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Ice gives anglers cold shoulder

Lakes and ponds may look frozen, but anglers should think twice before stepping out on the ice right now. That's the message from Geno Adams, fisheries program administrator for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in Fort Pierre "When in doubt, wai...

Water on Lake Mitchell is only partially frozen over due to above average temperatures so far for this time of year. In a lot of areas the waters haven't entirely frozen over because of the warmer temperatures and have limited people's ability to go ice fishing in the area. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Water on Lake Mitchell is only partially frozen over due to above average temperatures so far for this time of year. In a lot of areas the waters haven't entirely frozen over because of the warmer temperatures and have limited people's ability to go ice fishing in the area. (Matt Gade/Republic)

Lakes and ponds may look frozen, but anglers should think twice before stepping out on the ice right now.

That's the message from Geno Adams, fisheries program administrator for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in Fort Pierre

"When in doubt, wait a little longer," Adams said Thursday, the same day the GF&P sent out a message warning anglers to use extreme caution when headed out to go ice fishing.

Ice accumulation on water around the region is well behind last year's pace, Adams said.

A streak of warm weather kept many lakes and ponds in South Dakota and nearby states from freezing. The recent snowfall didn't help either, as snow makes it tough for ice to form properly, Adams said.

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Adams said this winter's warm weather is a stark departure from last year's conditions.

"It's been a lot different," Adams said.

Generally, ponds are frozen by late-November, and many patches of Missouri River are frozen by December or earlier, but given the volatility of South Dakota weather, it's difficult to predict when ice will form this year.

"It's not unheard of to be this late and not be ice fishing on the river," Adams said. "We talk about South Dakota being a harsh environment for both fish and fishing."

Tom Hartley, 57, of Wagner, works in the fishing and marine department at Mitchell's Cabela's.

"Everybody's waiting to get ice fishing," Hartley said.

Although he hasn't checked himself, Hartley said there couldn't be much ice on Lake Mitchell, yet, but there has been plenty of interest from people shopping for equipment at Cabela's.

To the west, the Missouri River is still mostly open water being used by boaters and duck hunters, according to Adams.

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"It's going to be awhile before there's really good ice conditions there," Adams said.

Ponds on Fort Pierre National Grassland, usually among the first to freeze, still consist of primarily open water.

Even at Rainy Lake in Minnesota near the Canadian border, Adams said people who have lived in the area for decades were reportedly boat fishing later than ever before.

"Ice conditions are not very good right now," Adams said. "Last year, we were fishing on good ice by now."

According to data from the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, the average monthly high temperature so far for December is 39.5 degrees Fahrenheit and was 47.3 in November. The average monthly high temperature for the first 17 days of December 2014 was 36 degrees and 35.9 for all of November last year.

GF&P Fisheries Administrator John Lott sent a statement Thursday warning people of "unwinter-like conditions" on most South Dakota lakes, rivers and streams. Lott said it takes at least 2 inches of ice to support a person, 6 inches to support an ice shack and more than a foot to support a vehicle.

Those estimates are true for strong, clear ice. Cloudy or dark ice, like that found at many South Dakota fishing spots thus far, is more easily cracked, and anglers should continually test ice conditions as they walk further from land.

"Just because an angler sees 6 inches near the shore doesn't mean it will be 6 inches across the lake," Lott said in the statement.

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There are some areas - including spots near Rapid City, Watertown and some grassland ponds - where the ice is strong enough to support an ice shack, but Adams said people need to be careful because taking the risk of falling through is "not worth it."

Adams said GF&P has already pulled some ice anglers out of the water near Sioux Falls. People fall through the ice most commonly in the spring when the ice is melting and in early winter when ice forms poorly, like current conditions.

Adams said all ice anglers have seen someone fall or nearly fall through the ice, but breaking the ice is not as common as some think.

"For as many people who are out messing around on the ice and fishing, there's really not a lot. Most of the fisherman are pretty cognizant of their surrounding and the ice," Adams said.

Hartley has seen people fall through the ice on multiple occasions, but he said it's always been in shallow water. Still, any water that cold can be dangerous.

"You better get out real quick," Hartley said. "It's not often, but once is too much."

In case the ice does crack, Hartley said there is safety equipment available to help get out of the water, including ice picks and inflatable life jackets.

Hartley said popular fishing locations around the area include Menno Lake and Lake Henry south of Mitchell, as well as Lake Thompson to the north, once the ice thickens.

For those looking to get out on the ice for the first time, Hartley had one tip.

"The biggest thing is making sure you got safe ice," Hartley said. "Early and late ice is always the most dangerous, but it can also be some of the best (fishing)."

Adams added a few more tips, including going with someone more experienced and taking tools to make the experience more comfortable.

"Sitting on a bucket with as many clothes on as possible, freezing, is not how people ice fish these days. It's a lot more comfortable nowadays," Adams said.

Still, Adams said if someone wants to get started, he or she can keep the experience very simple and can still sit on a bucket and have a good time.

Adams said the best time to catch fish, specifically walleye, is in the morning and around dusk, but that's not necessarily the best time to go fishing.

"The best time to go fishing is whenever you can go fishing," Adams said.

Related Topics: FISHING
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