Author Archives: admin

Out See Go: Winter camping on the horizon

By Chris Engle, contributor

About eight years ago I bought my first axe. Technically it was a three-quarter axe – a lighter and more compact version of a standard one – but well suited for camping and backpacking for its portability.

I got it at a farm and home store, where burly lumberjack and contractor types usually come to replace their Carhartt overalls when they wear through their old ones with hard labor. These kinds of guys can sand wood with the rough palms of their hands. My fingers mainly punch keyboard keys and are baby soft. I typically don’t belong in these kinds of stores.

When I brought the axe to the register the young female cashier turned it over and read the label out loud, which I had really, really hoped she wouldn’t do.

“Boy’s axe?” she asked. Sensing my embarrassment she pulled out a black Sharpie, popped off the cap and crossed “boy’s” off the label. Now it was just an axe. A man’s axe, for chopping down trees and building houses and grooming.

That winter, before I even got to try it out, the axe fell into the snow when my sled tipped over just a few minutes into a winter camping trip. I didn’t realize I had lost it until the next day and, by then, fresh snow had obscured the previous day’s tracks and further buried my beloved boy’s axe. I mean man’s axe.

My friend and I got through the camping trip just fine without it but, in the middle of the Pigeon River Country State Forest in the middle of winter, fire is essential and anything that makes it easier to gather fuel to feed a fire is too.

With winter on the horizon I thought the time was right to share a few tips and things to bring if you’re thinking about planning a winter-camping adventure of your own. The sport is more popular than you think and serves just as well as summer camping when it comes to making lifetime memories.

Know your limits

In good health, gentle terrain, a light pack and comfortable shoes, an experienced backpacker can hike 10 miles a day without issue. Winter, however, brings a number of new challenges to deal with.

First and foremost, you’ll be wearing and carrying more clothes and gear and possibly wearing snowshoes. This equals added weight, faster exhaustion and lots of sweating. Dressing in layers is essential in regulating your body temperature and keeping your clothes from soaking up too much sweat. Once you stop or the sun goes down, that sweat is going to evaporate and/or freeze which can dramatically increase your chance of hypothermia. Take breaks to catch your breath and cool down during your hike, and consider investing in non-cotton underclothes.

The best way to know your limits is to keep your hiking distance short. You will not be able to cover as much ground as you do in summer, plain and simple. Establish a base camp within a mile of your starting point then, if you want to explore further, take day hikes from camp. It’s a good way to discover things you’d otherwise miss by just charging through the woods from point A to point B.


Think about the breath you see coming out of your mouth in cold weather. That’s water vapor leaving your body and it must be replaced. The low humidity of winter air pulls a lot of moisture from your skin and lungs, and wind speeds up this process. Sweat from the added exertion of moving through snow or pulling a sled also speeds up dehydration.

Start your journey with plenty of water and consider camping near a source of fresh water, like a stream or frozen lake (and bring a boy’s axe to chop through the ice). Melting snow in a pot over a fire or stove is a long, tedious process and eating handfuls of snow is a bad idea.

Bring meals that will increase your fluid intake. Canned soups are good for short trips; dry soup mixes are lighter weight for longer journeys, and both will help replenish your lost fluids and electrolytes. Not to get too graphic but if your urine is dark yellow – or if you’re not peeing at all — you need to drink water.

Tea is a good use of water you boiled to sterilize it. Limit your alcohol consumption. Don’t bother with beer – it’s heavy and too much work to keep it from freezing, just trust me on this one.

Cook something

Don’t forget why you are camping – the experience, right? Nothing amps up a camping experience like a good meal, so take advantage of the fact you’re camping in nature’s refrigerator and bring along some raw meat to grill over the fire. A venison steak from this year’s buck or some fresh fish skewered on a roasting stick may be your best memory of the whole trip.

And again, anything that requires boiled water is a good thing to eat.

If you don’t have a camp stove, pick up some cans of chafing fuel – these are the little burners you see under food pans at catered events (sometimes called Sterno). A six-pack of chafing fuel costs $10 at Gordon Foods. Each burns for six hours and is reclosable with a twist-on lid. You’ll need to devise some sort of stand for your cooking pot and that’s what wire coat hangers are for.

