If You See Tree Branches On A Frozen Minnesota Lake, Stay Away
There are lots of reasons you, your children, or even your dog might head out onto a lake in the winter. Ice skating, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or even just going for a walk are all great reasons to head out onto one of Minnesota's thousands of frozen lakes.
Whatever the reason, if you spot a tree branch (or branches), regardless of the kind, be sure to keep your distance!
Unless it's something that pretty clearly fell right off a tree directly onto the shoreline area of a lake right below, you might wonder how a tree branch would get on the ice. The fact of the matter is, it might have been put there by someone - and there's a good reason why.
Why would someone put a tree branch on the ice?
Even among those that don't ice fish, most Minnesotans are at least aware of the sport. Most people know a hole is drilled in the ice, and people fish through that hole. Most of those fishing holes are usually 6-10 inches in diameter, though, and generally don't present a serious risk for people falling into them. That is, aside from my poor little brother when he was a young kid, stepping into a fish hole with one leg and awkwardly waiting until someone helped him out. Even then, the hole was too small for him to completely fall in.
Anyway, one subset of ice fishing actually requires a much bigger fishing hole. This sport, known as spearing, uses a significantly bigger hole and a darkhouse, where people lure certain types of fish into the hole and throw a fork-like spear at the fish.
I liken it more to "hunting for fish" than fishing, but it is certainly a fun sport that offers a completely different perspective on fishing.
You can get a sense of what the experience is like in the video above, also seeing that the hole is at least a couple of feet wide. That's easily big enough for a kid, pet, or even a full-grown adult to fall into.
When a person is done spearing, they remove their darkhouse, leaving behind a sizable hole in the ice. While this hole will eventually freeze over and get to a point where someone could walk on it again, that will take some time.
Responsible sportsmen & sportswomen will mark their hole when they're done. They usually do this with a natural material that's readily available and will look out of place - tree branches. Leaving behind these markers will give a heads-up to people to stay away from these areas.
Unfortunately, there are occasionally those that spear that don't mark their hole when they're done fishing. This can leave behind an obvious danger for someone that doesn't know what to look for.
If you see an unmarked square or rectangular area that looks like it was cut out of the ice, usually in shallower water (5-15 feet most often), this was likely left behind by someone spearing. A hole like this will likely get a decent crust of ice on it within a day, but will likely not be safe to walk on for at least a few days, depending on the temperature. So, if you see something like this unmarked, it's best to just stay off being it is hard to know how long the ice has been re-freezing.
There's another reason someone might put tree branches on a lake
Unrelated to fishing or spearing, I've seen instances where people have thrown tree branches onto a spot on a lake. While the reason the branches are there may be different, it is also a good idea to stay away.
In the cases I've seen this done, it is usually to mark a spot someone has noted as unsafe ice or an open spot in the ice. Unsafe spots or openings in ice can happen for a number of reasons, even opening holes where there was once solid ice.
Some examples of things that could create an opening or unsafe spot in the ice include water currents from an underwater spring or inlet into a lake, as well as wildlife like fish or muskrats that create moving water under the surface to such an extent that they weaken ice or even create openings in the surface.
If someone notices this, they might throw a branch from a safe distance to mark the opening for others to alert them of danger.
Whatever the reason it might be there - if you see tree branches on a frozen lake, it is best to keep your distance.