Last week in this column, essentially, I claimed that spring has sprung, though I think I left myself a bit of an out by mentioning snow and colder weather was a sure thing. I was really hoping we could dispense with the frigid temps, but judging by the forecast that has drastically changed over the past few days, that will not be the case.
Thursday morning, I did what I do every morning when I wake up and check the forecast on my smartphone. Watching the weather is an obsession of mine. I looked at the forecast for La Porte, Niles, Brookfield, Beatrice, Des Moines, Michell and Jamestown. That covers the states of Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and North Dakota. I even use several “apps” to assure I get a good picture of weather trends.
It’s really important to know what’s going on in your own neck of the woods if you’re an outdoorsman, and this time of year, I guide anglers up the road in the Niles and Buchannan area quite a bit. You’d be amazed at how often the weather is different from La Porte up there. The difference between sunny skies and heavy lake-effect snow could be only a few degrees of wind change.
I’m still holding out hope that I will be able to go hunt snow geese again somewhere west of here over the next couple of weeks, which is why I bothered with the other states. Did you know Mitchell, South Dakota, had a low of 12 degrees last night? Well, now you do. Why is that important you may ask yourself. Well, given the cold temperatures and some snow, the white geese are sure to retreat back to Nebraska and Missouri for the foreseeable future.
Monitoring the tide of snow geese as it ebbs and flows northward to the arctic is fascinating; once you are obsessed with spring snow goose hunting, keeping tabs on the middle of their migration corridor over the central plains of the U.S. is a daily routine. It’s not unfamiliar to me as I do the same thing when judging waterfowl migration through the La Porte area, and even use the same principals to keep tabs on the timing of steelhead and salmon runs.
Locally, things have started to bloom this week. Some wildflowers, venerable kokus, and even a few jonquils braved the insane wind earlier this week. The comforting trill of spring-peepers could be heard emanating from vernal pools, as happy birds flitted about the shrubs along the riverbank and sang their happy spring songs.
Perhaps more relevant to my mission, huge male rainbow trout tussled with each other to assure their genetics would be passed on to the next generation. The female steelhead paid little attention to the boys and their shenanigans, their evolutionary orders quite clearly stated: Excavate “redds” in thick gravel beds that are relatively free of sediment and offer just the right depth and current speed perfectly suited to incubating their eggs.
Steelhead clogged into every available section of river with good spawning substrate. The last time those sections of stream hosted such a circus of activity was last fall when Chinook and coho salmon followed the very same ritual as the steelhead. While the salmon were on a one-way mission - their bodies shutting down after their life cycle is complete, steelhead are very much capable of returning to Lake Michigan and spawning in streams over and over again.
I enjoy watching trout and salmon as they spawn. I know that in the very near future, rather miraculously, tiny salmon will hatch and eventually emerge from the gravel beds as parr and hide in quiet, secure spots tucked away under low-hanging branches and debris that offer them safety. These fortresses make it difficult for avian predators, such as kingfishers and mergansers, as well as larger fish to feed on them. The hallmark of productive sections of stream, this type of rearing habitat allows baby salmon, steelhead and brown trout a critical place to thrive during the first month or so of their lives.
None the less, many of them will die. In fact, most will never leave the fragile gravel redds their mothers exhaustively constructed and their fathers aggressively defended the right to occupy. Wading anglers stomp the fragile gravel redds in their insatiable zeal to “hook” yet another one. Often times, these fishermen are comforted by the notion that it’s a “put and take fishery” and are ignorant of the fact that natural production can and does occur, or they're simply too arrogant to care.
In terms of utter destruction, the impact the anglers have is rivaled only by sand and silt from agriculture fields, and topsoil from construction activity upstream that clogs the gravel and suffocates the eggs before they can hatch.
If they are lucky enough to hatch and have the ability to flee predators, the survivors will feed non-stop to maximize growth. While Chinook salmon are capable leaving the streams expeditiously and are rarely faced with fatally-warm stream temperatures, steelhead and coho salmon tend to stay around for much longer – even as much as a year or two, which often exposes them to potentially-lethal water temperatures.
It’s hard to say which species has the best chance of survival, but living in a stream full of hungry bass, walleye and adult trout is a great way to assure you never make it to adulthood. All in all, it’s a miracle that any wild fish live long enough to return to their natal streams and spawn after venturing many miles to Lake Michigan.
Steelhead and salmon smolts are faced with much more uncertainty in Lake Michigan, where they must grow to adulthood. While many generations of fish before them thrived in the surrogate ocean of Lake Michigan, today’s trout and salmon will likely not enjoy such rich water full of baitfish.
Regardless of whether or not a stream is stocked with hatchery fish, it would behoove all anglers to use great caution when wading in streams around spawning fish. Avoid stepping on gravel beds that are full of steelhead and salmon eggs at all costs. Even if you don’t fish, remember that the streams and the lake are home to thousands of living creatures and we have to share this planet with them.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.