There’s also some awesome YouTube videos on how to build your own camp stove from empty pop cans. This one is my favorite.

Bring bug spray

Hahaha, just kidding. There’s no bugs.

Fire and shelter

Stash lighters and matches in your pockets and throughout your gear. That way if one gets wet, there are backups.

An axe – full size or otherwise – or a saw will help when it comes to gathering dry wood and dead branches. A sled is good for towing loads of wood back to camp and for all other uses.

I’ve used both tents and tarps for shelter. Don’t expect these to keep you warm – that’s all up to your sleeping bag and bed roll. Get off the snow the best you can and bundle up.

I’ve heard of people building snow caves to sleep in at night and the insulation factor of snow is actually pretty good. It’s definitely something I’ve wanted to try.

Winter is long here in Northern Michigan so you might as well find something to do with it. Happy camping!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times. He lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at

Out See Go: Explore the Jordan now or later

If you didn’t make it to the top of Deadman’s Hill to check out the colors this year well, you’re a little late.

At 1,329 feet, the peak offers a bird’s-eye view of the Jordan River Valley which, only a week ago, was lit up like the Fourth of July. Aside from one or two cell towers in the distance, there’s not a single manmade structure in sight – just trees, rolling hills and a winding river for as far as the eye can see. Rightfully so, it’s a hotspot for tourists and locals who flock to the summit for photos.

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

A view of the Jordan River and surrounding fall colors. Photo by Chelsea Engle

That moment has come and gone but it’s still worth the trip to go see the valley for yourself, either from the top of the hill or from the spring-fed river for which the valley is named. Its 18,000 acres of protected and picturesque public land has much more to offer if you’re willing to look. The best part is that the valley is beautiful year round, so you’re never too late.

For your convenience, here are some of my favorite waypoints within the Jordan River Valley, some with basic directions of how to get there. In return, I ask you to leave these places better than you found them – pick up any trash you see and treat the area with respect. Much appreciated.

Deadman’s Hill Overlook

This is the easiest way to see the valley but you’ll have to work a little harder to experience it. More on that later.

Visitors to Deadman's Hill will read about the fate of "Big Sam," a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill's name.

Visitors to Deadman’s Hill will read about the fate of “Big Sam,” a lumberjack whose tragic fate in 1910 led to the hill’s name.

Access to the overlook is located on Deadman’s Hill Road just a few miles south of Elmira on US-131. Take the road to the end and follow the signs to the parking area. There’s a pit toilet and information kiosk here. It’s also the trailhead for a three-mile day hike and an 18-mile overnight loop.

Landslide Overlook

This is the lesser known but equally spectacular view of the valley from its southern end. The 18-mile loop will get you here but so will your car. Head west from Alba on C-42 a few miles until you see a brown DNR sign for the overlook on the north side of the road. Take that dirt road to the end. Keep in mind that both overlooks are at the end of seasonal roads.

The day hike

Don’t be fooled by the term “day hike” – even the 3-mile loop descends several hundred feet into the valley and calls for good hiking boots, a bottle of water and a starting time at least 4 hours before sundown. The sun sets early this time of year and it gets dark fast in the valley, so allow yourself enough time to get back out.

Basic survival stuff — knife, lighter and whistle – is recommended just in case you get lost. There’s only one road out and it’s a heck of a walk.

That said, you’ll be rewarded with good exercise, a deck view of one of the river’s feeder springs and a nice photo op with a gigantic rock left behind by the glacier that carved the valley.

The overnighter

I finally did this hike in 2012 with a couple friends. At the midway point is Pinney Bridge Campground, set back from the river on a hill. This stretch of the river is really unique for the dozens of little islands throughout, each one connected to the next with cedar roots serving as bridges.

Pinney Bridge crosses the Jordan River at a decent fishing and swimming hole but keep in mind the river fed by groundwater is extremely cold year round. The bridge can be reached by heading east off M-68 via Pinney Bridge Road.

My friends and I had planned on a trout dinner on our overnighter. We caught a few small trout but ended up eating a lot of rice and beans.

The first day we followed the river and got some fishing in. The second day took us to the hatchery and Landslide Overlook, plus a lot of elevation changes. It’s hard work but worth it.

