Out, See, Go: Last ice at last

By Chris Engle, outdoors contributor

If you like to ski, snowboard, snowshoe or snowmobile, you had an awesome season. Good for you.

If you like to fish, odds are you didn’t. You’re not alone.

For us poor saps who spend the winter staring at a hole in the ice waiting patiently, then impatiently, for the fish to bite, the phase known as “last ice” is a shot at redemption. The time to redeem our season is now.

We launched into December with optimism, our rods and tipups freshly lined and baited with brand-new lures we convinced our spouses we needed. We marched onto the lake with our heads held high and bored through the few inches of ice without even breaking a sweat. For minimal effort, we caught some fish.

December usually treats us well, and January does too. But February is another story.

As the ice and snow mounted this year, temperatures also dropped. February was the coldest on record for Gaylord. The snow and cold makes our job as anglers challenging but it’s important to remember we are not the only ones affected.

Snow and ice blots out what little sun the lake bottom might see in February. Summer’s robust weed beds collapse and decay, snuffing out the remaining oxygen. The anoxic underwater environment is a harsh world in which to live, and fish cope by slowing their metabolism to a standstill.

This point in the year is so hard that it leaves a physical marker in fish. Annual growth rings on scales and ear bones, or otoliths, which can be seen under a microscope, bear dark bands marking where the fish stopped growing. They’re just like the rings of a tree and the dark ring represents February on a fish’s calendar.

Low metabolism means fish have little use for food. That’s why your electronic fish finder and underwater camera can show panfish all day long but not a single one bites. They’re just not that into you.

February is about the time the Department of Natural Resources starts to put out press releases alerting people to the potential of what they call “winter kill” – the inevitable fish dieoff caused by this anoxic phase. It’s normal, but some years are more severe and it can be shocking to lake residents when the receding ice reveals dozens of dead fish near their shore.

Then comes the glorious “big thaw” as the Weather Channel has been calling it lately. We know it here as “t-shirt weather” and I’ve even seen a few enterprising folks wearing shorts. God bless ‘em.

My daughter, Paige, 3, reels in a perch March 10 on Thumb Lake, north of Gaylord.

My daughter, Paige, 3, reels in a perch March 10 on Thumb Lake, north of Gaylord.

A few things start to happen in March. The snowmelt seeps through holes and cracks into the ice and flows into the lake, carrying with it oxygen the same way your aerator works in your minnow bucket. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air for fish.

Second, sunlight starts to penetrate the ice and warm the lake, getting the fish moving a little more.

Finally, meltwater from the woods flows into creeks, ditches and marshes and eventually into lakes. This tinted water is carrying a message in the form of tannins – compounds from rotting leaves and trees which signal some species that it’s time to spawn.

In Alpena, tannin-stained creeks and ditches turn black with perch this time of year. It’s an awesome sight and a good roadside fishing opportunity.

On Otsego Lake, this meltwater fills up Hoxie Marsh and trickles through a weir and into the lake. This signals pike to head to the north end of the lake where their marsh is ready for them to spawn.

The weir was put in decades ago by the Northland Sportsmen’s Club and the DNR, and volunteers operate it each spring to capture pike and move them into the marsh where they can spawn without other fish species eating their eggs.

Using long-handled nets, club members scoop the pike from the weir, measure and sex them, then release them through a PVC waterslide into the marsh.

A few hundred fish are put in each spring and they’ll remain there for about a month until their eggs hatch. Then, with little fanfare, club members will remove the boards damming the marsh and release the adults and thousands, if not millions, of fry into the lake.

The effort is credited with maintaining a solid pike sport fishery on Otsego Lake and some of those females which get trapped in the weir can top 40 inches.

There is precious little time between now and the day the ice is no longer fishable. In that short window, fishing should pick up. Great weather means it’s also easier to get the whole family out enjoying a sport which is reserved only for the battle-hardened in February.

Put on your shorts and go fishing! The fish are waiting.

– Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County.

Out, See, Go: Mid-winter (ice) break

By Chris Engle, contributor

About this time four years ago, I was aboard the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw, crushing through the frozen Straits on assignment for the Gaylord Herald Times.

The morning mission was not led by the Coast Guard. Instead, a group called Employer Support of Guard and Reserve (ESGR) had commandeered the vessel for the special task of giving employers a chance to experience a day in the life of their enlisted workers. ESGR calls these trips “Boss Lifts” so bosses can earn a greater appreciation for their employees who take leave to serve their country.

The 3-hour tour took myself and a dozen others from the dock at St. Ignace out into the Straits, under the Mackinac Bridge and halfway to the island. All the way we busted through a sheet of ice six inches to a foot thick. The sound of that ice snapping and grating against the hull is something I’ll never forget. If you’re bothered by fingernails on a chalkboard, this is about 10 times worse.

The whole trip I was taking pictures for the paper, peering over the bow and pausing occasionally to scrape frozen water droplets off my camera lens. Air temperatures were somewhere around zero and the breeze from the ship’s steady clip through the Straits made my eyes water and cheeks burn.

Midway through the trip I made my way up to the wheelhouse to catch a break from the elements. The term “wheelhouse” is a misnomer – the Coast Guard calls this part of the ship the “bridge,” which could get confusing when you’re busting ice under an actual bridge – because there is no steering wheel on this boat.

