I say a good deal here on this site about bending with nature’s whims and adapting to changing circumstances. There’s no good alternative, really, if you’re going to get the most out of your time outdoors. Still, the life of a northerly ice-fisherman can be filled with disappointment and angst when banished to the balmy realm of southwestern Pennsylvania. Ice of spurious integrity plagues the ponds or fails to materialize on schedule altogether.
Last year, for instance, there was no ice-fishing season. I walked out onto the best-frozen bay of my favorite lake once in early January, found two inches of ice underfoot and backed off for the day, confident that I’d soon be dropping lines. The next day, the ice began to melt and disappeared entirely within a week. Through the rest of the winter, it never again achieved the three inch minimum I’m comfortable on.
This season followed a similar trajectory up until mid January at which point we started to get nightly lows in the teens, the kind of cold required for real freeze-up. Now, in mid-February we have, if anything, an over-abundance of both ice and snow. This is as it should be.
I like to say that I love all the seasons the same but winter still holds a special place in my heart. There’s something appealing to misanthropes like me about the simple fact that most people disdain this season or at least find it uncomfortable or dangerous. This keeps most people indoors. Certainly, it keeps almost everyone from doing long treks in to remote locations, which means that these places are mine alone if I’m willing to make the effort. Winter’s also great because fish, contrary to popular opinion, are still on the move in frigid flows and below frozen surfaces and most of my grand designs involve fish as you may realize if you’ve ever encountered my book or my blog before. Then too, prolonged exposure to frost and icicles makes one appreciate simple things like a thermos of coffee, thick blankets at night or just the car’s defroster (I’ve heard that some of the ultr-wealthy nowadays have heated seats). But if I were to be completely honest here, I’d just say that it’s in my blood, a pull toward inhospitable frigid places like the ones where I grew up.
Again, conditions have changed radically over the last month across at least the eastern U.S. (If that’s where you live, this is nothing you don’t know.) Each winter I watch daily ice reports of the Canadian Ice Service due to my strange preoccupation with Great Lakes ice coverage. I rationalize this by claiming that Great Lakes ice cover seems one of the best proxies for overall North American temperature trends. Through most of January, I could hardly bear to look because I knew that even Erie, shallowest of the lakes, was probably not even making ice (subsequent checks confirmed that it generally wasn’t). But within the last week, the stats for all the lakes changed radically. Up until six days ago, Great Lakes ice cover was far below normal for this day of the year. Now it’s well above normal and building. It happened almost literally overnight. For winter’s few fans, this was reason to celebrate!
As an adolescent in western Maine, I thought of the winter snowpack as normal: snow generally builds throughout the winter, compressing the lower layers into something more like ice and growing deeper as the winter deepens and finally melting slowly sometime in late April. But here in Pennsylvania, I’ve become accustomed to snows that fall and melt, fall and melt throughout the winter. We might get a big snowfall, like five or six inches, but there will be a fifty degree day shortly to reduce it to runoff.
Not so this year. We have a legitimate snowpack, though thin by Maine standards, we now have the residue of six snowfalls on the ground, by my count. It hasn’t been warm enough to really melt between snow events though, just enough to compress a bit before the next hits. In my hometown that’s only about five inches of icy stuff with an inch of fluff on top but tomorrow I’ll be snowshoeing on one of the nearest ridges where I expect to find 40 inches or so depending on how much lays up there tonight.
My eyes have been on the national radar maps over the last week and on a few days I’ve watched warm Gulf moisture being turned to snow before even moving beyond Texas, Mississippi or Louisiana. Memphis was paralyzed and maybe still is. Had you been the only Texan with a snowmobile, this would have been your bi-decadal moment to shine.
The New York Times was quick to explain, when I checked my in-box yesterday, that none of us should foolishly see this aberration as anything but a manifestation of global warming. Someone was interviewed who sounded credentialed about why more global warming actually causes more snow and more winter cold for the continental U.S. Which makes me wonder whether winters that are warmer than usual tend to disprove the theory. Did the last two years’ almost record-breaking cold springs also prove the inescapable nature of the warming crisis? What about Great Lakes ice levels which swing wildly from year to year but show no clear trend over at least the last decade? Is the theory falsifiable or has it moved beyond that – just too much hanging on it, too important for the strictures of the scientific method? But these are just things I muse over in my idle hours; I’m not credentialed to hold valid opinions or to investigate such things for myself.
But I digress.
I’ve tried to make the most of my meteorological good fortune. Primarily, this has meant drilling holes in frozen lakes in pursuit of finny denizens, which is not to say I’ve been catching a lot of fish. My first 4 outings were on a big lake in Wisconsin and I caught nothing. This was a lifetime record – 4 ice outings without a fish. To the present, I can’t understand what went so terribly wrong. But I did confirm that there are no fish to be caught through the Wisconsin ice and therefore no reason to ever go back.
I’m well on my way to setting another personal record for most ice-fishing trips in a single Pennsylvania winter. There was an early trip to Lake Arthur, my regular winter haunt, which produced a few small bluegill and perch all while trying not to collapse the nominal ice below my feet (a bit unnerving that a local ice rescue team was practicing within sight). A couple of days later I met up with Dad on the same lake and fished another bay for a few hours among a throng of ice-fishermen. This one produced a handful of little panfish for me and a bucketful for dad which I counted as success. I went east to a new lake, Yellow Creek, where I fished almost a full day and took a single small perch. As per my last blog post, I enjoyed an overnighter on Lake Arthur recently which resulted in my acquisition of the largest fish of the 2021 season so far: an eighteen inch channel catfish. And late last week I fished a gravel-pit pond near my Dad’s home southwest of Pittsburgh and, again, we had an enjoyable day on the water, a day brimming with tiny stunted sunfish.
That’s the fishing report thus far. I don’t want to close the season with only a catch of less than a hundred tiny fish though. To this end, I shall venture forth to Lake Erie in the week ahead to sit on the ice all night and fish for burbot, brown trout, steelhead and walleye. In other words, I’ll maybe bring home half a dozen perch.
I’ve been neglecting the steelhead trout this year, those over-sized rainbow trout that cruise into Lake Erie’s tributaries by the thousands from September to April annually. I’ve fished walleye a couple of times but just haven’t seen the water levels I normally want for these. I fished a tributary of the Kiskiminetas River a couple of nights ago at dusk, hooked a single large fish in the icy, muddy flow and immediately lost him.
Mushrooms, especially oysters, still blossomed on into January but there’s next to nothing now that the cold’s set in. This isn’t the same as “nothing” though; I collected and ate a handful of dessicated black witches butter yesterday. My body is fortified by turkey tail tea from the late fall harvest.
I’ve heard of seasonal depression or cabin fever but was never really sure I understood these conditions. Winter doesn’t need to entail cabins or confinement.
Since writing this about a week ago, everything’s changed. Spring-like conditions prevail, almost all the snow’s gone and the ice isn’t great. Such is the western Pennsylvania winter. Get out and enjoy it while it lasts.