Jordan River National Fish Hatchery

There’s three ways in to the hatchery: The trail, the road winding through the valley, and a nice paved road a few miles south of Elmira off US-131.

The federal hatchery produces about 2.2 million lake trout annually which are released into the Great Lakes. Currently they’re adding another raceway building which will house an experimental herring-rearing program.

The raceway buildings are open to the public and so are the numerous wildflower gardens on the hatchery grounds. They’re definitely worth a trip in the summer when thousands of native plants are in full bloom.

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The many wildflower gardens at the Jordan River National Fish Hatchery have been planted to attract pollinators like this honeybee. Photo by Chris Engle

The salmon

There’s another interesting fish in the river and it has nothing to do with the hatchery. Though I’ve never spotted one alive, salmon run up the Jordan this time of year to spawn. I’ve only seen their carcasses.

Salmon running upriver is nothing new. What’s unique in this case is the obstacles they have to overcome to get as far up the Jordan as they do.

The fish leave Lake Michigan and swim through Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix before entering the river at East Jordan. From there they swim another 15 miles upstream, vaulting over cedar roots and under deadfalls, sometimes in only six inches of water. Finally they reach gravel spawning beds, do their business and die. Since salmon spawn where they hatch, all this effort must pay off.

All of this is what makes the Jordan River Valley a special place year round and it is always worth the adventure.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, stay-at-home dad and outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau and the Gaylord Herald Times. He can be reached at

Out, See, Go: Hunting corpses on the Sturgeon River pathway

By Chris Engle, contributor

If you’re in the forest this fall at the right place and time, you just might see a ghost.

The woods of Northern Michigan are home to one of North America’s scarcest and strangest flowers: Monotropa uniflora, the ghost plant. It’s also known as Indian pipe but, with Halloween on the horizon, I prefer its more macabre name, the corpse plant.

This tiny flower should not be confused with the giant tropical plant of the same name, known for its blossoms which give off a pungent aroma of rotting bodies. Be thankful we don’t have those here.

Michigan’s corpse plants stand only a few inches tall. They are usually found in clusters of 5 or 10 stalks, each one curled over in a cane shape and tipped with a bell-like flower.

Even stranger than its name is its color: The whole plant, from root to tip, is translucent white.

A small cluster of ghost plants sprout from a bed of pine needles in the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord.

A small cluster of ghost plants sprout from a bed of pine needles in the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord.

We all learned in elementary school that plants use chlorophyll to turn sunlight into energy. Chlorophyll is green, thus so are most plants. The ghost flower is not like most plants in that it lacks chlorophyll – hence it’s white color – so it needs another way to find food.

Enter the mushroom, which there are plenty of at the Sturgeon River Preserve north of Gaylord. The corpse plant acts as a sort of parasite by stealing its nutrition from mushrooms which steal their nutrition from photosynthetic plants. Those particular fungi use mycorrhizae – a really cool word for fungus roots joined with plant roots – to obtain their food from trees. The corpse plant takes some of that energy to sustain itself. To me this seems more like an act of a zombie rather than a corpse but I’m no scientist.

Because it needs these particular living conditions, the plant is somewhat rare. They’re also easily overlooked in the thick cover of forests where they grow.

That’s where the Sturgeon River pathway comes in. In 2011 a 40-acre piece of property bordering the wild river was purchased by a private party and donated to Gaylord-based HeadWaters Land Conservancy with the intent of turning it into a public preserve.

One of my favorite views here showcases the dramatic change of forest cover types within the preserve.

One of my favorite views here showcases the dramatic change of forest cover types within the preserve.

Since then, volunteers and local Boy Scouts worked incredibly hard to cut two short trail loops. They terraced steep hills to make safe and walkable trails throughout the property. While they avoided the riverbank as a way to protect it from erosion, the trail planners made sure to cover all elevations of the land to give hikers a great cross section of the variety of cover types there. In a few minutes’ walk the forest changes from upland ferns standing 4 feet tall to marshy wetland and cedar swamp.

In between the transitions are all kinds of places to find corpse plants and mushrooms. During a hike last week I photographed a dozen different mushroom varieties and saw at least a dozen more, including yellow and white-spotted toadstools, fluorescent orange witches’ butter and many others I couldn’t identify.

