Tag Archives: lake

Paddling Otsego’s chain lakes

Out See Go
By Chris Engle, contributor to GaylordMichigan.net

There’s a body of water in southern Otsego County where a long-running commercial comes to mind when exploring its far corners.

You know the one, with a battery-powered bunny cruising around beating a drum? The pink rabbit with black sunglasses and blue flip flops? Of course you do, and chances are the slogan is pounding its way through your head right now.

On maps, the waterway marked as “Chub Lakes” and drawn as a tightly packed clump of separate water bodies is actually a network of seven interconnected lakes, narrows, creeks and culverts. With a canoe or kayak and a bit of time, a determined explorer can paddle forever here, muttering “it keeps going, and going, and going,” the whole way.

A few years had passed since I last ventured through the chain of lakes, so when Paige told me earlier this month she wanted to go for a canoe ride, I figured it was the perfect time to revisit the waterway.

Paige cruises in the front of the canoe. Photo by Chris Engle

We put in at the ramp on Chub Lake, a narrow public easement where Chub Lake Road comes off Old State and runs right into the water.

Just a few yards off shore, one of the lake’s defining qualities is revealed: steep drop-offs give way to tremendous depths. In an instant, the lake goes from a few feet deep to more than 60. It’s this deep, cold water that makes the lake a good candidate for stocked trout, and the Department of Natural Resources plants rainbows regularly.

There’s not much to see in the deep middle of the lake, but cruise quietly in a canoe or kayak along its shorelines and you’ll see deer, blue herons and ducks. When it’s calm, the clear shallows are prime for casting plugs to huge largemouth bass cruising the lily pads. Having a fishing rod is always a good motivator for exploration.

Just a few minutes into our float, I saw Paige settle into her spot in the front of the canoe. She held the bent shaft of a warped wooden canoe paddle in her little hands but didn’t use it.

“Ahh,” she sighed. “This is so peaceful.”

This is what had me coming back to Chub Lake often after discovering it 12 years ago. I never caught much for fish here, and it’s not very “wild” since about half its shoreline is developed with houses and cabins, but the surrounding hills and cedar-lined shore make it seem like a place plucked from the Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Chris Engle

This quality carries over to Bridge Lake, the easiest neighboring body to reach via a shallow, narrow canal at Chub Lake’s far end. It’s in this channel where you can see how the lake got it’s name: huge schools of creek chubs swarm in the gentle current of this bait-fish nursery. It’s common to see a heron or two hunting the channel, catching fish with its spear-like beak.

The channel opens up to Bridge Lake where Paige and I silently drifted past a solitary loon just as it rose up and stretched its wings. These curious birds generally don’t mind onlookers, so long as you don’t get too close with a motorboat.

A common loon rears up to stretch its wings on the surface of Bridge Lake in southern Otsego County. Photo by Chris Engle

After passing the loon, we cut across the deep middle of Bridge Lake to a hidden culvert on its western shore. What looks like little more than a drain pipe is actually the only way to continue exploring the lake chain by water.

Her head ducked low and fingers tucked safely inside the canoe, Paige was first to go into the corrugated steel pipe as I pushed our way through against the current. She giggled and brushed away spider webs – and spiders – as we made our through the 20-foot length of tube running beneath a dirt road.

Ducking through the tube. Photo by Chris Engle

We emerged into sunlight and another small lake, where we paddled around for a bit before turning back and shooting through the pipe again for Paige’s amusement.

Had we kept going, we would have ended up in Belmore Lake, the fourth and final public water body in the chain.

Three other lakes connect to the system but are fenced off by order of the state supreme court, which favored private landowners over public access in a ruling handed down decades ago. It’s my hope that, someday, these three lakes will be reopened, putting the entirety of Otsego County’s largest lake chain back in public trust. Only then will you be able to keep going, and going, and going.

A damselfly perches on a cattail stalk. Photo by Chris Engle

We coasted back to the boat ramp two hours after we’d left, and Paige piped up with her sentiment.

“That was a nice canoe ride,” she said.

Yes, yes it was.

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.

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: 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.