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Tapping into springtime

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor

Songbirds whistled in the crowns of maple trees yesterday to the tune of cordless drills cutting holes into the trunks below.

The morning’s labor marked the beginning of spring for Ivan Witt (pictured above), a maple-syrup maker who draws his raw material – thousands of gallons of crystal-clear sap – from hundreds of trees on a hilly, 10-acre lease north of Gaylord.

Within the forest is a sprawling network of tubes and hoses that spider through the trees like frozen lightning bolts. Each tree within reach of the web will be tapped for its subtly sweet sap. Some trees will get two or three holes, depending on their size, with each one connected to the sap superhighway.

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

A plastic spile is hammered into a small hole in a maple tree, allowing sap to flow through into a tube and, eventually, to a collection tank. Photo by Chris Engle

In between my writing projects last fall and winter, Witt hired me to shore up this infrastructure in the “sugar bush” as he calls it. Much of the weathered tubing needed to be replaced and stowed high enough above the snow pack to keep from being iced in when tapping time came.

Smaller, more traditional maple-syrup operations rely on buckets to catch sap as it drips from spigots on the trees. It’s a lot of work hauling gallons of sap out of the bush this way and, since a bucket can go from empty to full in a single day, this method forces you to work fast to keep from losing sap. Witt’s operation is too big to work this way.

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They're a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

A sap-cicle forms at the end of a broken maple branch where sap has dripped out and frozen. They’re a sweet treat when you can reach them. Photo by Chris Engle

Instead, his system relies almost entirely on gravity.

This time of year, as below-freezing nights give way to above-freezing days, trees start pumping stores of sugar from their roots to their bud-lined branches. It’s this sugar that will power the buds as they burst with new leaves and flowers.

Each tap in a tree steals a tiny fraction of that sugar and sends it into the tube. As the sap flows downhill it’s joined by sap from other trees, merging into the network like cars on a freeway onramp. The tubes get bigger and busier as they continue downhill, sometimes skirting the ground or passing over valleys along the way, but all the time maintaining a downward angle.

At the very end is a giant collection tank and the sap empties in like a water slide into a pool. A pump provides an occasional vacuum boost to keep things moving.

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

A small section of the network of tubing used to link trees together and collect their sap using gravity. Photo by Chris Engle

None of this happens without first putting holes in the trees.

Equipped with a power drill and a fresh, sharp 5/16-inch bit, I made my way through the bush with a handful of other guys, stopping at each tree and drilling the requisite holes. Each tap has to go in just right, avoiding circular scars from previous taps and angling the hose for the proper downward angle. Putting taps in the warmer, south-facing side of the tree means sap will flow longer each day.

In a few days, when the collection tank is full, Witt will roll in with his pickup truck and an onboard tank to haul away sap to the sugar shack, the business end of the whole operation. It’s there that the water will be boiled off by the intense heat of a wood-fueled fire, leaving behind the golden-brown delicacy we know and love as maple syrup.

I spent a couple hours tapping trees that morning and got a text from Witt later that evening.

“We finished! Hallelujah!” he said about the tedious task of tapping hundreds of trees. “Do you want syrup in payment or cash?”

That’s an easy answer.

Next up: See what it takes for Witt to turn 12 gallons of sap into a single quart of succulent maple syrup. Chris Engle is an outdoorsman, freelance writer and house dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

A fine day for an ice fishing derby

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Historically held on one of the worst weather weekends of the year, Saturday’s Youth Ice Fishing Derby instead came with sunshine and a sweet southerly breeze that carried with it 70 young anglers and their families ready to fish Otsego Lake.

Feb. 18, 2017 cast aside any notion of what fishing on a frozen lake is like — numb fingers, cold feet and blistering winds — and swapped them with smiling faces on frolicking children who built snowmen and ate snacks as they “fished.”

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

The sun shines over the ice out from Otsego Lake State Park Feb. 18 during the annual youth ice fishing derby. Photo by Chris Engle

Maybe it was the distraction of snowball fights and cheese puffs but only eight fish, all perch, were caught during that morning’s contest.

It’s not the catch so much as the turnout that makes organizers of the annual tradition happy.

“That’s more kids than we’ve had in a long time,” said Walt Owen.

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Bridgette Zeilinger, 9, of Gaylord, and her perch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Abraham Zeilinger, 2 1/2, of Gaylord, proudly holds his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

That figure is way up from last year, when only four kids turned up to fish in wind chills topping -20. Temperatures this year were almost 70 degrees warmer.