Instead, a young crew member was guiding the Mackinaw with a joystick, the same kind you’d find on your typical arcade Pac-Man machine. Control of the 240-foot behemoth rested in his fingers. I have trouble steering a little yellow circle across a screen – granted I am being chased by ghosts.

Naturally, I asked if I could drive. He politely refused. When you find yourself in that type of situation, always ask.

I never needed the elastic wristbands I’d brought along to relieve sea sickness, or the Dramamine I’d considered taking before the trip. The only motion on the boat was an occasional lurch onto thicker ice before it sank back down again into the churning lake – the thing can break through several feet of ice with ease. The scenery was enough to keep my mind off the movement.

I’ve been a fisherman all my life and there have only been a few instances where I’ve gotten nauseous on the water, and almost all of them involved Lake Huron.

Salmon fishing off the coast of Alpena, about 80 miles south of the Straits, sometimes came with a turn in the weather. The calm lake can quickly churn into 3- and 4-foot waves, which toss a 16-foot aluminum boat around like a bathtub toy. I do not recommend it.

There was another trip many years ago in Munising Bay on Lake Superior – a Pictured Rocks sightseeing trip in my uncle’s fiberglass boat.

Within minutes the weather turned from fair to fearsome. The sky darkened and the lake turned black. Tour boats were heading for the docks and urging us over the marine radio to do the same. Waves were breaking over the open bow and my brother and I bailed water as my uncle turned tail to steer us to shore. Our boat rode the capping waves like a surfboard and we survived the trip.

There’s a saying that goes “A bad day on the water beats a good day at work.” That is a lie.

I have a better saying: No fish is worth dying over. It works all year long and applies to wretched waves and dangerously thin ice. They’re good words to live by if you want to keep living.

I was thinking about that ice breaker trip this weekend while I cleared my driveway of two feet of drifted snow. Forty mile per hour winds had swept corn husks from the field to the north into my yard and they twirled around in the air like New Years confetti. The two-hour chore sent me into a whirl of daydreams.

My moustache froze as my snow blower chugged through the deep snow, and all I could think about was how I’d rather be standing on the frigid bow of the Mackinaw just to hear the splash of open water under my feet.

Just before he bit Mayor Jonathan Freund on the ear, a groundhog in Sun Prairie, Wis. did not see his shadow two weeks ago, suggesting an early spring. Let’s hope he’s right.

- Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Technology Highlights Golf’s Super Bowl, the PGA Merchandise Show!

By GolfPRGuy

It seems like yesterday that I was a young PGA golf professional coming for the first time to buy merchandise and check out the latest buzz at the Super Bowl of the golf industry – the PGA Merchandise Show.

This year marks my 23rd consecutive show.

After walking the millions of square feet of space containing golf equipment, clothing, gadgets and more over the years, I have finally become numb to all of the hype relating to golf equipment, drivers, balls, and irons, which dominated the scene in the 90’s and 2000’s.

Golf equipment doesn’t seem to carry the buzz it once did, mainly because I think we have all figured out the pitch of the marketing machines that are Titleist, TaylorMade, Callaway and Ping. While they all make great equipment, we know we are not going to keep hitting it farther and farther every year with new clubs. Maybe that is why TaylorMade decided to skip the show for the first time in years.

This decade has become the technology era of golf beyond the clubs. GPS systems, swing analyzers and tracking stats seem to be the buzz the past few years. Most of the technology companies even had their own section on the show floor this year to showcase the latest products. GPS rangefinders like Bushnell or SkyGolf and Golf Buddy with their new watches have become the hot product stops.

My time spent on the show floor these days is not as long as it once was, but I do always try to make the rounds and check out what is new and what I might be picking up in 2015.


Get Smart on the links

When I head to the golf course today I feel like Maxwell Smart armed with a shoe phone, watch gadget and other necessary technology to gain the advantage against KAOS. Today, KAOS is any modern golf course with its expanded tees, tight fairways, unrealistic length and overcooked green complexes.

I have become a former traditionalist, at least in that I used to not believe in using GPS technology. I have found though that these new GPS devices help speed up play to battle golf’s KAOS and I find I’m all for it now.

Whether it is one of the new watches from Skygolf or Golf Buddy, or the upgraded handheld units, it’s clear the gadgets help golfers make quicker decisions in club selection. My favorite is the simple Bushnell Pro X7 Jolt Slope (www.bushnellgolf.com). I always want the yardage to the flag, and the combination of factoring in elevation and the vibrating burst when you hit the pin adds that much more confidence to your club selection.

Become a stat geek on the links

When Trackman technology hit the golf scene, it changed the entire dynamics of teaching and custom club fitting. Today, golfers can bring that same technology right to their smart phones and tablets with Arccos (www.arccosgolf.com). Arccos has created sensors that attach to the end of each club.

The sensors are then paired to your device, which allows you to keep track of all your swing stats with no need to tap, touch or interfere with your game during your pre-swing or between shots. Every shot you take is now club to cloudtracked through GPS and Bluetooth technology. Find out exactly how far you’re hitting your driver, woods, and irons, as well as shot patterns. It allows you to react and make the proper changes right away. I believe this is also a perfect product for golf coaches in high school or college. It can help them track players’ shots and performance and help determine what needs to be worked on immediately.

