Tuesday, February 8, 2011

March Northwoods Article

Green Mountain Report

March 2011

Icefishing this season has been a little challenging. What with 2 feet of snow on top of a not-so-thick layer of clear black ice and slush 6 inches deep on top of the ice, it’s been very difficult traveling on the lakes and ponds of the Green Mountain State. The season started out well enough with an early freeze and several cold windless nights that gave us that base of good clear black ice anywhere between 4-8” on most lakes. But then the snows came. It seemed like each week we faced another Nor’Easter from early January right through February. Snow piled up in 4-6’ drifts and was consistently 3’ deep even here in the Champlain Valley. The mountains were another story entirely. They typically receive twice as much snow. This is great for the ski areas, but wreaks havoc on the deer and turkey populations. Vermont Fish and Wildlife has kept a Winter Severity Index for several decades now, and based on snow depth and temperatures this winter is shaping up to set some potential mortality records. We are all very concerned about how this severe winter is going to impact our wildlife. VT F&W had been trumpeting how healthy our herd has been, with higher and higher harvest ratios, considering lifting the “no spikehorn rule” and actually even proposed an October muzzleloader season, which, thanks to some common sense, was soundly defeated in the Public Meetings on January 3, 4 and 5. I’ve got to voice an opinion here and some will agree and some will disagree, but I believe that the VT F&W, although based on biology and science, is also in the business of selling tourism and hunting and fishing licenses. When every year they post higher and higher harvest ratios, we have to look at why. Is our herd really growing beyond its carrying capacity or by adding new seasons, lengthening the seasons, and increasing the bag limits are they simply allowing us to harvest more deer? More opportunity = greater numbers, right? Now we are about to face the moment of truth, where all this science will be tested. If the population is/was too high, we will likely witness significant winter mortality. If the herd is appropriately balanced with the habitat and available food sources, the herd will still be healthy.

The Winter Severity Index is based on a point system. For each day that the snow is 18” or deeper, that day is assigned 1 point. It has been generally accepted that at 18” the snow is rubbing on the bellies of deer. For every day that the temperature reaches 0 degrees or lower, another point is assigned. So, if one day the snow is 3’ deep and the temperature goes down to -10, two points are given to that day. At 0 degrees, a whitetail has difficulty maintaining body heat and sheds weight by burning up valuable calories to keep warm. For turkeys it has been determined that a healthy bird can go as long as 8 days without food and sustain itself in extreme cold temperatures for several days. As long as a bird can walk on top of the snow (consider snow’s “structure” whether fluffy or heavy) it can travel several miles to feed. During a winter like we are experiencing this year, many birds will seek manure piles and roost in nearby trees. Now, if all this isn’t bad enough, throw into the mix a burgeoning coyote population. A pack of coyotes, after locating a traditional deer yard or turkey feed location, will feed heavily on the available herds or flocks.  This all spells trouble for the deer and turkeys. We can only hope for a mild March, which is typically the month that animals are most stressed from the arduous winter weather. Let’s hope that the second half of the season is forgiving.

