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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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