European starling not happy in the cold weather of spring. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
A nice bluegill caught on a Wisconsin River slough. / Submitted by Gary Engberg
Wisconsin and most of the Upper Midwest has seen a gradual warming trend each winter of the last decade.Call it what you want, global warming or climate change, but the winter temperatures and amount of snow has moderated and for the most part gotten warmer. Figures and statistics will show you that there have been definite changes in our winters with warmer temperatures and less snowfall. Spring has arrived earlier and many of the traditional signs of spring like bird migration, tree budding, flower emergence, and spring river fishing have all happened earlier than in previous springís during the last decade.
Recently, I was sick of watching the NCAA college basketball tournament, especially after the Badgers brutal loss, and tired of being ďcoopedĒ up in the house. So, I decided to go for a drive and take a ďnatureĒ walk with my Labrador, Katie.
As I often say, I donít have far to go for a good walk because I live on the Wisconsin River and have thousands of acres of state and public land less than a mile from my front door. Here it was the end of March and it was snowing with the wind blowing the snow sideways and an outside temperature of 30 degrees. But, the strong wind made it feel much colder and I was glad that I dressed for a winter day and not a spring one like the calendar read!
I drove around the immediate area between Mazomanie and Crystal Lake looking for any signs of wildlife, be it turkeys, deer, coyotes, foxes, waterfowl, song birds, and sandhill cranes. It was amazing the many species of wildlife that I saw on such a snowy and blustery day. Though, there still is snow on the ground in most locations, I saw turkeys out in groups of 10 to 20 turkeys scratching under the snow cover for something to eat. Iíve been seeing turkeys for much of the winter and I think that there will be a good spring turkey hunting season. The turkey season is not that far away and I would soon begin to do some turkey scouting for the upcoming season if I planned on hunting. Try to remember the locations where youíve seen turkeys and start your scouting there. Make sure that you have permission on the land where youíre doing your scouting. But, many of the turkeys that I saw were on state and public land. Pre-season scouting is the key to turkey hunting success. Feeding birds is one of my favorite winter activities when the winter keeps you confined in your house. I feed well over a hundred pounds of black oil sunflower seeds a week during the worst of winter to the hundreds of birds that regularly visit my feeders. Usually, Iím not feeding as much of the bird seed this time of spring. This year, the amount of seed that I feed hasnít diminished yet because the weather is still in the winter mode. The ground is still covered with snow, there arenít any buds on the trees, and there are not any insect hatches yet, so the birds are still dependent on me. Keep feeding your birds because they still need your help and support till spring really arrives.
The last week or so has seemed to bring a large number of birds north from their southern wintering grounds. Iíve been seeing and hearing sandhill cranes regularly and Iím sure that they wish that they would have stayed south a few weeks longer. Iíve heard of birds moving south again to get out of the Wisconsinís extended winter.
Living on the Wisconsin River allows me the pleasure of seeing waterfowl and birds year-round because the river never freezes over in my home territory. I was in the backyard yesterday and ďsurprisedĒ some hooded mergansers and bufflehead ducks that were resting on the shoreline out of the riverís current. There are still Canada Geese everywhere with new geese coming north from wintering in the south and the many geese that stay in the Wisconsin River area all winter long.
The farther north that you go the more of ďwinterĒ is still with us. Lakes have a couple of feet of ice still on them and most lakes are still frozen solid and covered with snow and slush.
I like that the Lower Wisconsin River area is a good resting and holding location as birds and waterfowl work their way to their nesting grounds. A vast majority of the eagles that winter in the Sauk Prairie area have left for their northern nests in northern Wisconsin, the U.P. of Michigan, Minnesota, and even Canada. Iím sure that there are eagles on nests or will be very soon and there will be webcams on these eagle nests in the Midwest for you to enjoy. One that is always good to watch is at Decorah, Iowa. The website is DecorahEagleCamAlerts.com. I went there today and the eagles are there, but they havenít laid any eggs yet. There are now many webcams set up to view nesting of eagles and peregrine falcons in all parts of the country.
The Ferry Bluff Eagle Council counted over 400 eagles in this area a month ago and now there are just a few eagles left in the area. There are a few eagles that nest and stay here all year, but the total is only a handful. I have a few nests not far from me on the Lower Wisconsin River and I know of one on Black Earth Creek, but most eagles migrate north by the beginning of March. I see one or two some days, but not the 8-10 that I had regularly perching in my yard over-looking the river all winter long.
I was lucky enough to see a red fox on my drive and now they should have their pups. Look on the south side of hills where itís warmer when out on a wildlife drive. Squirrels also should be having their young too. While out yesterday, I did some walking in the woods and fields to give Katie some exercise and saw plenty of deer tracks, coyote tracks, and saw many birds especially cardinals and blue jays in their bright colors which made them look magnificent against the snow white background of winter. Itís still tough walking with the crusty snow, but the exercise was invigorating after too much time indoors.
There still were ice fishermen on some of the backwater sloughs of the Wisconsin River and before going home I drove up to the Prairie du Sac Dam and there were 18 anglers out in boats and another 6 wading for walleyes and saugers. Anglers were catching some fish, but a majority were small males with the water temperature still in the 30ís. Warmer weather is needed to get the fish active and closer to spawning time. The same is true up and down the Wisconsin River at the Dells, Castle Rock, Petenwell, and Nekoosa. The walleyes are starting to get active at Genoa on the Mississippi River and warmer is needed to improve fishing on all Midwest Rivers.
Last year at this time, the temperature was 80 degrees one day and regularly in the 50ís and 60ís. The water temperature was in the upper 50ís and walleyes and saugers had already spawned. What a difference a year makes in Wisconsin!
Iím still waiting to tap my maple trees for sap to make syrup. But, it still was nice to get outside and try to get rid of this prolonged cabin fever! Letís hope that winter will soon be gone and weíll be back to normal, whatever normal is.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís 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.