Travel and play in 21st century style

If you are one that travels often and have to deal with airport security, getting clubs in and out of a travel bag, broken zippers and busted wheels, not to mention damaged clubs, make sure to check out the GolfPod by Aeroe Limited (www.aeroegolf.com). The GolfPod is the world’s first hard-shell golf travel case and golf cart bag combination.

bagIf Captain Kirk had brought golf clubs on the Enterprise, this is exactly what he would have used. Its sleek futuristic patented design allows golfers to carry 14 clubs, shoes, balls, tees, gloves, rain suit, water bottles and more in accessible and visible compartments. Fully loaded it also comes in less than 50 pounds, which is critical when traveling. The locking system is also approved by TSA and its compact size does not require it being checked in the oversize luggage area or baggage return counter.

If you are a traditionalist and like traveling to places that encourage or only allow walking, the GolfPod does fit nicely on a pull cart or trolley. If you have a caddie, most places now provide carry bags for the caddies where they can just take the clubs out and put them in their bag. The point – the GolfPod provides a strong sense of security when traveling, so much so that I am not going to let the few times I might walk when traveling sway me from this product.

The $599 price tag might be a bit steep, but when you figure that is what it costs to purchase a decent golf travel bag and a traditional golf bag, it is well worth it for the security of knowing your clubs are going to be secure and safe when traveling.

Tony Hawk would love this product

cart w bag

One of my favorite products this year has to be the Golf Board (www.golfboard.com). Laird Hamilton, the surfing legend, helped to develop this concept of bringing the surf or skate boarding style to the golf course, but I was always partial to Tony Hawk and skate boarding as a kid. Either way this is a cool product and something that can make golf cool and attract the younger generation Y demographic to the game.

GolfBoarding, as it is referred to, allows you to play the game and move around on the course on this unique 4-wheel transporter. The tires are specifically made to be used on turf with less pressure and weight than traditional golf carts. The board is also driven by gearboxes and very smooth to operate with its steering throttle or hand-held remote.

The GolfBoard features a front-end bag mount, which can hold up to a tour bag in size. You can ride the board in three ways; the bag-mount and handle, which is the most conservative; the classic carry and handle, which is what I prefer; or for the more experienced boarders – the free ride with no handle or bag using a remote. I am looking forward to playing my first round with the golf board this summer.

And I will also look forward to a 24th consecutive super show next year.

‘OSG’ update: A first-aid oversight

By Chris Engle, contributor

Hey there, “Out, See, Go” readers!

Earlier this month I talked about 12 ways to be a better outdoorsperson. Among my suggestions was to construct an extremely compact first-aid kit.

The idea of making such a kit as small as possible is to make you more likely to bring it along.

Take this example: My wife and I have one child. The iconic object which comes with a first child is a diaper bag bulging with every baby-care product under the sun: Diapers, lotion, butt wipes, face wipes, hand wipes, pacifier wipes, pacifiers, toys, medicine, fingernail clippers, milk bottles, water bottles (later replaced with sippy cups), stale snacks (replaced by fresh snacks with every outing), and extra diapers in case the first half-dozen are soiled or otherwise spontaneously combust.

After two years of toting this unwieldy sack of baby stuff we stopped bringing it on short trips. For that we paid dearly — no spare diapers, no hand/face/butt wipes, no snacks when we needed them most.

In other words, NO FUN.

In time we found a happy medium of grabbing a diaper or two, a snack and some hand sanitizer on the way out the door. This is my current m.o. as a stay-at-home dad and it works.

Same goes for a first-aid kit. Cramming too much stuff into a kit makes it hard to pack or carry, thus making it a good candidate to be left behind. A first-aid kit that can fit into a pocket is much better than not having one at all, even if it doesn’t have everything under the sun.

And this is where I have to include a correction to this month’s blog. My recommended kit left out a few small but quite important things. A reader named Dave called me out:

“Add super glue to your first-aid kit to hold together bad cuts. They do in the (emergency room). Also emergency kit for bird dogs.”

A warning for anyone about to close a cut with super glue: It burns like the devil. But Dave’s right — it works, it’s waterproof, and as someone whose dad was an ER nurse for 13 years, they do use it there.

His other point about bird dogs is also valid. If you bring along a dog for hunting or companionship, make sure they’re taken care of. This means being able to treat cuts, especially on the pads of their feet. Most pet stores have the proper ointment for that.

One more note about dogs and first-aid kits, again based on personal experience: Bring tweezers or surgical pliers. This was my biggest oversight in my first-aid suggestions.

These utensils would’ve come in handy when Miley got into a porcupine a few years ago. Initially I couldn’t do much more than put her in the car and drive her home. The next two weeks were spent pulling deeply embedded quills from her front legs with tweezers.

There’s all sorts of outdoor hazards which warrant having tweezers or pliers on hand, the most likely of which are splinters from firewood or impromptu piercings from fish hooks.

So there, I think that covers it. I’d be happy to hear any more of your suggestions. Email me at englemobile@gmail.com.