The contest, hosted by the Northland Sportsmen’s Club of Gaylord, is held every February at Otsego Lake State Park. It coincides with Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend, when all fishing license fees are waived, and the park waives passport fees for the day to allow anyone to take part.

Afterward, a hot dog lunch was held at the clubhouse and awards were given to the day’s top anglers. Winners were as follows:

In the 0-5 age group
Abraham Zeilinger, first fish and the only one to catch more than one — he caught two
Christian Goldsmith, 8 1/2-inch perch
Charlie Zeilinger, 8 1/4-inch perch
Maverick Coburn, 7 1/2-inch perch

In the 6-10 age group
Bridgette Zeilinger, first fish, an 8-inch perch
Ethan Cottrell, 8 1/2-inch perch
Caleb Ferguson, 6 1/2-inch perch

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Aiden Sullivan, 4, of Pinckney, waits for a bite while his dad, Joe, chills on the ice.

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

Maverick Coburn, 4, of Gaylord, holds up his catch. Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family -- Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

The Checks family — Mason, Desi, Connor and Frank (l-r). Photo by Chris Engle

Sponsors included Jay’s Sporting Goods, Eagle 101.5, Northern Sports Sales & Service, Jack Anderson, Michigan DNR, Gaylord Herald Times, Weekly Choice, and club members who donated their time and equipment.

I’d like to share a personal thank you to everyone who helps in this effort every year, from the cooks who make breakfast for the volunteers and lunch for the awards, to those doling out bait and hot cocoa to little hands. They are heroes in my eyes, helping perpetuate one of Michigan’s greatest outdoor traditions.

For more about the Northland Sportsmen’s Club, visit northlandsportsmensclub.org.

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

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What to know before fishing our frozen lakes

Out, See, Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

I had been planning to spend this month’s blog sharing some fishing and ice-safety advice before last weekend’s tragic news of the death of two local fishermen. Regrettably, in light of these terrible events, I feel I should open with a refresher in ice safety.

Over the weekend, thin ice claimed the lives of two anglers on nearby lakes. The first was 61-year-old Wayne Ballenger who fell through on Big Bear Lake east of Gaylord. His fate was discovered by two friends who’d gone to the lake to see if the ice was safe, only to find the lone man’s fishing bucket on the lake and his snow-covered vehicle parked on shore. They called 9-1-1 and rescuers had to wear protective rubber suits to retrieve the man’s body from the frigid water.

The second happened that same day when 69-year-old Terry Weber fell through a rural lake in Montmorency County not far from Big Bear Lake. Weber, who owned Advance Tackle and Michigan Stinger lures – popular trolling spoons I’ve used to fish for salmon – was also an experienced, veteran fisherman who made a fatal mistake by trusting first ice too soon.

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn't like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

Tracks lead 10 feet out onto Little Bradford Lake in Waters Dec. 20, evidence that someone had come either to fish or check the ice and didn’t like what they saw. Photo by Chris Engle

I have made the same mistake. Fifteen years ago, during a first-ice trip with my dad, I broke through 100 feet from shore and fell until my outstretched arms caught the edge of the hole. Luckily I was able to scramble out with the help of my dad. As we carefully but quickly made our way back to shore, dad’s foot went through into shallow water and, as he fell forward, his fist punched through too.

It was a hard lesson we both needed and neither of us have forgotten it. Even so, I’m still tempted every December to fish when the ice is still young and questionable. Fishermen dying is a tragic reminder that comes too often and we got the one-two punch this year.

Here are some recommendations for preparing to fish first ice, last ice, or any time in winter, as well as how to survive a fall into the lake.

Don’t go alone. This is especially important early and late in the season when ice conditions are most untrustworthy. If you’re like me and insist on going solo, tell someone where you’ll be fishing and when you’ll be back. Check in every so often with a text message or phone call. Seriously, your loved ones will thank you.

Check local conditions. Call your bait shops. Check public-access points for foot and sled traffic. See if anyone else has been out. Being first isn’t always best.

Prepare for the worst. Wear a life vest. Drape a short length of rope over your shoulders with an old screwdriver tied to each end. These can be used as ice picks should you fall in.

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Crafted after I fell through the ice 15 years ago, this set of ice picks are worn over my shoulders early and late in the season. Photo by Chris Engle

Keep your head. If you go through, turn back toward shore and try to climb onto the ice. This ice supported you on the way out, so it’s your best chance at getting back. Try not to panic. Get your legs horizontal with the ice and attempt to kick your way out.

