Jim Leystra boils down sap to create maple syrup at his 'sugar bush' operation. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
Last year at this time, I was almost finished tapping my maple trees and well into making the finished product, maple syrup. The weather was considerably warmer with temperatures in the 40s during the day and cooling off into the 20s at night. It was my first spring of making maple syrup on my own and things really worked out nicely.
The spring river walleye fishing also began the last week of February last year and was in full swing by now. I’ve kept records in notebooks for decades on when important and different things happen and start throughout the year in nature’s world. My “little book” showed that the largest walleyes of the year have usually been caught the last few days of February or the first week of March. But, not this year!
Some of the other harbingers of spring that I’ve followed religiously are: the migration of many diverse birds and waterfowl as they come or pass through the area after wintering in southern locations, animals (woodchucks) come out of hibernation, buds appear on trees, early spring flowers emerge like crocuses and tulips, the spring walleye migration and, a little later, the coming of wild asparagus and morel mushrooms. These “happenings” usually occur in the same time frame every year, but this year is different than it has been for the last decade which has shown a gradual warming trend. To me, it’s a matter of semantics where I call things climate change and not global warming.
I’ve been looking forward to the maple syrup season which depends on warm days above freezing and cool nights below freezing to get the tree’s sap flowing. Jim Leystra, the owner of Leystra’s Restaurant in Sauk City, is the person who introduced me to making maple syrup and is my syrup guru.
Jim’s a great outdoorsman and I often wonder how he has the time to cook fresh food every day (including the best pies, specials, and bread you can find) and still hunt, fish, and participate in outdoor activities. I was in Jim’s restaurant a few years ago when the topic of making maple syrup came up in a conversation. That’s how my introduction to making syrup began. Leystra was then in the process of making his syrup and explained the process to me and the rest is history. Since then, maple syrup has become one of my favorite spring activities. Many years ago, when I was a child, I had watched my grandfather make syrup at a 'sugar bush' in northern Wisconsin, but that was the extent of it until the last few years.
Looking back into history, Native Americans had made maple syrup which they traded with the white fur traders along the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River hundred of years ago.
All maple trees will produce a sugary sap that, when cooked down, will produce a sweet maple syrup. Maple trees vary with the amount of sap that they will produce and the sugar content of the sap. Leystra told me that what he looks for in the spring is the buds to appear on maple trees to see when to begin his tree tapping.
You want to use maple trees that are at least 20 inches in diameter. Then, drill a hole in the tree for the tap or spout using a 7/16 drill bit to make a 2- to 3-inch hole in the tree. Make sure to use an area on the tree that is clear of blemishes for best results. Don’t drill a hole within a couple of feet of any old hole. Make sure to drill the tap hole slightly upward, so that the sap can freely flow. Tap the spout gently so that it fits tight to the hole, but not too tight that it would cause the wood to split. Drill your holes 3 to 4 feet above the ground so that it is convenient to work with once the sap starts flowing. I’ve found that 5 gallon pails make good sap containers and will hang on any commercially bought tap. Be sure to cover the containers, so that you don’t get any water, snow, or foreign matter into the sap.
As a rule of thumb, a maple tree with a 20 inch diameter or less should have only one tap, trees with a diameter of 20-25 inches may have 2 taps, and trees with a diameter over 30 inches may have 3 taps. Never use more than 3 taps on any tree. I’m interested to see if the extreme drought that this area of Wisconsin received last summer will affect maple syrup production this spring.
The amount of sap that you receive from a tree depends on the method of tapping, the size of the tree, and any seasonal differences in the weather. An average tap hole can produce 5 to 15 gallons of sap per season. But, under the right conditions, it’s possible for a single maple tree to produce from 40 to 60 gallons of sap per spring. Remember, that it takes 10 gallons of sap to produce 1 quart of maple syrup. Jim Leystra told me that it takes him 30 to 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. The sap from an average maple tree produces sap with a sugar content of 2 to 3%. Sugar content can vary from the time of the day that the sap was taken with higher sugar content in the morning than in the afternoon. On a normal day, a tree can produce 5 gallons of sap per tree.
Now that the sap is flowing and filling your containers, it’s time to start the cooking and syrup making process. I suggest that you do your cooking outside because the sap is sticky and everything inside will be coated if cooked in the house. Jim has a cooking surface made from firebricks which won’t split under a hot fire and a large supply of dry oak and elm to keep the fire burning continuously. A hot fire is very necessary for cooking the sap down into syrup. As the sap cooks down, you want to constantly keep adding fresh sap to the boiling sap. I use a 30” X 30” pan for cooking the sap and try to keep it 1/2 to 3/4 full while on the fire.
You must keep the sap cool while waiting to add it to the boiling pan because sap, like milk, can sour and collect bacteria. Boil and cook the sap as soon as possible after collecting it in your containers. As the sap changes color to amber, it begins to get sweeter. Now, it necessary to strain and filter your maple syrup and let it settle for a few days to have the maple syrup sand settle before finishing the syrup making process. You now want to bring the syrup back to a rolling boil and filter it again before bringing it back to a low simmer or about 200 degrees. Ideally, sap become syrup when it reaches 66 to 67% sugar content at 7.1 degrees above the boiling point of water. This may vary with one’s elevation and the barometric pressure.
The final process is canning the syrup which should be done at 180 degrees. Pour the maple syrup into sterilized canning jars and seal. Fill them so that there is a little room for air at the top of the jar. Lay the jars on their side for a better seal. Store the syrup in a cool and dry location and if opened be sure to refrigerate the opened jar or it will become contaminated.
My syrup mentor, Jim Leystra, began his syrup making a week ago, but had to stop when his sugar bush and syrup making location was flooded with the rain storm we had. We also need some warmer weather to get the sap running. I hope to start my 'syrup operation' soon if the weather cooperates. It looks like the maple syrup season will last well past last year's mark. The same can be said about the spring walleye fishing which will last longer that last year too.
I guess my pancake and fresh maple syrup breakfasts will be a little later this spring. As I write this column, the snow keeps falling outside which isn’t conducive to making maple syrup or going walleye fishing on the Wisconsin River. But, it is the middle of March and the weather can change quickly and hopefully I’ll soon be tapping my maple trees and cooking down the sap between fishing for walleyes and saugers!
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990’s and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.