Tag Archives: ice

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.

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.