A young fly agaric mushroom will soon blossom into a classic toadstool shape.

A young fly agaric mushroom will soon blossom into a classic toadstool shape.

Some toadstools there are stark white, leading me to believe they could be destroying angels, one of the most deadly mushrooms there is – as if its name didn’t give that away already. I can’t be sure but, either way, I strongly advise against eating any mushroom without knowing darn sure what it is.

The fall colors will be erupting soon but remember, some of the best color will be found at your feet and some of the most interesting plants will have no color at all.

Sturgeon River Preserve information

Location: Whitmarsh Road, east 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. Hiking time: 30-40 minutes. No restroom.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at

Out, See, Go: Fruits of the forest

By Chris Engle, contributor

Long before anyone paid me to write, I made my living making pizza in convenience-store pizza kitchens. My personal record for a day’s work stands at 34 pizzas, each one tossed, sauced, cheesed, topped, baked, boxed and sliced by hand.

Except for that extraordinarily busy day, I spent the lull between pizza orders studying and doing homework so I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life covered in flour and cheese, though I still enjoy making the occasional scratch pizza at home.

On really slow days my boss had me bake frozen pies to sell at the counter, my favorite of which was “fruits of the forest,” stuffed with not-so-foresty fruits like apples, rhubarb and strawberries but also loaded with raspberries and blackberries.

And this is what I’ve been getting at in my usual, unnecessary, roundabout way: Blackberry season is upon us!

I’ve been doing this blog for four seasons now and foraging is one of my favorite topics. It’s also one of my favorite hobbies since I’m less of a hunter than I used to be and the thrill of the hunt has been somewhat replaced by sleuthing out the next big berry patch.

The best part of picking wild fruit is that it’s a sustainable and super nutritious food and, with the exception of the cost of fuel, it’s free. And if you’re in Otsego County, you won’t have to drive very far to find berries.

Among Michigan’s 83 counties, Otsego County is ranked in the top five in the production of natural gas and oil. This means there are thousands of oil and gas wells across the county and surrounding areas, each with a 1- or 2-acre clearing and a two-track road leading to it. A vast number of these are on public land.

If it’s berries you’re after, this is where you should start. Blackberry bushes, recognized by their tall, curved and thorny stems, line these two tracks and clearings. They like direct sun and just a little shade, so I’ve found my best patches along roads that run east and west with the movement of the sun across the sky.

There’s another thing Otsego County has, especially in its southern areas: black bears. Guess what? They like berries too.

Though I’ve never come across a bear in one of my patches, I always pretend like there is one. This involves talking or singing to myself loudly and moving my arms a lot to make my presence known. Sure I look like a moron and you will too, but you’ll be a moron with a bucket of blackberries and all your limbs in place. What good are nutritious berries if you’re dead anyway?

As nutrition goes, wild berries are right up there with the best.

On Sunday mornings, usually on the way home from a fishing trip, I’ll listen to “Splendid Table,” a show about cooking and food on NPR. The host gets a little too excited about organic flax seeds or fair-trade fennel but she often has interesting guests talking about the science behind foods.

On one episode was Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side. Robinson was talking about the benefits of antioxidants, a compound produced by wild plants to protect themselves from predators and help them heal from damage caused by browsing animals.

Wild berries, Robinson said, are especially high in these compounds.

“When we eat them,” she said, “their protection becomes our protection.”

Those compounds protect us against cancer, ulcers, diabetes and obesity, according to Robinson’s research.

These days there’s a growing concern about pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other unsavory things in our food. None of the above exists in wild berries and the only reason to rinse them, if you’d consider it a reason at all, is to remove any bugs or soil – but that’s just extra nutrients wasted!

When it comes to eating what you’ve gathered, jams and pies are a no-brainer. My suggestion is to freeze them, unrinsed (to prevent clumping) and toss handfuls into pancake batter or oatmeal. Cooking thaws them just enough to release their juices and a few quarts in the freezer should last you all the way to Christmas.

Alright, enough reading. The berries are ripe for the picking.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township. He can be reached at

Out, See, Go: The Great Nature Project comes to Treetops

By Chris Engle, contributor

Sometime in the 1980s, deep in the wilderness near Vanderbilt, a man and his wife built a park. There were buildings and trails to explore. There were wild animals to see. There were giraffes.

