By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer
— The past several months haven’t been exactly the winter that wasn’t.
Unlike the unusually warm, open winter of 2011-12, there have been enough of those bone-chilling, sub-zero days this year to remind us that we indeed live in Minnesota rather than Missouri.
Understandably, snowmobile enthusiasts and cross-country skiers might regard the lack of snow so far this winter as a negative. But those of us who have yet to refill the gas tanks of our snow blowers aren’t complaining.
And with most area lakes going into the winter at extremely low levels, the result of months of drought, the lack of snow has been a blessing for fish populations.
During the winter of 2010-11 when snow came early and often, many shallow southern Minnesota lakes experienced fish die-offs from low oxygen levels.
But the lack of any significant snow so far this winter makes the chance of winterkill on area lakes remote, said TJ DeBates, supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fisheries office in Waterville.
“Even though the water levels on area lakes are extremely low, all of the lakes we tested are at super-saturated oxygen levels,” he said. “With very little snow on the ice, the curly-leafed pondweed has continued to grow, creating photosynthesis, which produces oxygen.”
The downside is that unlike two years ago when heavy snow early on and throughout the winter shut off sunlight and prevented aquatic plants, including curly-leafed pondweed, from growing, this year the invasive species probably will have a head start this spring over more desirable native species.
The combination of low water and a dense mat of curly-leafed pondweed could present challenges early on for boaters.
The low water and continued dry conditions could have some effect on fish populations in the future, as well.
An important function of the Waterville facility every spring is to collect northern pike eggs, which are fertilized and hatched under controlled conditions, eventually to be stocked in area lakes.
However, low water levels and extreme heat last summer took a toll on northern pike populations in some lakes, including Lake Geneva in Freeborn County, where a good portion of the brood stock used for spring egg-striping operations are obtained, DeBates said.
“We really won’t know the extent of the die-off until we begin our netting operations,” he said.
What’s more, low water conditions could hamper efforts elsewhere to capture northern pike to be used for brood stock.
Some pike are caught in fish traps as they migrate into inlets and ditches to reach seasonal wetlands in which to spawn. However, water levels in many south-central Minnesota lakes are so low that there is little or no flow in or out.
And unless the current dry weather pattern changes dramatically in coming weeks, the adjacent seasonal wetlands that provide natural pike spawning habitat are likely to be bone-dry.
After two years of difficult conditions, ice fishermen are finding the winter of 2012-13 to their liking.
Two years ago, heavy snow made it difficult to get around on lakes.
Last year, during the winter that wasn’t, unusually warm temperatures created uncertain ice conditions that prompted many ice anglers to hand up the ice cleats early or stay home altogether.
This year, the hard water season got an early start with several cold snaps that created better ice conditions. The continued lack of snow has made it easy to get around on area lakes.
As a result, many more area anglers are hitting the ice this winter.
Annual fish house counts on area lakes made earlier this year by DNR Fisheries personnel revealed a dramatic increase from 2012.
On Lake Washington, for example, 256 houses were tallied this year. That compares with only 54 houses in 2012 and 170 in 2011.
On Madison Lake, 60 houses were tallied this winter, compared to 28 last year and 39 in 2011.
Last year, bait and tackle shops were pretty lonely places.
This year, bait sales started early and continue to be brisk. At White’s Corner in Madison Lake, Ryan White said business has been good.
“I’d say it’s up at least three-fold from last winter,” he said between customers last week.
John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.