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Minnesota's fishing opener on ice?

Small waves kissed the shoreline of Fish Lake just north of Duluth on Monday morning. A pontoon boat purred up to the landing at Hi-Banks Resort. From somewhere out on the lake came the high, clear call of a loon.

All of this was a great relief to Tim Wagner, who owns the resort with his wife, Kim.

Fish Lake had shed its thick winter coat of ice on Saturday, exactly one week ahead of Minnesota's fishing opener.

"I was worried sick," Tim Wagner confessed.

With his four cabins and a new 60-site campground booked for the coming weekend, he wasn't sure Fish Lake would lose its ice in time for Saturday's fishing opener.

Island Lake, just north of Duluth, also became ice-free on Saturday.

But farther north in Minnesota, other resort owners, fishing guides and outfitters still are concerned as the opener approaches. Ice remains on many lakes.

"I'm thinking everyone's going to have some ice for their Kool-Aid," joked Debbie Mark, who owns Seagull Canoe Outfitters near the end of the Gunflint Trail north of Grand Marais.

Ice has pulled away from shore on the bay in front of the outfitting business, but the main part of Seagull is locked in ice, she said. And her rental cabins all are booked for the weekend.

"People are calling, and I tell them, 'Call back in a day -- or two or three,' " Mark said Monday.

This promises to be the latest ice-out since the spring of 1996, when some lakes went ice-free the day before the fishing opener. The lingering ice has cast some doubt over Saturday's fishing opener, traditionally a time when hundreds of thousands of anglers go forth in pursuit of walleyes.

Too early to tell

Scott Kelling, area supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources Trails and Waterways Division in Tower, said he isn't sure Lake Vermilion will be ice-free by Saturday.

"I think it's too early to tell," he said Monday.

Most smaller lakes in his area are ice-free, Kelling said. Most went out this past weekend.

"Crane Lake is open," Kelling said. "And it looks like Pelican [near Orr] is going to go."

Lake Winnibigoshish near Deer River is trying to open up.

"We're probably half to three-quarters ice-covered," said Rick Leonhardt, owner of High Banks Resort on Big Winnie. "We've never had it last more than four or five days in the shape that it's in now."

Like most resorts, High Banks has a full slate of guests coming this weekend.

"I tell them I'm pretty optimistic we'll have fishable water," Leonhardt said. "I'm not sure all the ice will be gone, but enough that you'll be able to get out and fish."

That may not be the case on Rainy Lake, said Mike Williams, former owner of Thunderbird Lodge there.

"We've still got lots of ice. My personal feeling is, we're going to have ice [on the fishing opener] and it's going to mess people up," he said.

Williams remembers 1996 well. The ice on Rainy Lake went out May 18 that year.

"We had ice for a least a week during the fishing season," he said.

Williams needs open water for a reason other than fishing. He puts out 37 navigational buoys for the U.S. Coast Guard on Kabetogama, Namakan, Sand Point and Crane lakes.

DNR crews hustling

The late ice-out is making it difficult for DNR crews to repair ice-damaged boat ramps and get docks in place at public boat landings.

"We're scrambling," said Bob Moore, Trails and Waterways area supervisor in Grand Rapids.

His office is responsible for 150 boat landings. When ice forms in early winter, it sometimes moves or buckles the concrete-plank landings over which anglers back their boats. Moore said he has about 20 damaged ramps in his work area.

"You're not going to find things normal," Moore said. "We're scrambling to have them in usable condition."

Crews are experiencing similar challenges in the Tower and North Shore areas, DNR officials say.

"I think most of the lakes will be ice-free," said Kelling, in the Tower office, "but we may not have all the docks in."

In the Duluth area, the DNR's docks are in along the St. Louis River, said Tom Peterson, Trails and Waterways area supervisor at Two Harbors. His office handles 75 public landings, about three-fourths of which have docks.

"Our job every year is to get all the docks in by the fishing opener," Peterson said. "We're just not going to make it. Some things are beyond one's control."

That's the way Rick Leonhardt is looking at the ice on Lake Winnibigoshish.

"It's in the hands of nature now," he said.