Welcome to “Project Nature,” a short-lived zoo and wildlife preserve northeast of Gaylord. I’ve lived here for a decade now and what little I know about the mythical park is pretty much just urban legend spoken around a campfire or at a pub. Jurassic Park seems more of a reality than giraffes wandering the woods of Northern Michigan.

The park didn’t last long and the expanse of old-growth forests, meadows and Sturgeon River headwaters has remained basically untouched since the park closed in the early 1990s. More recently, nearby Treetops Resort bought the property and will soon invite the public out to explore the natural wonders within during a BioBlitz event July 25.

Coincidentally, University Center Gaylord is hosting the event in support of National Geographic’s Great Nature Project, a massive endeavor to photograph and document every living species on Earth and make that information available to everyone in a global database. The monumental task is becoming a reality through the saying, “Many hands make light work.”


By using a smartphone app, anyone can lend a hand in the Great Nature Project and this month’s BioBlitz is an excellent way to give Northern Michigan a jump start at being represented in the effort.

“We wanted to bring a collaboration of scientists, state and local governments, organizations and residents together to help put Michigan’s biodiversity into this global data bank,” said Lisa Marie Tobin, program coordinator and recent science graduate of Central Michigan University.

Tobin majored in biological sciences and conservation with a minor in environmental education, so this sort of project is right up her alley.

Here’s how the BioBlitz works: Attendees will download an app for their smartphone (iPhone or Android). This app allows the user to take a photo of any living thing and upload it to the Great Nature Project’s online database where it will be identified, mapped and catalogued alongside the already 500,000 existing entries. The goal of the BioBlitz is to document every kind of living thing within an area of Project Nature.

Each of the 11 stations at the BioBlitz will be staffed by a professor, scientist or expert in their field who will lead fun and educational hands-on activities. These include capturing and identifying microorganisms in the Sturgeon River, using nets to collect and document wild birds, and investigating tree rings and soil samples to learn the history of forest fires and glacial activity in the area, among many others.

Attendees will work as “citizen scientists,” using the same equipment, technology and methods of collecting and understanding information as the professionals do.

Attendees will be given a passport to have stamped at each of the 11 stations. Completed passports earn their holder the official title of Citizen Scientist and a badge.

Sam Cornelius and Nancie Kersey of Kids Outdoors Otsego will lead short nature hikes for younger children and their parents. This is the only activity younger children must complete in order to earn their Citizen Scientist title and badge.

“Hopefully they’ll take away with them an inspiration for discovering the natural world around them,” Tobin said.

This inspiration is more important than ever, Tobin added, because modern culture and technology is causing young people to spend less time outdoors.

“When I grew up it was natural for us to be out and investigating the outdoors on our own,” she said. “Through our interaction we develop an appreciation for the environment we carry with us through adulthood and an understanding that our actions impact the environment both good and bad.”

The BioBlitz runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 25 and attendees may come and go as they please. Cost is $10 per person and free for ages 4 and under. There is a family rate of $35. Attendees may also preorder lunch or purchase snacks at the event. Public restrooms are available.

The BioBlitz is located 4440 Whitmarsh Road. From Gaylord take Old 27 North 3.6 miles north of Gaylord and head east on Whitmarsh Road another 3.5 miles. The entrance is just past the crossing of the Sturgeon River.

Register at or by calling 989-705-3700. More information about the Great Nature Project as a whole is available at

Out, See, Go: Find your own worms

By Chris Engle, contributor

The summer installment of Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend has come and gone but I have a way you can still save money if your fishing budget is tight and you don’t mind mingling with the creepy-crawlies around your house at night.

On June 13 and 14, fishing license fees were waived in a twice-a-year effort to get people, who otherwise aren’t bigtime fishermen, on the water and enjoying the sport in the hope they’ll eventually buy a license and keep fishing. It’s a great program and kudos to the state for doing such a thing.

I’d like to see four Free Fishing Weekends a year instead of just once in the summer and once in the winter – spring and fall in Northern Michigan offer their own unique fishing opportunities like spawning runs which could get more new fishermen hooked.