A tarp acts as a rain fly for a small backpacking tent at camp in the Pigeon River Country State Forest.

Out, See, Go: 12 ways to be a better outdoorsperson

By Chris Engle, contributor

It’s January now and prime time for cabin fever to kick in. I’ve been fiddling with the idea of a camping outing in February – my first winter camp in a few years – but until then I thought I’d share some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head lately.

Over the years I’ve read lots of magazine articles teaching really intensive skills for really intensive adventures. The thing is, each time one of those articles is published, I worry another person is scared off from getting outside and trying something new because they don’t have the time or tools they’re convinced they need.

Northern Michigan doesn’t have mountains. Aside from the Pictured Rocks we have no sheer cliffs. Venomous insects and snakes are almost nonexistent.

What we do have are lots of lakes, pretty extreme temperatures and some vast wilderness, so a little preparation, basic items, and know-how goes a long way for local explorers.

Here they are, in no particular order of importance, my suggestions men and women can use to improve themselves outdoors.

Learn to sew. I’ll lead this list with one skill that far too many people reserve for the ladies: sewing. Remember your guy friend from high school who took home economics as a way to meet girls? Well, he learned how to bake a killer pie, balance a checkbook down to the cent, and sew an awesome flannel shirt from scratch – not to mention he probably scored a few phone numbers in the process.

My mom taught me how to sew when I was a teenager. My first project was to mend a tear in my bedskirt. I still have that bedding set stashed away. It’s Realtree camo, by the way.

Since then I’ve sewn up tears in my hiking pack, repaired jackets, replaced buttons, stitched stuffed trout shut for the frying pan and fixed countless shirts for my wife and daughter. There’s definitely a sense of pride that comes from making old things new again with a simple needle and thread. It also saves a lot of money you would’ve otherwise spent on new gear.

Buy a glue gun and use it everywhere. Whatever a needle and thread can’t close up, a glue gun definitely will. A $3 glue gun bought me a couple more seasons with my old neoprene waders when their rubber boots began to dry and crack. Glue guns make great gifts for Valentine’s Day.

Buy a knife sharpener or whetstone and learn how to use it. A dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one because you have to force the blade through whatever you’re cutting. Once it’s through, the blade will keep going, sometimes into your other hand. A sharp knife makes for light work and cleaner cuts. There are videos online that teach sharpening skills.

Get some waterproofing spray. When my older brother bought his first pair of Airwalk sneakers, he applied five or six coats of waterproofing spray over the course of a week, letting each coat dry for about a day. They looked brand new for five years and even now, 18 years later, they still look pretty good. Imagine what the stuff can do for your boots.

Don’t worry about knots. I was never a Boy Scout or sailor so I don’t know many knots. Even so, I’ve gotten through life outdoors just fine with square knots and fisherman’s knots. If not knowing knots is the thing holding you back, don’t let it.

Whittle things. Seriously, the way to a woman’s heart is with a well-whittled marshmallow stick for s’mores by the campfire. And ladies, present your man with a handcrafted weenie roaster and you will send his heart racing — and not just because of the cholesterol.

When my dad was a kid he whittled a giant fork and spoon for my grandma. To this day the utensils hang on her kitchen wall and she counts them among her most prized possessions. Remember that come Mothers Day.

Own two tarps. Use one for dirty work like hauling leaves and covering your wood pile at home. Keep the other one clean for camping and tie some ropes to the corners in case you’ll need it for emergency shelter or shade.

Forage things. Mushrooms can be scary if you don’t know what you’re doing. So can berries, but if you stick to recognizable ones like raspberries, blackberries and blueberries you’ll be ok. Even dandelions are edible, goldenrod can be brewed into tea, and wild mint makes a great backcountry breath freshener once you’ve wooed your lady friend with your whittling skills.

Learning to forage means learning to recognize good plants from bad, and that should definitely come in handy next time you go to the bathroom in the woods, if you know what I mean.

Build a fire. Start small with kindling of dry twigs, pine needles and thin strips of birch bark. Once that’s going, add larger twigs and pine branches. Add a log once you’ve got some coals going. Don’t be afraid to crouch down and blow on the embers – it’s amazing how much hotter they’ll burn with a little infusion of oxygen. Get good at these things before you get into the teepee-versus-log cabin-style campfire construction debate that’s been raging for millennia.

Assemble a super simple first aid/survival kit. When it comes to kits, the smaller the better. I’m talking fit-in-your-pocket small so you’re more apt to bring it along. Things to include: A CD or small mirror and whistle for signaling (blasts of three means distress), waterproof matches, large and small bandages, cotton balls or gauze, medical tape, Motrin or Tylenol, and burn ointment. That’s it. Put it all in a 1-quart Ziploc bag.

Knowing basic first aid is just as important as having a kit, so bring that know-how along too.

Have a sense of direction. A compass is only good if you have one – duh – and know how to use it. Will Phillips, tweeting @TheThryll, posted this on Twitter: “If you get lost in the woods, a compass can help you get lost more north.” So true.

You can hone your sense of direction while driving by quizzing yourself on what direction you’re headed. Learn how to read the sun and shadows while walking in the woods. If you get lost, stop, relax and listen for road noise or a creek to get your bearings. Panicking will only make things worse.