Roll to safety. Once you’re out of the lake, don’t stand up. Distribute your weight by rolling, if possible, to shore. If there’s too much snow to roll, crawl on all fours until you are safe. Forget about your gear.

Get to shelter. Now that’ you’re freezing cold, soaking wet and in shock, you are far from out of danger. Hypothermia can still get you, so go to the nearest home, pound on the door, and ask to come inside. Drink warm fluids and wear a blanket. (I ask that lakeshore residents welcome anglers in distress into their homes.)
If a house isn’t an option, get to your vehicle and turn on the heat.
In either case, it is critical you remove all wet clothing. Being bare and dry is far better for survival than wearing cold, wet clothes. No one will care that you’re naked in this life-or-death situation. Call 9-1-1 if your cell phone is working.

I truly hope no one else will have to rely on this advice this year. Two deaths in one weekend is too many for one season.

I’ll be checking back in in January with some fishing advice. If all goes well, we should have relatively safe ice by then.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all.

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

How to have your own elk encounter

Out See Go, by Chris Engle, contributor

My first run-in with a wild elk became a close call with an entire herd.

I was snowmobiling with family through Montmorency County about 40 or 50 miles east of Gaylord when the lead sled came to a sudden halt. My uncle shut off his machine and lifted his helmet. I pulled up alongside him and did the same.

He silently aimed his finger at a shadow lurking at the edge of the trail barely 20 yards ahead and whispered excitedly.

“Elk!” he said. “Two of them!”

Sure enough, the shadow moved into view, followed by another. Two cow elk stood broadside to us, pausing just long enough to see if we were a threat. In a few steps they were gone, disappeared into the thick aspen grove like ghosts.

But it was far from over. Twenty more cows and calves trailed behind, trotting across our path without a glance or hesitation. I swear we could feel their heavy hooves punching through the compacted snow of the groomed trail. Without a doubt, these were huge animals.

When the last one vanished into the aspens, we turned to each other and exchanged grins and nervous laughter.

Then one more animal appeared.

Before us was a massive bull, its antlers reaching up like arms of bone. It towered well above the cows and stood in the middle of the trail staring straight at us. We were in a showdown and I, a teenager on a meager Polaris 340, was certainly the underdog against the half-ton, testosterone-fueled beast.

After staring us down for an eternity of 10 or 15 seconds, the bull turned and headed off into the grove behind his harem of cows. Stunned by what just happened, my uncles and I finally started breathing again.

I remember firing up our machines and continuing down the trail as that bull watched us from a hillside.

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

A small elk herd as seen from a DNR spotter plane during my flight with biologists counting the animals in 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

It would be 15 years before I saw another wild elk, despite frequent hikes through the Pigeon River Country State Forest and countless drives through Atlanta, Michigan’s official elk capital.

By no measure are elk the most elusive of animals. Moving in herds and grazing in agricultural clearings, you can’t miss elk when they’re near.

It’s their scarcity that makes them an uncommon sight – fewer than 1,000 animals live across an area covering a few hundred square miles of Northern Michigan. Compare that to whitetail deer which number well over a million across the state. That’s what makes seeing them such a treat for most people who encounter them, whether they meant to or not.

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times' archives

Elk bedded under a tree at the edge of a field in the winter of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times’ archives

To help people in search of elk, the Department of Natural Resources published an online elk-viewing guide with waypoints marked across a map of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, a 110,000-acre tract of public wilderness dead center in the core elk range.

Closest to Gaylord are viewing locations along Sturgeon Valley Road east of Vanderbilt, and Tin Shanty Road northeast of Sparr. There are 13 locations mapped.

Though the DNR says the months of September and October are best for viewing elk, winter months work too since the foliage is gone off the trees and the large, relatively dark bodies of elk stand out against snowy backdrops and agricultural clearings.

Many of the viewing areas are wildlife food plots maintained by the DNR as grazing areas for elk, deer and turkeys, and serve to help keep elk on public land and off private farms where they can cause serious damage to crops.

On that note, the DNR uses hunting as the primary method of keeping the elk population within the 500-900 range. Beyond that number, the herd pushes out into farmland and starts to cause problems, so between 200 and 300 elk are legally harvested by hunters annually — many of whom use guides to help locate the animals during the short fall hunting seasons.

Elk tourism has a strong foothold in the local economy here. When I reported on it for the Gaylord Herald Times in 2013, the manager of the Pigeon River Country State Forest estimated hundreds of visitors come to the forest each year solely to see elk. A log book in the forest headquarters had dozens of entries by folks from all across Michigan, the Midwest, and even British Columbia.

