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.
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.