Buy a headlamp. The headlamp is the greatest invention since the discovery of fire. A lightweight LED headlamp leaves your hands free for other tasks – fishing, gathering wood, cooking or whatever. $30 goes a long way in the headlamp department and the investment is worth every cent.

Did I miss anything? Feel free to add your own in the comments section or email me your thoughts, englemobile@gmail.com.

– Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County.

Me and my dog at Section Four Pond during a July 2009 hike with friends.

Out, See, Go: Adventure is relative

By Chris Engle, contributor

A friend of mine works for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado. His job is to four-wheel and backpack his way up Colorado mountainsides and clear trails with his chainsaw. On his days off, he posts pictures to Facebook for every 14,000-foot mountain he summits in the Denver area. He’s at 24 and counting.

Another buddy in the Forest Service – coincidentally they’re both named Eric – has fought forest fires on an island in Washington’s Puget Sound. He and his fellow firefighters spend days at a time living in the backcountry working 14- and 16-hour shifts digging trenches and bulldozing fire breaks in the trees. They sleep in tents and eat out of cans and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

I, on the other hand, feel like I live on the opposite end of the high-adventure spectrum. I’ve rarely wandered outside of Michigan and have never left the country. I didn’t go to a university where they offered rock climbing or backcountry canoeing as electives. I regret that I’ve never seen Yellowstone National Park or the Appalachian Mountains but it doesn’t mean I never will.

Even so I’ve still taken some really great camping trips with family and friends and some of my best memories come from time spent in the Pigeon River Country State Forest with the two Erics.

I hiked the Shingle Mill Pathway with Eric Collins – “Colorado Eric” – and another friend Nathan in July 2009. We took our time covering the 12-mile loop.

The first day we stopped at Section Four Pond, an emerald-green sinkhole lake once stocked with trout. We fished for an hour in the hot sun before a thunderstorm rolled in and, for the next 20 minutes, it rained harder than I’ve ever seen before. We took shelter under overhanging branches – I chose to sit in a patch of poison ivy.

Once the storm passed Nathan caught a beautiful little rainbow trout that glimmered in the sunshine like a piece of silver jewelry.

That night, by the fire, Eric unpacked a small Rubbermaid container with all the fixings for three smores. He recited a line from “The Sandlot” as he assembled his sandwich of chocolate and marshmallow.

“First you take the graham,” he said. “You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the mallow. When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate then you cover it with the other end.

“THEN you stuff,” he said, taking a bite. We were rolling laughing with his ridiculously spot-on memory of the 90s movie.

MY FIRST TWO winter camping adventures were shared with Eric Dasso – “Washington Eric” – at Cornwall Flooding in the Pigeon River forest.

On the first trip we spent over an hour chopping through two feet of ice with a hatchet to try and catch a meal of panfish. Our cone-shaped hole tapered to just a couple inches wide when we finally broke through the bottom. Maybe it was all that chopping which scared the fish away but we never even got a bite.

That night our tarp shelter crinkled in the wind so much that we hardly got any sleep.

On the second time out I had a 30-minute lead ahead of Eric snowshoeing through the woods to our campsite. The sun set, it got cold, my sweat froze and I got nervous. My snowshoe caught a hidden branch and I fell. My bag chair, camera tripod and sleeping bag came loose from the straps of my pack and sank into the snow. I was miserable and it was the scariest moment I’ve ever had in the woods.

I collected my things and eventually made it to camp in the dark. I had time to build a fire and dry some of my clothes before Eric finally showed. He had reluctantly followed my tracks into thick tag alders knowing I’d made a wrong turn. Instead of taking the correct route, he pursued me to make sure I was OK.

Now there’s a friend.

THAT’S what these kinds of trips are good for. Whether it’s one night or 10, special bonds form when you spend time together in the outdoors.

Another friend of mine, Alex Code, has climbed rock cliffs in at least six states and met his girlfriend on a month-long canoeing excursion they were leading together in Canada. They had 20-some college freshmen tagging along as they paddled from lake to lake, spending as much time on the water as they did on shore.

He taught one girl, who had never canoed before, how to hold her paddle sideways while portaging over a bog so that it would stop her fall if she were to break through the floating mat of moss.

Another student ran screaming into the woods when the constant swarms of mosquitoes caused him to crack the first night.

He’s spent the night on a rock ledge jutting out from a cliff face and resumed climbing the next day.

Alex told me these stories Saturday while we fished together on Manuka Lake. This was no high-adventure trip, just a short drive and a very short walk onto the ice where we caught a couple bluegill and a bass.

I told him about a five-day hike I took along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the Upper Peninsula – my longest and greatest backcountry trip ever but a cake-walk compared to his experiences.

“I’ve always wanted to do that,” he said. “I love that place.”

– Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: Yup, that’s ice alright!

Yesterday, the opening day of rifle deer season, I drove my family to the first buck pole Gaylord’s seen in a few years. DerMiner’s Parkside Market, across the street from Otsego Lake State Park, had three small bucks hanging from the A-frame pole by noon and about every car traveling that stretch of Old 27 was stopping or slowing down to check out the deer. That’s pretty standard for “St. Antlers Day” in Northern Michigan.