There’s an annual Elk Festival in Atlanta every September and the Chamber of Commerce there focuses much of it’s promotional budget on spreading the word about the herd.

Local farmers and hunters become guides-for-hire come hunting season, when elk hunters lucky enough to draw a license in the lottery seek scouts to improve the odds of filling their kill tags.

Of course, one doesn’t need to be a hunter to seek out or appreciate the majestic sight of a 900-pound elk. One doesn’t even need to venture out of Gaylord’s city limits.

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord's elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau

A bull rests inside the city of Gaylord’s elk enclosure, where some three dozen animals reside. Photo courtesy Beccy Quigley

At the end of Grandview Boulevard, east of Gobbler’s Restaurant, is a viewing area for the city’s own elk herd. A few dozen animals live in the sprawling enclosure and often wander near the fences to feed. If you want a really up-close look at these animals, this is the place.

If an adventure into the wild elk’s range of the Pigeon River Country State Forest is more your style, keep in mind most roads there are seasonal – meaning they are not plowed in winter – and there’s a chance of getting stuck. Cell phone reception is hit and miss so don’t count on AAA to bail you out.

Bring a map and GPS, food, water, warm clothes, blankets, a shovel, tow strap, plenty of gas, and emergency supplies along for the journey. Know your vehicle’s limits. A few people get lost or stranded in the Pigeon River Forest every year – don’t be one of them!

Alright, I’m starting to sound like your dad. Go have fun.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman, outdoor columnist and contributor for the Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.

Foraging forest fruits for food & fun

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Chelsea raised her eyebrows at me from the passenger seat as my head swiveled excitedly to the tree line passing in a blur outside the car window.

“How can you even see the berries from here?” she asked.

To be honest, it’s pretty hard to spot the blackberries themselves when I’m going 55 mph behind the wheel of my dust-covered station wagon. It’s the telltale thorny vines, reaching upward in patches and clumps like city skylines, which spur their addition to my mental list of places to pick.

July is the month for wild raspberries. For those I simply walk the perimeter of my yard each day dropping the biggest, ripest berries into a tupperware container. Paige helps (and subsequently eats her fair share) while Miley nibbles them straight off the vine with canine teeth.

By August the raspberries give way to blackberries and now is the time to gather this wild fruit.

Being good at foraging blackberries starts with having a keen eye for their plants. This is best learned in May and June when they are in full blossom and patches of the thorny vine are covered in clusters of bluish-white flowers. This is where you’ll need to return come August because each flower will eventually become a berry.

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

Some of the best picking is conveniently located within sight of the roadway because blackberry bushes love full, direct sunlight. It’s not that you’ll be picking on the shoulder of M-32 or any other major roadway; rather, you’ll want to look for powerlines – the high-tension ones are best – and gas-well service roads and two tracks. Anything posted with signs is obviously off limits without permission so respect property owners by not trespassing.

High-tension power lines are great because there’s often a public easement for a snowmobile or ORV trail running directly underneath the crackling wires, which means foraging for berries is OK too.

Much of the public land around Gaylord and across Otsego County is also home to hundreds of oil and gas wells, each one graced with a two-track road that offers easy access (and much-needed sunlight) to blackberry patches. If one trail turns up empty, there’s always another just around the corner.

Plants are recognizable for their deep green leaves and long, curved stems. This time of year, especially with the drought we’ve had, lower leaves have turned yellow and orange. Stems have nasty thorns that scratch skin with the softest graze. My arms and legs look like I moonlight as a cat wrangler which, I assure you, I do not. Definitely mind the thorns and consider wearing long pants and shirts when you pick.

Ripe berries are a deep purple color and grow in clumps on the vine. They are not single round berries but a cluster of “drupelets,” which is one of my favorite words relating to plants. Unripe berries are pink or red; very young berries are green, and a berry can go from pink to ripe in a single day so check the patch often.

There are different grades of ripe berries. Some are small and dense, meaning they’ll be mostly seeds when you eat them. The fatter berries will have drupelets swollen with juice and will give you a bigger bang for your buck. Those will usually be found in shadier spots than their sun-baked counterparts.

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

When all is said and done, hopefully you’ll have a good haul of berries to take home. Chels eats them daily in her oatmeal and yogurt and they’re also good in leafy salads. Pies and crisps are an excellent use as desserts go. Jams are great too; though seedless jellies take a LOT of berries to pull off.