But back to my point about saving money: I just spent a bunch of cash giving my boat some much-needed renovations and I’ll be operating on a tight budget the rest of the season. I thought I’d share what I’ll be doing to make sure there’s enough money left over to put beer in the cooler.

My mom taught me how to pick nightcrawlers when I was about 10 years old. Late that night, hunched over our flashlight beams, she and I filled up a plastic Cool Whip tub with more than a hundred worms. Realizing we’d gone a little haywire with our picking, we kept a couple dozen for fishing and dumped the rest in her rose garden.

I use the terms “nightcrawler” and “worm” interchangeably but I’m talking about earthworms – the big, fat Canadian kind you buy by the dozen from the bait shop. “Worms” are the smaller annelids you find under logs and are too fragile for my tastes when it comes to threading them on a hook. Still, some trout and panfish anglers prefer skinny worms over nightcrawlers. I am not one of them.

Nightcrawlers are an essential part of a healthy lawn. They aerate the soil as they tunnel through it, eating organic matter and breaking it down into nutrient-rich castings which feeds grass and plants. That’s why we dumped our surplus worms into the rose garden and mom had beautiful roses for years.

This is important to keep in mind as you roam your lawn picking worms: Don’t hit one spot too heavy or you’ll risk depleting the soil there. Move around, hunt leaf piles and wander into your neighbor’s yard if you have to. (Just kidding. Please don’t get shot for stealing your neighbor’s worms.)

Picking worms is all about technique and requires stealth, speed, keen eyesight and cat-like reflexes. You’ll also need a headlamp and some sort of container – the Styrofoam boxes worms come in at the store work best, especially if you keep the dirt once you’ve used up the worms.

One more thing: You’ll have to wait until at least 10 p.m. to start picking because that’s when the worms emerge to look for mates on the surface.

I was in marching band in high school and one of the skills drilled into our squad was “roll stepping,” a style of walking where your shoe rolls smoothly, from heel to toe, to eliminate any bounce in your step. We learned it for parades and halftime shows and now I roll step my way around the yard because even the slightest sound will send the crawlers scurrying back down their tunnels.

Flashlight beams will also startle worms into their holes so keep your headlamp on low and hunt with the outer edge of your beam. You’re looking for a worm’s glistening body and shining your spotlight for more than a second will spook them away. I’ve found that red LEDs work great, so does taping some red plastic wrap over the flashlight lens.

The bigger nightcrawlers can stretch 10 or 12 inches across the ground and the more body they have exposed, the easier they’ll be to catch. Their one defense is that they keep the other half of their body tunneled into the ground and will retract in a split second once they’re grabbed or startled, so reflexes are really important.

You’ll need to grab at the base of the worm’s body where it’s coming out of the ground. Grabbing at their head – the thick part with the ring – will result in a miss or, worse yet, breaking the worm in half. See my awesome hand-drawn diagram?

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Once you have a firm grip, the battle begins.

Worms have tiny hairs along their body which dig in to the sides of their tunnel. Worms are surprisingly strong and will fight for their life in a game of tug-of-war with your fingers. Much like fighting a big fish, you’ll have to tire the worm out and give it slack when needed. Having your drag set too tight with a monster fish will result in a broken line. Same goes for picking worms: Pulling too hard will break it in half, so be patient and fight it out.

Make sure your container has something in it that worms like. Wet grass or moist soil works best. A small container should only hold a dozen worms at a time, so get more containers if you need more worms.

I have one final point and word of warning: Worms are emerging to the surface to mate. Those little rings around their body near their head? That’s where their sex organs are. By midnight they will start coupling, pressing their rings together and wrapping themselves in slime. They’re no fun to pick when they’re doing this and, besides, you’ll be spoiling their fun too.

Good luck and happy picking!

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

Out, See, Go: Shore lunch

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

I remember quite vividly my first meal of fish after moving to Gaylord a decade ago, partly because it was exciting and sad in equal parts.

New to town and without a boat, I got to know my surroundings by cruising the back roads in my Ford Escort in search of stream crossings or public boat launches for a place to fish. Guiding my hunt was a snowmobile trail map I permanently borrowed from work at the Gaylord Herald Times and I kept it splayed open on my steering wheel as I drove.

