Constable: Unpredictability puts winter fishing tourneys on thin ice
Once thought to be a dependable season that delivered us uninterrupted months of snow and cold, winter seems to be having a midlife crisis.
In recent years, winter has brought us springlike deluges and flood warnings, wicked ice storms that downed power lines and trees, double-digit inches of snow for an evening commute, freakishly warm weather that brought out crocuses and golfers, and the occasional polar vortex that shut down everything.
"I seem to remember things differently as a kid," says Jay Johnson, manager of site operations for the DuPage County Forest Preserve, where he has worked for 35 years. He remembers Decembers when ice skaters and hockey players hit the ponds, cross-country skiers and snowshoers could plan weekend outings, and ice fishermen could set up shop for January and February.
After a week in which temperatures nudged 50 degrees, this past weekend's Hard Water Classic ice-fishing competition on Silver Lake near Warrenville fell victim to mild temperatures and had to be canceled. It's been rescheduled for Feb. 8, which is a day with a history of temperatures as high as 62 degrees and a record low of 17 degrees below zero.
"It's definitely tough to plan on, for sure," Johnson says. "When we do have good ice, we have at least 300 come out for that event."
The next two months offer plenty of ice fishing events. But this year's LVVA Ice Fishing Derby on Bangs Lake in Wauconda was scheduled for Jan. 25.
"That's not going to happen. There's not enough ice," says Ryan Jacobsen, a Navy veteran who helps run the event that raises money for veterans charities. While we're supposed to have a few days next week with high temperatures below freezing, that's not enough cold to build up the 4-inch-thick ice needed for safe ice fishing, he says. No new date has been set.
"The last couple of years have been difficult. We can't control certain things," Jacobsen says.
Last year's derby was pushed to March 2, during a stretch when the low temperatures dipped below zero. But they can't count on that again. In 1980, we hit 80 degrees on March 3, which is weather better suited for water skiing than ice fishing.
"We plan loosely, you can say that," Jacobsen says.
A cold snap in December did allow some fishing on Bangs Lake ice for a day or two, but it didn't last.
It's not as if this January has been all about mild weather. Last weekend's Frosty Fest, hosted by the Gurnee Park District, was canceled because of strong winds, pelting ice, rain and snow. The Vernon Hills Park District also blamed the weather for canceling its Winter Fest.
There was a time when DuPage County rangers made sure the ice was thick enough for fishing and would shoo away those who were walking on thin ice.
"Now, as far as ice fishing goes, it's always at your own risk," Johnson warns. "I remember years ago, we used to clear the ice for ice skaters. I would drive the truck out on the ice and clear it for skaters. Now, times have changed."
A sudden snowstorm on a Friday can result in a weekend of cross-country skiers, snowshoers and even some dog-sledders, Johnson says. But ice requires consistent cold.
"If you can't go ice fishing with mild weather, we have lot of hikers and lots of photographers," Johnson offers. "There's plenty of wildlife to be seen."
In addition to the now-ubiquitous coyotes, visitors can spot a variety of owls, including screech, great horned, long-eared, barred, short-eared, northern saw-whet, barn and, sometimes, snowy.
"One of my rangers saw a bald eagle on the ice," Johnson says.
That majestic bird has been the only one ice fishing so far this winter on Deep Quarry Lake in Bartlett.