Friday, January 16, 2009

Dreaming Of Bygone Ice Fishing Days

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I dream of the old-fashioned winters. Hard freezes that locked the ice to the shoreline on all sides of the lake, enough wind to scour the snow away, and no worry about pitching through when the ice caves in under my feet.

The memories are still fresh even though my first ice fishing trip was taken about 60 years ago. It was a little lake near Millington in Tuscola County named North Lake. Our parents owned a small lot and kept an old house trailer there, and we visited the area often from January through March.

North Lake held bluegills, largemouth bass, perch, sunfish and some northern pike. Ice-up came quick and hard that year, freezing the lake’s surface, and within a week there was six to 10 inches of firm clear ice.

The early-ice action always featured a good bite. We had triangulated the green weed beds with three shoreline landmarks, and we often could return to the same holes that we’d fished the week before. The ‘gills and sunfish would still be there, and we often lowered a six-inch sucker below the ice near the weed beds, and often caught some nice northern pike.

That was then and this is now. I don’t know whether anyone has been paying attention, but the last three or four years has featured much more wind from the east. That wind often brings rain, and heavy rains or snow make early ice treacherous and unstable.

Are we in the middle of the global warming that everyone has talked about for the past 10 years. I’m not a scientist, and certainly not a meteorologist, but I am observant. I remember things about the previous years, and I see a pattern forming, and it’s one I don’t like.

The past several years has produced some rather dramatic changes in the Great Lakes’ water levels and that of many connecting inland lakes. The Great Lakes undergo a cyclic rise and fall of water levels over the years, and levels have been low for much longer than normal. Five years ago many marinas had to dredge so boats could enter and leave their slips during the summer months.

Look at the Betsie River where it flows under the M-22 bridge between Elberta and Frankfort. Chinook salmon and steelhead runs have been poor for five years, and part of the reason is low water. There is barely enough water flowing through the channel to allow fish to run upstream. Many of those fish, if you can believe some anglers (which I do), turn south out in the lake and head down to Manistee and move up the Manistee River.

Several years ago Crystal Lake didn’t freeze well and I did a story about three men (two from the same family) that broke through the ice. That they lived was a miracle. The ice stayed bad most of the winter. and most anglers took that accident as a sign to beware.

We can take a long look at this year. The stage was set for some excellent ice. Cold weather, freezing temperatures and no wind set the stage in early December, and for two weeks the cold weather was making ice every night. The only problem was several days of 10-inch snow falls.

Then, before Christmas, it began to warm up. Our January thaw began in December, and it melted down the snow pack but that has since changed to bitter cold and plenty of snow earlier this month. The outland put lots of fish in the river before it freezes over again. I’ve seen that happen, and many fish move upstreook for the weekend isn’t too bad, and daytime temps will be in the 20s. Light snow is predicted.

The deer are largely stuck in deer yards by the deep and slightly crusted snow. Getting around is difficult for deer, humans and turkeys/

There was a faint hope for an early steelhead run back in late December and early January when we had a short warming spell, and I remember years ago when I was guiding, when the steelhead run was in full swing in January and February, and over long before the spring thaw began. People who waited until April 1 found few if any fish in the river.

The weather patterns changing. That much is obvious, and it is having an effect on many people who depend on winter sport for most of their yearly income. Bait shops suffer if safe ice doesn’t last through early March, but that will probably be the case this year unless we really have a warm spell. I don’t see that happening this year.

The snowmobile industry was facing a loss of revenue in northern communities that cater to sled riders in the past, but riders have plenty of snow. However, memories of the high gas prices seem to keep people closer to home this year. Downhill skiing, although I don’t partake in that sport, is another business that should be doing well this year.

A lack of snow cover keeps winter hunters housebound. They feed their hounds all year in hopes of having good snow, and when it comes 10-12 inches at a time, it is often difficult to get around in. The snow can become too deep for short-legged beagles.

The weather patterns are changing. Will this change continue? Who knows, but if it does, the economy of northern Michigan may suffer from too much of a good thing. The stakes are growing ever higher the past few years, and people can hang on only so long before they are forced to fold up their business and seek other employment. And we all know what the job market in this state is like.

I try to avoid such doom-and-gloom columns, but the changing weather is talked about in every coffee shop in the north. Many people long for the old-fashioned winters, and I am one of them. This severe cold and deep sno makes for miserable driving, and little fish and game action.

Posted by Dave Richey on 01/16 at 07:15 PM
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