It was late August of 2005 and I was looking for a headwater of the AuSable River, this area’s famed trout stream which I’d never gotten the chance to fish. But where I ended up was a warm tributary of Jones Lake, in northeastern Crawford County, where the rock bass fed like piranhas at the roadside.

With a few minutes of casting a nightcrawler from the culvert I’d collected three or four rock bass in my bucket – not the brook trout I was hoping for but something to satisfy my urge for a meal of fish.

When it comes to looks, rock bass are pretty much the exact opposite of brook trout which are known for their brilliant orange bellies, stark white-trimmed fins and beautiful speckles along their flanks. Rock bass – especially this particular ditch-dwelling variety – have muddy bellies and just enough black parasites speckled in their scaly skin to make you think twice about eating them.

The parasites apparently die when the meat is cooked so I took my catch home to my apartment overlooking Otsego Lake, cleaned them, and cooked the fillets on my single-serve George Foreman Grill.

I know. Sad, right?

Believe it or not, they tasted … edible. Some beer brought over as a house warming present helped wash them down. Actually I was only 20, so it had to have been apple juice. Yep, just juice.

By fall I had a canoe and a few boat launches marked on my map. I caught perch and bluegill and never had to resort to ditch bass ever again.

That next spring I discovered better trout waters and was catching an occasional brookie for my frying pan. Smashing such a beautiful trout in a Foreman grill just seemed wrong.

Shore fishing has always remained one of my favorite things to do so I thought I’d share a few spots in Gaylord area you should try this summer. Here they are, in no particular order, and I hope they lead you to some great fishing.

Otsego Lake State Park fishing pier

This one’s pretty self explanatory. Otsego Lake State Park is about 10 minutes south of town on Old 27. There you’ll find a well-maintained floating fishing pier extending off the south side of the point near the boat launch.

It’s a pretty popular place in the summer but I’ve never had trouble finding a spot to fish off it. There’s three great things about this pier: It reaches into fairly deep water (about 8 to 10 feet) which makes for good fishing, it is wheelchair accessible, and you could hook into a true monster.

Since the mid 1980s the Department of Natural Resources has stocked lake sturgeon in Otsego Lake. These fish reach gargantuan proportions and 50-inch sturgeon are not unheard of. They eat nightcrawlers – coincidentally the same bait you’d use for panfish – so that next strike on your bobber could be the fish of a lifetime.

Bright and Glory lakes

Down near Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling are two small, deep kettle lakes open to fishing. Bright Lake has been regularly stocked with sunfish and rainbow trout and both lakes have panfish, bass and trout. There’s no stocking data for Glory Lake since 2008.

There’s a fishing platform on each lake and boat access for canoes and kayaks. It’s a good place to stop and eat lunch after touring the old lumber camp at Hartwick Pines.

In case you needed one more reason to bring your rod, the area around Hartwick Pines is home to the East Branch of the AuSable River, so ducking down a gravel road or two-track might take you to some trout water.

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

The brilliant pattern of teal and gold on a sunfish. Photo by Chelsea Engle

Horseshoe and Bluegill Lakes

Further south of Otsego Lake State Park, near the county line, is a dirt road heading east. Just a short drive down are two little lakes that are a bobber-angler’s paradise. Take in a sunset while you sit on shore waiting for that next bluegill bite. I like wading there but watch out for leeches.

Big Lake beach

Big Lake lies east of Gaylord. It’s a good place to fish from a boat but the public boat launch offers enough frontage to spread out and fish from shore. You’ll only hit about 6 feet casting straight out, but that’s enough to get into some good weeds for bass, pike and panfish.

Any culvert or bridge

My best piece of advice is to keep your eyes peeled while you’re driving around, especially in the extreme northern or southern parts of Otsego County. Any place where the road crosses a small stream is a potential fishing spot.

In exchange for these tips, I have one request: Please keep these places clean. Too often I find trash strewn at public access sites and it is upsetting. It’s like people only think of themselves and not the others who will come after them. Pick up your garbage and if you see any that’s not yours, pick that up too. It’s for the benefit of the resource and everyone who wants to enjoy it.