Personally I’ll freeze them, unrinsed so they don’t clump together, and add them to pancakes well into winter. I’m also planning on brewing another “Forager Porter,” a home-brewed beer I made a couple years ago with about half a gallon of wild blackberry and raspberry juice. I gave it away for Christmas and everyone seemed to enjoy catching a blackberry buzz without a scratch to show for it.

Happy picking, and enjoy the well-earned fruits of your labor.

Request a map of the area or a Visitor Guide. More info >>>

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Contact him at englemobile@gmail.com.

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Out See Go: Celebrate spring by land, air and sea

Every spring, Otsego Lake County Park hosts a free camping weekend where people are invited to stay for free in exchange for some light physical labor. Campers enjoy one or two nights on the lake at no charge and, in return, clean up whatever site they’re on. The weekend usually falls sometime in late April or early May.

It’s a great system: The parks & rec department saves on labor and campers feel more vested in the park when they’re asked to treat it like their own back yard. That’s a feeling user fees can’t buy.

Between now and spring cleanup weekend the park will be practically dormant, visited only by the occasional person walking their dog. Visiting the park now when it is most quiet has become a sort of springtime tradition for me and my family.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

The beach at Otsego Lake County Park is a tranquil place to take in the sight of ice leaving the lake.

Every year we get a jump on cleanup by building a small fire of pine cones, needles and branches in one of the lakeside fire pits. We’ll cook hot dogs and take in the sights and smells of early spring as they mix with campfire smoke. Even the melting lake ice gives off its own smell that adds to the anticipation of warmer days and open water to come.

During a visit there earlier this week, Paige and I heard the distant rumble of an A-10 warplane firing its massive gun over Camp Grayling’s Air Gunnery Range about 10 miles away. We packed up, snuffed our campfire and headed south to Waters to take in a very different springtime spectacle.

The bombing range is east of Waters on Marlette Road a couple miles past where the pavement ends. It is active most of the year but training exercises by Michigan’s Air National Guard only happen a few hours a day and just a few days a week. The best way to catch it is to keep your eyes peeled for the telltale jets circling south of Gaylord and listen for the distinct low tones of ammunition hitting the ground.

Here’s a little background before you go see for yourself. The A-10 is a single-seat warplane built around one of the largest guns in the world, the GAU-8. It is a 30mm, 7-barreled Gatling gun capable of firing more than 3,000 rounds per minute, though pilots only fire in short bursts that are still plenty powerful to take out a tank.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

My daughter, perched atop my car with a Ring Pop on her finger, watches an A-10 as it prepares for a strafing run.

It is at the Air Gunnery Range where pilots learn to use this weapon in a unique training environment designed to simulate a warzone. There are mock buildings, streets, radar installations and missile sites spread out across the range. There are also numerous decommissioned armored personnel carriers, tanks and trucks that are living a hard “retired” life as target practice.

Small, remotely launched rockets add to the realism for pilots by simulating an attack from the ground.

You can see a lot of this from the shoulder of Marlette Road but the public is welcome for a closer look by appointment Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call the tower at 989-939-8880 to set up an appointment.

If you’re more of a lover than a fighter, go back to Otsego Lake to see its springtime pike marsh in action.

Volunteers with the Northland Sportsmen’s Club team up with the DNR’s Fisheries Division to operate a spawning marsh for Otsego Lake’s pike population. A metal trap catches pike then volunteers, using long handled nets, scoop the fish from the trap and move them over to the marsh. It is here where the fish can spawn without the risk of having their eggs or young eaten by other fish.

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

Al Raycraft cradles a 39-inch female northern pike, one of more than 300 fish that were transferred from Otsego Lake to an adjacent spawning marsh in the spring of 2014. Photo courtesy Gaylord Herald Times/WILD Northern Michigan

This year, since lake levels are abnormally high, volunteers are forgoing the trap and nets and allowing pike to leap over low boards into the marsh on their own. You can see this for yourself by going to the end of Evergreen Road, off North Otsego Lake Drive, and walking the short two-track to the marsh. Keep in mind the marsh is off limits to fishing and pike are out of season.

Six to eight weeks from now, the boards damming the marsh will be removed and it will empty into the lake, taking adult pike and millions of two-inch fry with it. Thanks to the marsh, Otsego Lake boasts a healthy pike fishery.

So long snow, hello spring. It’s good to see you again.

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He is the outdoor columnist for the Gaylord Herald Times and Gaylord Area Convention & Tourism Bureau. He can be reached at englemoble@gmail.com.

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 englemobile@gmail.com.