But that wasn’t the only spectacle on the snowy highway that day.

To the west, almost the entire surface of Otsego Lake was covered in ice. This is a typical sight for the first week of December but is highly unusual for now.

One of my hobbies, if you could call it that, is to keep notes of every fishing trip I take. My notes go back to 2007, two years after I moved to Gaylord from Alpena. From that year on I have hundreds of entries summarizing the lakes I visited, whom I was with, what I caught, where on the lake or river I fished, and any other interesting details I wanted to log for future use. It’s actually really helpful when it comes to planning fishing outings throughout the year and I’ll blog about it another day.

As the years went by I started adding other non-fishing related notes including ice on/ice off dates. A coworker who commuted past Otsego Lake every day would start paying close attention this time of year, and again in spring, and would let me know when the ice appeared and when it broke up so I could log it in my journal.

Since 2007 the earliest I’ve seen it ice up was last year, when winter came early and Otsego froze over around Nov. 24. Never, in my 30 years, have I seen ice this soon.

This probably seems insignificant to most people but if you’re reading this blog then you are probably one of the few who actually cares about this sort of thing. Good for you!

Early ice, in my opinion, means a few things.

First, the dreaded gap between putting the boat away and breaking out the ice shanty will be much, much shorter this season. I don’t deer hunt so I’m usually spending these weeks drumming my fingers in anticipation of ice fishing season and it drives my wife crazy. I think she’s secretly happy to see me get out of the house when it’s time for me to go punch my first holes in the ice.

Secondly, early-season ice fishing is usually pretty good. All those weed beds that built up over the summer haven’t completely died and collapsed yet, leaving some good shelter where fish still like to hang out. Seeking out those weed beds you fished in fall is a good strategy come winter.

The water is also well oxygenated so fish are still active. Things change a lot come February when two feet of ice deprives lakes and their fish of vital oxygen. That’s when the Department of Natural Resources starts putting out press releases about inevitable fish die-offs. My journal entries for the last six or seven Februaries are pretty pitiful.

Just because there’s ice out there right now doesn’t mean it is safe. There’s still one large, open spot north of Otsego Lake State Park and some of the area’s deeper lakes probably don’t have ice yet.

The most important thing now for ice to build is steady, cold temperatures and minimal snow. Any snow we get during this crucial time of first ice will make it spongy and unstable. Even under the best circumstances I’m still going to give it two weeks before I venture out.

When I finally do I’ll probably be heading to Thumb Lake, about a half-hour drive north of Gaylord in Charlevoix County. In December of last year I landed my three biggest splake ever, including a 20-inch monster. They were hanging out in shallow water near the boat launch and hit my waxworm-tipped jig like a freight train.

Now that all Michigan fishing licenses are good for all species, there’s no need to spend extra money to fish for trout. That’s good because ice fishing is about as low budget as hobbies get.

Even though I’m getting amped for ice fishing, hunting isn’t quite out of the question. Tromping through the woods on snowshoes in search of rabbits and grouse is a lot of fun and a good way to burn off those extra Thanksgiving calories. Remember: You have to stay out of the woods until Dec. 1 when rifle deer season ends. It’s the law and for your own safety.

Alright, my neighbor just texted me to say he got a spikehorn buck this morning. It’s time for me to do my neighborly thing and give him a hand hanging it up in the garage.

Good luck with whatever you do in the next few weeks, and happy Thanksgiving!

– Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Out, See, Go: My picks for colorful hikes and drives

By Chris Engle, contributor

One thing that’s always amazed me about Gaylord is how I can drive 10 minutes in almost any direction and go from city to country to wilderness in that short window of time.

Sometimes it’s even less.

Here’s a great example: The Alpine Soccer Complex is a huge expanse of manicured turf on Ohio Avenue, one of Gaylord’s busiest side streets. It hosts huge tournaments and regular scrimmages and is a stone’s throw from our hospital and St. Mary Cathedral, the heart of the Catholic diocese for Northern Michigan.

But drive north past the complex and Ohio Avenue abruptly turns into Morgan Road. Soccer fields and residential streets give way to farmland and groves of trees. City water towers become silos and barns.

It’s also the back way to Vanderbilt and the Pigeon River Country State Forest which I learned when my friend’s dad, who coincidentally lives just off Ohio Avenue, took this way on one of my first fishing trips to the Pigeon. Now I have a bit of a special attachment to this route.

Which brings me to my next point: This is the time of year when we’re all scrambling to fit in a colorful drive or hike on a weekend or after work. Thankfully, with Gaylord’s proximity to some great back roads and foot trails, we don’t have to drive an hour just to get somewhere to drive some more.

So here’s my list of great hikes and drives, ranked in order from closest and easiest to farthest and hardest, keeping in mind they’re all within a stone’s throw of Gaylord.

Five Lakes Natural Area

Location: Five Lakes Road, off Murner Road or North Townline Road, 10-15 minutes from Gaylord.

Specifications: 1.1 miles of gentle, narrow trails.

Of all the area around Five Lakes, this nature area is the only public access. It is owned by Gaylord Community Schools and maintained by the Otsego Conservation District as a public place to view wildlife and native plants.

