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As ice fishing popularity grows, so does waste, garbage left behind

Mille Lacs Lake and Red Lake join the Keep It Clean campaign that encourages anglers and their guests to leave no trace.

Ice fishing season is still in full swing in Minnesota, but the garbage and waste that anglers leave behind is becoming a bigger problem.

"It's pretty disgusting, there's no doubt about it," said Robyn Dwight. "It seems like a simple solution, that everybody should take off the ice what they bring on the ice, but it’s far more complicated."

Dwight is the president of the Upper Red Lake Area Association who helped introduce Keep It Clean at Red Lake.

The campaign, which originated with Lake of the Woods in 2012, was also recently adopted by Mille Lacs Lake. In a press release, the campaign is described as, "Designed to address the growing problem of garbage and other harmful materials left on the lakes by anglers during the ice fishing season, Keep It Clean focuses on leaving no trace."

"If the lake isn't healthy, then the fishery declines, then the tourism declines and it's a bad deal for everyone," said Dwight.

The DNR reports the sport has exploded, in part, due to a rise in outdoor activities in the pandemic and the growing popularity of "wheelhouses."

In 2020, the agency reported more than 84,173 anglers on Upper Red Lake, from December to February - its highest number ever. It reports from 2014 to 2020, the number hovered around 60,000. 

"We need the support from everyone from the grassroots level to the state level to help us with a sustainable, long-term approach to this," said Dwight. 

To help reduce the amount of waste left on the ice, Keep It Clean encourages ice anglers and their guests to take the following steps:

Make a plan for trash and waste removal before you arrive. Whether you access the lake from a public or private access, plan to take off of the lake what you take on to the lake. Many access points and resorts offer garbage collection services. If your site doesn’t, make a plan to transport it home for disposal.

Use colored garbage bags. In snowy conditions, white trash bags can be difficult to see. Brightly colored or even black bags are easier to spot making it less likely trash will inadvertently be left behind.

Take a moment before you depart the ice to make sure that you have picked up any garbage in your area. And if you notice someone else has left something behind, take a moment to pick it up and bring it with you.

Secure your garbage before traveling. High winds, bumpy ice roads and other conditions on or off the lake can cause unsecured bags of garbage to fall out of truck beds and off of trailers and sleds without you even realizing it.

Make sure you have the tools you need to move or remove a fish house. Support blocks, insulation, landscaping fabric, wood and other materials need to be properly disposed of not left behind.

Dwight says the group also was awarded a grant to equip more resorts with appropriate dumpsters and licensed haulers. 

"Human waste doesn't belong on the ice, under the ice or along the shore line," said Dwight. Resort owners consider a healthy lake a lifeblood for many communities.

"Please do all you can to protect our vital resource, so we can enjoy it now and for generations to come," said Dwight.

There's about another month of fishing before the DNR says shelters have to be off the ice. You have until March 21 in northern Minnesota, and March 7 everywhere else. 

The DNR also says it's illegal to leave an ice fishing shack or pieces of it on the ice, and littering is considered a misdemeanor.

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