Now for some good news! On February 5th and 6th a group of 6 of us entered one of the most enjoyable ice fishing derbies I’ve encountered. The Kampersville General Store in Salisbury, VT hosted a true down home derby on Lake Dunmore. I had never fished this lake before and was stunned by its stark beauty. On the first day of the derby the sun rose over the mountain to the East. We had pulled our caravan of 2 shanties, 3 sleds, tip ups, jigging rods, 3 augers, smoked beef tongue sandwiches and beer ½ mile in deep snow and slush. The air was cold and the sun was bright with promise. We fished all day, collecting a few perch and a few smallies that were enough to put us on the board in 1st, 2nd and 3rd at the end of the day. We drove home wondering whether we would return. But our fearless leader, Rudy Castro, of Vergennes, rallied his troops and 5 of us were on the ice by 6am the next day. One of our crew, Chris Holwager, from Ferrisburgh, VT had turned 21 years of age a few days earlier and, as teens are wont to be, was not in good shape to fish at first light. We’re not quite sure what caused him to suddenly spring to life, but after a few flags he came alive like the monster in Mel Brooks “Frankenstein” movie. “It’s Alive!” we all shouted as he sprinted to the distant tip-up. From that point on the boy became a fishing machine. Rudy, Eric Ovitt, of Vergennes, Eric Champney, of Charlotte, and I watched as Chris pulled off some of the most remarkable fishing stunts we’d seen. At one point Chris was jigging for rock bass and got a big bite. He reeled up his ultra light rod and found that he had hooked a tip-up line from 20 yards away. He grabbed the braided line and began pulling it asking himself “What the heck?” OK…that’s an embellishment. He used some alternative language. He tugged on one end of the line and the tip-up, which the flag had been locked into place accidentally, begin to topple. It was spooled out. So he tugged the other half of the line and something tugged back. After struggling to get this “something” to the hole, Rudy reached in with a gaff and pulled up a perfect 6.68 lb laker. This was definitely a derby dog! Chris continued his reign of piscatorial terror, pulling up a 12lb catfish, several smallies and a few rock bass. Meanwhile, Eric Champney was concentrating on single handedly extirpating the entire rock bass population on the West shore. By days end, he and Eric Ovitt had almost a pail full of 1 pounders. With the derby bell being set for 3pm, we started picking up around 1:00 and dreaded the long haul back to the access. We arrived at the Kampersville Store around 2:30 and checked the board. It looked like we had 2nd and 3rd place in the bass category and 1st in the laker column. But, as all of you who have fished derbies know, there is always that guy that comes in to weigh his fish 2 minutes before the derby bell and he’s carrying a monster. This time it was Steve Clodgo, of Middlebury with an 8.12 laker. Still, after everyone checked in we had a 3rd place bass and a 2nd place laker. We were “in the money” at least. The store’s owner, Holly Hathaway, who is as stunning as she is gracious, blushed to learn that her 14 year old son, Cullen, had placed 2nd in the Pike category with a 10.34 lb gator. Cullen has been fishing this lake since he was old enough to cast a line and knows every inch of it. Still, it was fair and he deserves the recognition the same as the grizzled old veterans of Dunmore. All in all, I have to say that if you ever want to fish a real Vermont derby in a real Vermont town with real nice people, you have got to give Dunmore a try. And while you’re there, stop in for bait and a chili dog and say hello to Holly and Cullen. They’re real, good people.

Wayne Laroche, the recently retired and the second-longest serving commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, will be contributing his scientific expertise to the fisheries restoration and water quality improvement efforts of the Vermont-based conservation organization, Lake Champlain International (LCI). "We are absolutely delighted that Wayne has decided to share his vast experience with us in our efforts to ensure a swimmable, drinkable, fishable Lake Champlain.  We are honored, and we are equally excited by the prospects for what can be accomplished when combining Wayne's enormous talent with the commitment and passion of our current staff, our nearly 100 volunteers, and the nearly 23,000 people supporting our events," said James Ehlers, LCI's executive director. Laroche, an accomplished biologist with degrees in both wildlife and fisheries management, has conducted research on behalf of major universities and research laboratories.  The Franklin County, Vermont native has worked as a consulting biologist on projects as diverse as studying the impacts from the pollution generated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Lake Champlain walleye reproduction research.

We’re in for a bit of a battle with the newly elected politicians in Montpelier. There has been a pair of teen suicides in January that led to the introduction of a bill, H.83, to hold firearms owners culpable for the negligent storage of a firearm. As it currently reads, this bill proposes to make it a crime for a person to negligently leave a firearm accessible to a child. It does state that a firearms owner would not be liable if: (1) the child obtains the firearm as a result of an illegal entry into any premises by any person (2) The firearm is kept in a locked container or in a location that a reasonable person would believe to be secure (3) The firearm is carried on the person or within such close proximity to the person that it can readily be retrieved and used as if carried on the person (4) The firearm is locked with a locking device that renders the firearm inoperable (5) The person from whom the child obtains the firearm is a law enforcement officer, or a member of the armed forces or national guard, engaged in the performance of the person’s official duties (6) The child obtains or discharges the firearm during the course of a lawful act of self-defense or defense of another person and (7) A reasonable person would not expect a child to be present on the premises where the firearm was obtained. Is this a reasonable response to twin tragedies or another potential assault on our freedoms?

About 5 years ago I attended the VT F&W Conservation Camp for Educators at Buck Lake. It was the best week of my adult life, ranking right up there with deer camp. Right now Conservation Camp applications are currently available with many sponsorship opportunities from sportsman’s clubs throughout the state. If you are 12 to 14 years old and want to learn about Vermont's wildlife and gain outdoor skills next summer, consider attending one of the Green Mountain Conservation Camps. The one-week camp program is held at two locations -- Lake Bomoseen in Castleton and Buck Lake in Woodbury.  Students are taught about fish and wildlife conservation, forestry, orienteering, swimming, canoeing, fishing, gun safety, and more in an attractive outdoor setting.  Natural resource professionals come to the camp during the week to share information on their programs and take campers out for field activities. Conservation Camps open June 19 and continue until August 19.  Camp tuition is $200 for the week, including food, lodging and equipment. Fish & Wildlife urges anyone interested to print a copy of the camp application from their website (http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/) and send it in with a check.  The application is located under “Education & Training.”