More Than 100 Ice Fishermen Rescued in Minnesota This Winter

by Tommy Grant

“Most years, the ice would be thick enough by now for vehicles and wheelhouses … This year isn’t ‘most years’”

A conservation officer kneels on a frozen lake to measure the thickness of the ice.

A conservation officer with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reminds anglers to check the ice thickness frequently during the early season. Photograph by Minnesota DNR

First responders in northern Minnesota had a busy December pulling anglers out of area lakes, where marginal ice conditions have led to at least two deaths and a higher-than-average number of rescues recently. Deputies with the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office helped save 122 people who were stranded on an ice floe in Upper Red Lake on Friday. This was just one day after a pair of anglers were rescued when their ATV fell through the ice on the same lake, and only six days after a 67-year-old Osage resident died when his ATV broke through the ice on Big Toad Lake.

Warmer weather and thinning ice have also caused trouble on other lakes in the region, including Lake of the Woods, a popular ice-fishing destination straddling the Canadian border. A 78-year-old Wisconsin ice fisherman drowned in the large lake when a tracked Bombardier carrying eight passengers broke through the ice near Flag Island on Thursday. The driver and the six other passengers were able to escape the vehicle before it sank.

Speaking with the Star Tribune after Thursday’s drowning incident, local fishing resort owner Paul Colson said the tracked vehicle belonged to a neighboring resort. He checked out the scene and found the Bombardier bottomed out in the lake with its front end sticking out of the ice, which he said was thicker than he would have expected.

“I was expecting to find thin ice, but I found a foot of ice all around the machine,” Colson said Friday. “You’d be hard-pressed to find better ice anywhere in Minnesota right now.”

Colson added that, as a rule of thumb, he and other outfitters consider 12 inches of ice to be thick enough to support a tracked UTV with passengers. Conditions can change rapidly, however, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources made a public announcement calling attention to deteriorating ice across the state on Thursday.

marginal ice rescuers minnesota december 2

“In some places where there had been ice, there’s now open water,” the MDNR explained. “In other areas — particularly to the north — conditions are extremely uneven and changing frequently.”

Beltrami County Sheriff Jason Riggs echoed the DNR’s warning in a press release later that same day.

“Most years, the ice would be thick enough by now for vehicles and wheelhouses, and we’d be seeing a steady procession of them moving north,” Riggs said. “But this year isn’t ‘most years,’ and the ice is changing constantly. It’s absolutely vital that anyone who heads out checks the thickness frequently, pays close attention to the weather, and has a plan in case the worst happens and they wind up in the water.”

At least 122 anglers failed to heed this warning Friday and went ice fishing on Upper Red Lake anyway. Later that afternoon, the anglers became stranded when the large chuck of ice they were fishing on broke free of the main ice and drifted out more than 30 feet from shore.

Emergency responders in Beltrami County quickly staged at a nearby resort on the southeastern shore of the lake. They began evacuating the ice floe just after 6:30 p.m. that evening, and by 7:37 p.m., all the anglers were back on dry land. The local sheriff’s office was assisted during the rescue by Kelliher Fire and Rescue, Kelliher First Responders, Blackduck Ambulance, Bemidji Fire Deparmtnet, the Becker County Sheriff’s Office, Beltrami County Emergency Management, MDNR conservation officers, and several employees from area resorts. Friday’s ice floe incident marked the fourth ice-related rescue to take place on Upper Red Lake in December, according to Minnesota Public Radio, and authorities closed off portions of the lake beginning Saturday.

Read Next: 7 Ways To Survive On The Ice

Upper Red Lake is a popular early-season ice-fishing destination, and this wasn’t the first time that eager anglers have gotten stranded on a drifting ice sheet during the early winter months. An estimated 40 to 50 anglers found themselves in a similar situation on Upper Red in mid-December, and a nearly identical incident took place on the lake in November 2022, when a large chunk of ice carrying an estimated 200 anglers broke loose from the shoreline. All the anglers were rescued in both these incidents as well.

“Any time during early ice season, changes in weather conditions can change fishing conditions very quickly,” Kelliher Fire and Rescue chief Rick Thayer told Outdoor Life at the time. “It’s happened quite frequently the last few years with that body of water.”

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