The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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Outdoors

February 19, 2012

Cross: Even nice winters can turn naughty

— The inland fishing season for most Minnesota gamefish, most notably walleyes, closes a week from today, heralding the end of the ice fishing season for many anglers.

Serious walleye anglers still will hitch up their boats and make the short trek to Red Wing and the Mississippi River where the species is fair game year-round to target fat, hungry pre-spawn walleyes in an open water environment.

The rest of us, not inclined to put away the ice gear quite so soon, will continue to target panfish, which can be delightfully cooperative during the days of last ice and strengthening sunshine.

It has been a strange — and many would say — pleasant winter across Minnesota.

After two consecutive winters that tested the mettle of even the hardiest residents, scant snowfalls or sub-zero temperatures during the past three months have been a pleasant respite.

An added bonus is that wildlife has coasted through with little stress and shallow southern Minnesota lakes are in little danger of suffering winterkill.

But remember ... this is Minnesota ...

In February, 1965, Minnesotans also were basking in the countenance of a mostly snowless winter. There had been a few sub-zero days including a bone-chilling -26 on Feb. 1, but otherwise it had been mostly a pleasant run of weather.

In January, a photo of a motorist cruising down Front Street in an open convertible was featured on the front page of The Free Press.

On Feb. 9, pretty Mary Prax, a 19-year-old student at a beautician’s school, was featured on the front page wearing just a bathing suit while sitting on a snow saucer. (Such visual fare was considered good journalism in those days.) Only traces of snow could be seen in the background.

The first real taste winter came Feb. 12 when as much as 18 inches of snow fell across the area. The headlines billed it as the worst storm in four years.

Mild weather then returned, including a little rain, until March 2 when the area received yet another foot of snow.

But the coup de grace came two weeks later on March 17 when the infamous St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard dumped up to 2 feet of snow across much of Minnesota.

The heavy, wet snow snarled traffic across the state, stranding many motorists for days. The only highway still passable in the area was that stretch of Highway 169 between Mankato and St. Peter.

Three days later, Highway 60 south of the junction remained closed because of a gigantic snowdrift. It was reported that more than 100 cars were backed up, bumper-to-bumper, on the busy highway on that day as crews worked to clear the road.

Significant for Minnesota sportsmen, it was estimated that more than half of the state’s pheasant population perished in the two-day storm that was followed by several days of sub-zero temperatures.

That catastrophic loss, along with acres of Soil Bank grasslands that were being converted back to cropland at the time, helped set the stage for a decision, based more on politics than biology, to have no pheasant hunting season at all during the fall.

As late as early March, 1965, the river stage had been less 3 feet, but after the St. Patrick’s Day blow, Joe Strub, a hydrologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau and well-known for his accurate flood forecasts, predicted a Minnesota River crest in Mankato of 23 feet; flood stage was 19 feet.

A few days later, he revised his prediction upward to 26.5 feet as area residents prepared for major flooding.

By April 10, after two weeks of filling sandbags, constructing dikes and  evacuating much of lower North Mankato, and after the area suffered millions of dollars in flood damage, the Minnesota River crested at a then-record 29.07 feet.

So we’re not out of the wintery or water-logged woods quite yet.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him by at 507-344-6376 or by e-mail at jcross@mankatofreepress.com.

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