice will come to area lakes,” Lindgren said.

It may be bad news for the car battery, but good news for avid anglers.