Outdoors: Fishing by degrees

Photo by Jay AnglinJorde Nathan of Chicago hoists a burly Skamania-strain steelhead on the brink of spawning late last week.

Despite the warm sunny days and thunderstorms earlier this week, it’s fairly obvious now that it’s still winter.

Regardless, if you ask me, good money is on spring being early this year. I mean, basically we’ve already had a little bit of (a lot of?) spring and judging by the long range forecast, we’re going to be seeing quite a bit more before it’s officially spring.

When there are only a couple nights that drop below freezing in the 10-day forecast, we can start to focus a little harder on the light at the end of winter tunnel.

The importance of this cannot be understated; lawns are already full of sprouting Dutch white clover and even some crabgrass and dandelions (the horror, the horror).

I actually like the clover as it’s very hardy and capable of withstanding terrible conditions such as heavy traffic, drought and excessive moisture. Dutch white can thrive in low-light or direct light, and it even fixes nitrogen (which is good). Frankly, it doesn’t look all that bad either. I read somewhere that many environmentally conscientious folks are going to a clover lawn. That’s admirable and I even decided to experiment with leaving my side yard all clover this past summer.

The thing is, I didn’t want it in the front yard and now it’s there along with a host of nasty weeds that I’ll have to get a handle on right quick. We’ll see if the clover can deal with the war that is soon to be waged in its midst. Who would think that we’d have to worry about our lawns the first week of March?

While some may consider fishing a sideshow to life, others such as myself thrive upon it. You could even say it is our life force.

Sadly, fishing does nothing to keep my lawn or home for that matter, in good condition. Fishing does give many of us a reason to work hard so we can take time off to do it and afford all the fancy gear we need to do it better. It can even be an occupation, as is in my case.

While our snow blowers collect dust, we all know that there is still plenty of time for a late-winter storm to remind us that budding trees and spawning steelhead do not guarantee spring is here for good.

That said, I am here to tell you that if you think the warm weather in February was just a teaser, you are sadly mistaken. Fishermen, you should pay close attention to what I am going to tell you.

The spring steelhead run is in full-swing. If you haven’t been fishing and are waiting to go for whatever reason, you are going to miss a lot of opportunities. The time is now, so you better get out there and catch some fish before it’s over.

I have been harping about this for a few weeks now and I have sounded the alarm plenty, but for whatever reason a lot of anglers are not listening. Tune me out if you want but don’t call me in mid-April looking for a day of steelhead fishing because it’s highly likely it ain’t gonna happen.

Steelhead begin to spawn when water temperatures hit the low 40s. Though I have seen them actively spawn when the water is at 38 or 39 degrees, it is not what I’d call aggressive.

The magic number is 42. That’s when things get, shall we say, slightly scandalous in Lake Michigan tributaries. The nearby St. Joseph River was running the mid 40s as of Monday — the Indiana creeks were a little higher.

Of course the heavy rains and cold this week will have moderated those a tad by now, but they’ll shoot right back up this weekend. All of the streams I’ve been keeping tabs on reached as high as the low 50s a week ago. That’s astounding!

While Michiana Steelhead have been at it for a couple weeks now, another species often found in the same water, the Walleye, also spawns when water temps reach the low to mid 40s. Keep in mind, while Steelhead are typically well staged and ready to hit the spawning gravel throughout late winter, it may take Walleyes a few extra days to ramp up.

Given the timing, I’d guess some walleyes were caught slightly off guard but pre-spawn Walleyes are typically holding in lower rivers or near their mouths by mid-February in this area as well. They just don’t migrate quite a quickly as their sleek river-mates the Steelhead. While March is always good for Walleye fishing in Northern Indiana, I’d suggest you Walleye anglers get after it right quick if you haven’t already.

Another species that is surprisingly common in this area and often begins spawning underneath the retreating ice of area lakes is the Northern Pike. There is no question that pike have been making whoopee all around us and most of us didn’t even notice. Sure, there will be some late bloomers still looking for love in a shallow bay but my bet is there will be many more post-spawn Pike looking for a big meal in the coming days.

I don’t know a lot of people that target Northern with the same passion as say, Bass or Muskie, but there are a few around. It seems like Muskie always take the limelight in the toothy critter category, though the underrated Northern always seems to put up a better fight in my opinion.

Incidentally, Smallmouth Bass, Crappie and Muskie begin to spawn at about the same time — when the water temperatures hit 57 or so — and these species will usually be finished by the time it hits the mid 60s.

Largemouth Bass and the other panfish will bring up the rear and spawn when temperatures are slightly warmer by the way. I should mention that spawning fish are very vulnerable to over harvest. And, anytime a fishery relies on natural reproduction, it’s important to release fish immediately so they can tend to their nests. Be kind.

This is a great time to go fishing. Even if it’s chilly outside the long range forecast shows temperatures are at or above average for this time of year. Consider yourselves warned — everything is at least two or even three weeks early so far when it comes to fishing.

And lawn care. And yard work. And washing the car. Etcetera.

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