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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

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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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