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With no time to spare, ice-outs unlock the Minnesota fishing opener statewide [Star Tribune (Minneapolis) :: BC-OTD-FISHING-OPENER:MS]

Mother Nature answered the prayers of anglers, bait shop owners and resorters last week with an improbable mix of rain, wind and sunshine that unlocked frozen lakes in time for last weekend's walleye and northern pike fishing opener.

The last-minute ice-outs on Leech Lake, Kabetogama, Winnibigoshish, Pokegama, Upper Red Lake and Lake Vermilion - to name just a few - provided a turnaround that was in serious doubt two weeks ago.

Besides some lakes inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Assistant State Climatologist Pete Boulay of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said Minnesota was down to having significant ice on only three big walleye lakes: Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake. But even on those lakes, satellite imagery and first-person accounts showed there was plenty of open water.

"There's definitely a lot of places for people to fish on Mille Lacs," said Vivian LaMoore, editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger, the newspaper in charge of declaring the lake's official ice-out date.

LaMoore said a large mass of ice was still floating in the southwestern portion of the lake. A boat must be able to safely navigate from Garrison to Isle before the ice can be declared out. The record for late ice out on Mille Lacs is May 16, 2013.

Henry Drewes, northwest region fisheries manager for the DNR in Bemidji, said the whole state should be ice free - practically speaking - by opening day.

"We've made tremendous progress in the past 48 hours," said Drewes, who noted that parts of northern Minnesota received 2 inches of rain this week, along with wind, sunshine and mild temperatures.

Even in the Twin Cities, open-water season was delayed this year.

On Lake Waconia, the ice went out last Friday, more than three weeks later than the lake's median ice-out date.

The tardy ice-outs have resort owners and DNR Parks and Trails employees scrambling to clean boat ramps of winter debris, fix damage and install docks. The DNR alerted boaters this week that many of the 1,500 public water accesses it maintains won't be up to snuff until crews can catch up.

"We just got our docks in yesterday," said Bill Heig, owner of Bowen Lodge on Lake Winnibigoshish. "It looks great up here. There's no ice."

In the BWCA, Basswood Lake was melting fast and appeared to be on the verge of ice-out, said Bob LaTourell, owner of LaTourell's Moose Lake Outfitters. Moose Lake was free of ice, he said, and the motorized portage into Basswood along the Canadian border was open.

The DNR reported that fishing license sales are picking up steam. Sales of more than 16,000 licenses on Tuesday and Wednesday lifted overall fishing license sales to 277,559 as of Thursday morning. That's still behind last year's pace, but the DNR hopes to at least match last year's "Monday after the opener" total of 429,599 fishing licenses.

By season's end, more than 1 million adults will purchase a Minnesota fishing license and another 400,000 kids will fish legally without one.

It's a tradition that generates $2.4 billion in direct retail sales, ranking the state third in the United States for angler expenditures. Fishing also supports nearly 35,500 jobs, the state has said.

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