Frozen fish and salty toes

When you live in Minnesota and have a job teaching people how to keep water clean, folks often assume you know how to fish. After all, fishing supports 35,000 jobs in Minnesota, contributes an estimated $2.4 billion to the state economy every year, and is an undeniable part of our cultural heritage. How could anyone not love fishing when they reside in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?

A fresh-caught brook trout in the Boundary Waters.

In fact, I love the idea of fishing; I’ve just never mastered the actual practice of fishing, so I rarely catch anything unless I’m with friends that know what they’re doing. One of my all-time favorite fishing stories happened during a winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters ten years ago. We skied and snowshoed five miles in to our camp site and then hiked even further the next day to fish for brook trout at a smaller lake. The guys in our group were so intent on catching fish that they hauled fish-finders and other heavy equipment for miles just to make sure they’d be successful. In the end, the only person to catch a fish that day was my friend Amber, who caught a 24-in brook trout while she and I laughed, drank hot cocoa, and mostly ignored our lines.

What happens during an ice fishing trip? If you’re me, a lot of talking and not much fish.

This winter, Minnesota Trout Unlimited is holding free ice fishing events to give children and adults the opportunity to try ice fishing without buying equipment or trekking seven miles into a wilderness area. Upcoming events will be held at Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park on Sat., Feb. 6, 1-3pm; Lac Lavon Park in Burnsville on Sat., Feb. 13 and 20, 1-3pm; and in Monticello on Sat., Feb. 27, 1-3pm. To sign-up, email

Or you could listen to the guys at Trout Unlimited that actually know what they’re doing.

Trout Unlimited is a nonprofit organization with a mission of to conserve, protect, restore, and sustain Minnesota’s cold water fisheries and their watersheds. The organization fundraises to support habitat improvement projects and conducts environmental education, such as the upcoming fishing events, through its Trout in the Classroom program.

One growing concern for urban lakes and streams is pollution from winter road salt. Currently, there are 50 lakes and streams in Minnesota that are listed as impaired due to elevated chlorides and another 75 that are “nearly” impaired. When salt levels rise in freshwater lakes and streams, it affects phytoplankton, zooplankton, macroinvertebrates, and fish. Salt levels are rarely high enough to outright kill fish, but instead create a domino-effect of changes within aquatic ecosystems that cause fish populations to decline over time. In extreme cases, salinization can even prevent the water from mixing vertically (deep water mixing with surface water), which results in anoxic conditions. Currently, chloride toxicity is a problem for several trout streams in Minnesota, including streams in the Vermillion and Cannon River watersheds and near Duluth.

Here are four ways you can help to protect lakes, streams, and fish from salt pollution this winter:

  1. Drive slower and wear appropriate shoes when it’s snowy and icy outside. This helps to support road maintenance crews and parking lot owners in their efforts to reduce salt use.
  2. Use less salt on your driveway and sidewalk. 12oz of salt (one heaping coffee mug) is enough to clear a 20-foot driveway or 10 sidewalk squares (250 sq. ft.). Always shovel before using salt.
  3. Skip the salt when it is colder than 15°. Salt works by lowering the melting temperature of ice so that it melts when the temperature is below freezing (32°F). However, traditional road salt (sodium chloride) doesn’t work when it’s colder than 15°F, so it is a waste of time and money to put down salt on very cold days. Magnesium chloride and calcium chloride work at colder temperatures (-10° and -20° respectively) but can be more expensive.
  4. Sweep up and reuse left-over salt after the ice melts.

Good luck in all of your ice fishing adventures this winter and if you catch a fish, send me a photo to share your story.