A long dock extends into one of the lakes to offer glimpses of frogs and fish and a beautiful panoramic view of the lake.

More about the nature area can be found here.

Pine Baron Pathway

Location: At the end of Lone Pine Road, off Old Alba Road, 10 minutes from Gaylord.

Specs: Clover-shaped network of trail loops, each about 2 miles long. Two-track trail with gentle inclines is good for walking and biking. Off-road baby stroller friendly.

This is my favorite local hiking trail year round but the best part about this pathway in fall is all the colorful mushrooms.

The hiking/skiing pathway is maintained by the Department of Natural Resources and is as much a logging area as it is a recreational area. Massive stumps line the pathway in some spots as a monument to the historic use of the place. It’s still actively cut each year which generates new growth for upland birds and new stumps for the dozens of mushroom varieties which grow there.

Sturgeon River Preserve

Location: Whitmarsh Road, off Old 27 North, where the road crosses the river.15-20 minutes from Gaylord

Specs: Two short trail loops on 40 acres. The trail is steepest at its entrance.

This is the newest member to the family of hiking trails in the Gaylord area. It was purchased in 2011 from a private landowner and donated to Gaylord-based HeadWaters Land Conservancy with the intent to make it into a public preserve.

Volunteers have been working to build the trails which meander through hilly and rugged country near the river. The trail purposefully steered clear of the fast-flowing Sturgeon River to avoid problems with erosion and damage to aquatic habitat, but the river can be viewed from the roadway and a short stretch of the trial.

A sign at the entrance pays homage to the late “Rusty” Gates, owner of Gates AuSable Lodge and founder of Anglers of the AuSable who was also known to venture north and fish the Sturgeon River.

Just driving here is pretty in itself because of the rolling hills and thick forests of maple trees.

Deadman’s Hill Overlook and Jordan River Pathway

Location: At the end of Deadman’s Hill Road, off US-131, about 4 miles south of M-32 in Elmira. 20-25 minutes from Gaylord.

Specs: 100-yard walk up gentle incline to overlook area. There is also a 3-mile trail loop over steep terrain into and out of the valley, an 18-mile loop for 2-day hikes, and a 1-hour scenic drive through the valley. Outhouse available at overlook.

The overlook is one of the most popular sightseeing destinations in the area because of its unmatched view looking west over the 18,000 acre Jordan River Valley. Even so, there’s plenty of room for everyone to take pictures and soak in the sights.

The trail runs south along the ridge offering a few different vantage points to those who want an easy out-and-back hike of about a mile or so. The 3-mile loop requires commitment, with good shoes, a bottle of water and at least a few hours before sunset. It gets dark fast in the valley.

If you want to see the entire valley by car, Jordan River Road meanders through the whole thing. Get on the dirt road off US-131 just south of Elmira and take it deep into the valley. Good tires and smart driving is helpful in some sandy spots at the beginning.

You’ll have at least three or four good spots to get out and see the river, including the first spot where the river practically pours out from the base of the hill. That is the origin of the river which eventually ends 25 miles away in East Jordan.

Before you leave the valley make sure to stop at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery which is free and open to the public. The raceway houses are open for viewing some of the 2 million lake trout reared there annually.

That should be enough to get you started. If all else fails get yourself a good map, a tank of gas and a bag of snacks, and go find your own favorite spot.

– Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

The Ryder Cup is due for a major overhaul and Phil Mickelson is the man to do it!

By GolfPRGuy

After a few days of digesting yet another Ryder Cup loss for the U.S. it is very apparent that the time for major change has come, and Phil Mickelson just might be the person to make it happen.

I was one of the Tom Watson supporters when he was first announced as captain two years ago, and felt he would bring firm leadership and figure out a model to take the cup back home. But after a series of mishaps beginning with picking Webb Simpson, then not putting the rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed back out on Friday afternoon after they whipped a set of Euros in best-ball and finally climaxing when he benched one of the teams best players, its leader, and one of the greatest players in history for the entire day on Saturday, I quickly realized that Watson was way out of his league and not ready for the Ryder Cup in the 21st century.

The bottom line – I’m not sure even if Watson had made the proper decisions that the U.S. could have beaten this European team, which was a combined 110-under-par for the three days compared to just 78-under for the U.S. team. It could have been closer though.

The question remains: What does the PGA of America do moving forward to developing the model to compete with the Europeans? Phil Mickelson made it clear that Paul Azinger’s Pod formula was a successful model to get the job done, which he expressed in the post round news conference by basically tossing his captain under the bus. While I did not agree with the platform Phil used to express his displeasure, he wasn’t wrong. I also can’t say Watson did not deserve Phil’s criticism after he benched him on Saturday. I know Phil is aging, but would Phil Jackson sit Koby Bryant or Michael Jordan out for the first half of an NBA finals game because they might be tired or their shot was off? I think not.

The days of the PGA of America selecting a captain as an honorary entitled position is long over. We need a consistent and successful model moving forward. The U.S. is never going to win every Ryder Cup. The Europeans are great players, but so are we and winning the Ryder Cup more than twice since 1999 needs to change.