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

Out, See, Go: Josh Greenberg & his rivers of sand

By Chris Engle, outdoor contributor

Through my work as an outdoor reporter I’ve met some truly special people. Josh Greenberg is one of them.

It was at Gates AuSable Lodge about four years ago where I first met Greenberg. He was a spindly fellow with a 5 o’clock shadow, pacing circles around a long table where a dozen men were tying flies. He stopped every so often to chat with one of the guys as they wrapped the tiny hook clamped in their vise with string and bits of feathers.

Josh Greenberg

Josh Greenberg

That particular morning of tying was devoted to veterans of war in the Middle East. The goal was to tie as many flies as possible and donate them to veterans who fish the AuSable. One fly pattern which caught my eye had a red- and blue-striped body and white wings, appropriately named the “patriot.”

Some guys were new to tying and Greenberg was there to help. In fact, tying flies is exactly how Greenberg eventually came to own the legendary fishing lodge. He said so during a talk about his book, Rivers of Sand, at Otsego County Library this week.

Greenberg grew up in Ohio the son of two teachers. His father was a fishing addict and planned epic, cross-country family vacations around fishing outings.

“Dad was a fisherman first and fly fisherman second,” Greenberg said, explaining how his own enjoyment of catching fish on flies, spinners or through the ice is hereditary. “I came to fly fishing through fishing and I still like all kinds of fishing.”

Between family trips, Greenberg honed his casting skills by trying to hook rocks in his yard. He admitted there wasn’t much else to do in Ohio, so imagine his excitement when his parents considered buying a cabin on the AuSable River.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I ran down to the river and there was a big caddis hatch going on. I saw two trout rise at the bend. I ran back to my parents saying ‘We gotta get it, we gotta get it!’”

At age 15 Greenberg landed his first job: tying flies for the shop at Gates AuSable Lodge. People who tie flies sell them to the shop by the dozen or sometimes by the hundreds, and each one must be done just right or fishermen won’t buy them.

Greenberg went on to study writing in college. He focused on fiction but was eventually approached by a publisher seeking a nonfiction, how-to sort of fishing book. He signed the dotted line.

Right around that time in 2010, after lodge owner Calvin “Rusty” Gates died of cancer, Greenberg was presented the opportunity to buy the lodge. He tried to back out of his book deal to make the purchase.

“It was at that moment I learned what a contract means,” Greenberg joked.

He and his wife, Katy, bought the resort and he kept his word with the publisher. As a new father, husband, mortgage holder and fishing addict, Greenberg still managed to hold it all together and wrote his book during the “cold and lonely” Decembers of 2011 and 2012. I can’t even imagine his stress level but Greenberg is a noticeably chill dude. Maybe the stress is what keeps him so skinny.

Out of two solid months of writing through the night, drinking pot after pot of coffee, Rivers of Sand was born.

Rivers of Sand by Josh Greenberg

Rivers of Sand by Josh Greenberg

He describes the book as a collection of “essays with utility,” pairing his own experiences on the river with tactical advice on ways and means of catching trout. Just like the river, his book flows from the headwaters of the AuSable River to Lake Huron.

“Sable” is the French word for sand and rightly describes the geography of the river and its upper reaches. Greenberg calls the river a “premier, but cruel, fishery” sought by people from as far away as Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

“Michigan is such a unique fly-fishing state,” Greenberg said of its diverse fishing species and methods. “There’s nothing like it in the country.”

Greenberg plans to write another book focused more on the experience of trout fishing and less on technical know-how.

MY FINAL WEEK at the Gaylord Herald Times in April 2014 was spent tying up loose ends and bidding farewell to the people on my various reporter beats. The week also came with a sense of “seniorotis” – the disorder you get in the waning days of high school where you can just slack off and get away with it.

What better place to slack off than on the banks of Northern Michigan’s most beloved river?

I drove down to Gates AuSable Lodge on a rainy April morning with my editor and friend and bought a copy of Greenberg’s book with the newspaper’s money. He signed it and I gave it away through an online contest.

Greenberg chatted with me a while from behind the counter of his fly shop where he looks right at home. He promised me a trip this summer and I won’t pass up that opportunity to fish his river of sand.

Learn more about Gates AuSable Lodge and Greenberg’s book by visiting Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at

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