Dennis Anderson
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After 28 years of owning a resort on Mille Lacs, Kevin McQuoid sold his business a couple of years ago. But he still knows how important ice fishing was on that big lake to his operation's bottom line.

"About 60 percent of our annual income on Mille Lacs came from about Christmas until the end of February," McQuoid said. "Once good ice gets on the lake, you really have to push it until the end of the winter season to make the business work."

The problem this year is that good ice, varying between 8 and 12 inches, is just now taking hold on Mille Lacs. By Wednesday this week, side-by-sides were pulling smaller wheelhouses onto the lake.

"When we owned the resort, we had 35 rental houses, and we took care of about 150 private houses," McQuoid said. "That's a lot of work but also a lot of business. With the weather we've had and lack of ice, everyone on the lake is about three weeks behind."

The same tale of winter woe is being told and retold to the Canadian border.

Retail sales of ice fishing gear are down, resorts have had multiple cancellations and motels, restaurants and gas stations have lost significant income because ice anglers have been forced to stay on shore — rather than on frozen water, drilling holes and fishing for walleyes.

Thus a question is being asked among anglers and winter tourist operators alike:

Why doesn't the Department of Natural Resources extend the walleye season a couple of weeks this winter past the Feb. 28 scheduled closure (except on Minnesota-Canada border lakes, where the season runs to mid-April) to give anglers more opportunities to fish, while also allowing resorts and others businesses to recoup some lost income?

Calls, texts and emails relaying that question to the agency's fisheries boss, Brad Parsons, elicited no response. A manager in the commissioner's office didn't want to be quoted. And Brian Nerbonne, regional fisheries manager, said he is unfamiliar with DNR rules or procedures that would have to be followed to extend winter walleye fishing.

Yet implementing a variable season closing date isn't a new idea. In recent years, the DNR has established harvest triggers on Mille Lacs to restrict or maintain angler walleye harvests, depending on success rates.

A longtime (and semi-retired) guide in the Brainerd Lakes area, Marv Koep, backs the longer season idea for this winter.

"Extending it for walleyes would help some people, including some fishermen," Koep said. "And it wouldn't hurt walleye populations. The best walleye bite in winter is in December."

As on Mille Lacs, good ice is just now forming on some — though not necessarily all — Brainerd area lakes.

"I'm all for extending the season," said Dan Elgen of Walleyedan's Guide Service, serving Brainerd-Nisswa area lakes. Elgen cautioned not all lakes he fishes are freezing uniformly. Finding safe ice on one area lake, he pulled his wheelhouse onto that frozen body of water Wednesday. But he was surprised a day earlier while checking a part of Gull Lake he regularly fishes in winter to find only about 5 inches of ice, the same thickness he measured before the recent cold spell.

There's no guarantee, in fact, that generally safe ice will hold on northern Minnesota lakes (not to mention metro lakes) into, say, the middle of March.

Case in point: Though temperatures Jan. 21-27 are generally expected to be below freezing at night in the Mille Lacs area, forecast highs on some days during that period are in the mid-30s.

Yet whether walleyes are legal fare this year in March or not, ice anglers seeking crappies and perch will be on hundreds, if not thousands, of Minnesota lakes that month seeking those species.

What's the harm in letting them keep a walleye if they trick one into biting?

"We're about three weeks behind on Leech Lake," said Cam Merchant, an owner of Horseshoe Bay Lodge on that lake. Ice in the portion of Leech where Merchant was putting houses on the lake beginning Jan. 18 measured between 12 and 15 inches, he said.

"We're just getting our houses out now. Even an additional week would help the resorts up here," Merchant said. "The warm weather has hurt gas stations, bait shops, local restaurants, just about everyone in the northern part of the state. I think you would get agreement from just about anyone in Minnesota to extend the walleye season."

With his wife, Debbie, Darrell Hoffman owns Everett Bay Lodge on Lake Vermilion. Though their resort isn't open in winter, Darrell is an ice fisher who has seen firsthand the effect that unseasonably temperate weather has had on Vermilion ice.

"I think it's a valiant idea to keep walleye fishing open a couple more weeks than normal this winter," he said. "But it would be super dependent on the weather. We could have an early thaw, or we could have ice on the lake until the day before the May [open water] opener."

On Upper Red Lake, where anglers at times in early December had to be rescued after ice cracks opened to reveal watery gaps, some resort owners have wondered why Lake of the Woods gets such a long walleye ice fishing season, while walleye angling on Upper Red — just an hour or so south of Lake of the Woods — ends the same day as lakes in the metro and elsewhere in the state.

"I'd definitely support an extension of the walleye season," said Kevin Waldo, an owner of West Wind Resort on Upper Red. "We lost that week or two around Christmas and New Year's, and we'd support anything that would help get some of that business back."