I think the formula moving forward is simple, and I think Phil might have been putting himself out there to take over the reigns. The PGA of America needs to have a meeting with Phil, Paul Azinger and Tiger Woods and make Phil the captain for the next five Ryder Cups, along with having Paul Azinger as the co-captain in 2016 and Tiger Woods a vice-captain. Phil and Paul could further develop the pod system that can be carried on for the next twenty years and also implement that Pod system for the Walker Cup and the Junior Ryder Cup.

Tiger Woods would serve as a Vice-Captain, who would still be playing. But he could take the reigns in 2026 after Bethpage and other Vice Captains could include Fred Couples, Steve Stricker, Keegan Bradley and David Toms. They are all players who can relate to the current players.

Phil could still play in the Ryder Cup, possibly through 2020 at Whistling Straits, but his presence, along with Azinger’s pod system, would develop a Ryder Cup culture for the U.S. that is much needed when competing against the Europeans. Adding in Tiger Woods to that captaincy team for the next ten years and then having him transition into the captain position for another five Ryder Cups beyond that would put the Ryder Cup in great hands and certainly bring the cup back to the U.S. on a more consistent basis.

Out, See, Go: My top-ten favorite outdoor smells

By Chris Engle, contributor

Top-10 lists are kind of silly. Not because of the point they’re trying to make – that these 10 things are better than anything else – but because the order of the rankings is so subjective.

A good example is the “all-time greatest rock songs” list. No matter who’s doing the ranking, be it VH1, Rolling Stone, etc., the top 10 always includes Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” and Lynrd Skynrd’s “Free Bird” in some particular order.

By now you’ve probably ranked these songs according to your own tastes and maybe even discounted one or two.

I don’t blame you – as a 90s kid I automatically put Nirvana closer to the top. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is not the greatest rock song of all time in my opinion but it had a huge impact on my generation and generations since. That’s what earns its place.

My dad taught me that songs or bands can’t be judged solely on whether they were a hit at the time, but by the influence they had on the musicians who followed. Nirvana certainly had that ripple effect.

So, with that in mind, here are my top 10 favorite outdoor smells. Some aren’t that great on their own but made the list because of the memories I associate with them. Nostalgia plays a huge role in deciding what constitutes a“favorite” anything, especially smells.

Speaking of smells, “Teen Spirit” was a contrived brand of deodorant fed to teenagers with cheesy commercials in the 90s. Coincidentally, there were also a lot of sweaty teens in Nirvana’s music video for the song.

Alright, on to the smells:

#10: Campfire

This is an easy choice since about any great camping memory can be triggered by the scent of a campfire. The smell reminds me of roasted hot dogs and good times with friends and family. A campfire brings light and comfort on cool nights and companionship when you’re camping alone.

#9: Fresh-cut cedar

Every September my dad and I rebuilt our duck blind with fresh cedar boughs. The combination of fall air and cedar takes me right back to those early mornings waiting for the silhouettes of ducks to fly in. There’s a reason people put cedar in their closets and in keepsake chests: It smells awesome.

#8: Hot pine needles and sand

When sand gets superheated by the sun it roasts any dead pine needles on top, making the air heavy with the smell of pine. This is a common phenomenon at many state forest campgrounds in Otsego County and the surrounding area and it smells really, really good.

#7: Burnt gunpowder

File this one in the “unpleasant on its own” category. A jar of this scent would probably not be a hot seller but it pairs great with wet grass, fall woods or anywhere else a hunter chases game. It’s the smell of adrenaline in the field. All senses are on alert when this aroma hangs in the air.

#6: Thunderstorm

If there’s anything better than the sound of a good thunderstorm it’s the smell afterward. A regular rainstorm smells great but its hot cousin smells better. A thunderstorm leaves the scent of ozone in its wake which says:“The storm is over, time to go play!”

#5: Tent nylon

A dry tent unrolling at a campsite marks the beginning of a great camping trip. A musty tent still damp from the previous outing marks a not-so-great beginning but it will dry out eventually. Maybe.

#4: First snowstorm

If there’s anything that can relieve the sadness and despair that comes with seeing winter’s first snowflakes (sorry, I prefer the other three seasons), it’s the smell of that snow. The dampness of fall is wiped away and the air takes on a crispness like a freshly opened bag of potato chips, and everyone can agree the first chip tastes best.

#3: Bacon

What’s a camping breakfast without the sweet aroma of bacon frying on a Coleman stove? Also, bacon is totally hot right now and I have no choice but to pander to the pork-wagon. I draw the line at bacon-flavored toothpaste though. Is bacon really that great?

#2: Outboard motor exhaust

This is another one for the “unpleasant” category for most people but I absolutely lust over this smell. It signals the start to a day of fishing and I drink the first cloud of it in like a hot cup of coffee. It is stronger than caffeine but that might just be the oxygen deprivation talking.

#1: Spring rain

The number-one slot is a tough one to fill but a spring rain just has so much working in its favor. A good April shower signals the end of a six-month winter and means that May and June, my favorite months, are just around the corner. The birds are singing, things magically turn from brown to green, and I finally get to wear a t-shirt outside. Man, that feels good!

There you have it. I’d love to hear what you think I left out, what I got wrong, and what I got right. Show me your teen spirit.

Chris Engle is a stay-at-home dad, an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.