This winter has yet to live up to North Dakota standards. Far from it.
Temperatures have been so much warmer than normal that ice formation on lakes had come to a virtual standstill in recent days. In fact, many lakes still have large areas of open water. Lake Darling, a very popular ice fishing destination, recently had a pickup break partially through the ice south of the Grano crossing. The occupants escaped unharmed, but it was a hard-learned lesson about ice safety.
"It took four days to get it out. A wrecker from Bismarck had to come up," said Tighe Teets, Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge. "We've had other reports we can't confirm. "
Lake Darling has been releasing 300 cubic feet per second of water for several weeks and intends to so throughout the winter. That's a change from a normal winter at Lake Darling when the release gates are usually closed. It means a change for ice fishermen as well. Moving water weakens ice. So does warm temperatures.
"Our ice is the same as it was three or four weeks ago," said Teets this past Wednesday. "The way this weather is we're still not going to build ice. Ten to 12 inches is kind of the average but we're just not building ice. Guys need to be a little more careful. It is such a goofy year."
Water flowing through the Souris River channel beneath the bridge at the Grano crossing has kept a very large area of the lake open, particularly on the downstream side of the roadway. There are other areas of open water elsewhere on Lake Darling too. Sometimes those areas open and close within hours, traps waiting to engulf unsuspecting fishermen venturing onto the ice.
"We've got open patches every week," Teets said. "There's numerous patches north of the buoy line, open water from shore to shore. South of Landing Three there's a pressure ridge and open water. It goes quite a ways out in the lake. It appears to be open water about 10 yards wide. Snow will cover up those wet spots for a day or two."
Some vehicles have been driving onto Lake Darling, but many fishermen are choosing to leave their vehicles on shore and pull sleds onto the ice. Ice safety can never be guaranteed, particularly so when the temperatures have been above freezing for many hours a day. At Lake Darling, with water scheduled to move steadily throughout the ice fishing season, even fishermen familiar with the lake are wise to check ice conditions regularly.
"We've got everything ready and have been on high alert," Teets said. "We haven't had to do any rescues. We've been very fortunate."
According to the National Weather Service, daytime temperatures for the early part of this week will be at or above the freezing mark. Sub-zero temperatures that usually solidify an ice pack remain absent from short-term forecasts as well. As always, ice fishermen should remain cautious and respectful of the dangers of venturing onto the ice this winter.
Another safety issue that has become apparent is the lack of snow cover. Clear ice exposed to wind often becomes extremely slippery, and there have been multiple incidents of fishermen slipping and falling on the ice and sustaining injuries resulting in bone fractures.
Again, caution is advised. There are several varieties of add-on cleats for boots and shoes that substantially reduce slippage on ice, a good option for anyone venturing onto bare ice.