Spring is in the air and my angler friends are stirring. Last Saturday morning, emails from two cabin-fevered trout fishermen proclaimed the opening day of fishing on Wisconsin's Bois Brule is less than a month away. If you chase trout in the Lake Superior country, the Brule opener marks the first day of spring.
After checking my email, I drove an hour north to Thunder Bay to attend the Central Canada Outdoor Show. The rigs I passed along the highway were hauling snowmobiles or dogsleds. While spring may be on the minds of some fishermen, winter is still in full swing. But I also noticed a few patches of rock and grass on exposed hillsides, evidence the sun is gaining strength and winter, reluctantly, is on the wane.
In the north woods, March is the most conflicted month of the year. In the coming weeks, it is not unusual for the temperature to drop below zero at night and rise above freezing during the day. Precipitation may fall as snow, sleet or rain, perhaps all three in the span of a couple hours. March blizzards during the boys’ state basketball tournaments are legendary. Nevertheless, by the end of the month most snowmobile trails will be impassable due to melting snow.
Between now and then you can experience the best of winter, especially in a snowy year like this one. The winter snow pack settles and firms up, making for good cross-country travel conditions. I like to strap on my snowshoes and go exploring, perhaps following a frozen North Shore creek or heading back into some country that's hard to reach at other times of year. It's also a great time to head into the Boundary Waters for some end-of-winter ice fishing.
While I'm admittedly not much of an ice-fisherman, it's hard to beat a sunny March day on the ice. Like anglers, most fish species start to stir as spring approaches. Years ago, a group of us used to make an expedition-like day trip in search of slab crappies, a rare commodity on the North Shore. By heading in the general direction of Ely, where crappies are more common, we'd usually find a lake where they were biting. Closer to home, the best March ice-fishing options are for lake trout and brookies, although the season remains open for walleyes in lakes along the Canadian border. A handful of savvy anglers target whitefish at this time of year.
In the forest, trees are starting to stir and the sap is rising in the sugar bush. Maple sugaring is a traditional activity that, like wild ricing or trapping, is carried on by dedicated practitioners who operate largely out of sight and out of mind. As with ricers and trappers, there are a surprising number of sugar bush operators, including some who derive income by processing and selling maple syrup. While marketers may claim the best maple syrup comes from Vermont or Quebec, don't believe them. Great maple syrup is made along the North Shore and throughout Minnesota.
Elsewhere in the woods, loggers are working double time to get their winter harvest to market before the spring thaw begins. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll watch trucks loaded with aspen rumble past our place, headed for distant mills. I'm always surprised at how much cordwood the forest produces from just a handful of local timber sales. The hauling continues until the signs announcing the spring weight restrictions are posted along our county road.
Around the same time the logging trucks come to a halt, flocks of American crows will return. Although ravens remain with us all winter, their smaller cousin, the crow, heads south for the winter, typically coming back around the middle of March. This year, a few crows showed up during a February thaw, but they disappeared as soon as the weather turned cold again. Another early bird is the common goldeneye, a diving duck you are likely to see near river rapids or lake inlets with open water.
Some of our native birds, such as ravens and owls, are already starting to nest. The mating season for fox and wolves is drawing to a close. Mother bears bore their cubs earlier this winter. Soon they and creatures such as skunks will emerge from their dens for a look-see, though they don't become active until the snow melts to reveal bare ground.
Of course, by then, the trout streams will be flowing, my friends will be fishing and spring will be here. So you better get out there now and enjoy winter. Pretty soon, all of that snow and cold will be just a memory.
Airdate: March 4, 2011
Photo courtesy of Tundra Ice via Flickr.