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Naturally Speaking: It’s not always what you see, but what you don’t that tells the story

I’m afraid that we’re getting used to this monotonous pattern of little teases of warmer air followed by a little snow and yet another outbreak of Arctic cold repeating itself every few days. The temperature was around 10 degrees when my wife, Sue, and I left for a walk out at Hickory Grove Park. It was sunny, fairly calm, and didn’t feel half bad. It was certainly a better option than sitting with the Sunday paper all afternoon until it was time to watch the Super Bowl.

I was hoping we’d see some interesting tracks in the fresh inch or so of powdery dry snow. It’s always fun to follow the seemingly random pattern of a foraging mouse as they leave little paired tracks and occasional wandering lines as they hop and burrow through the snow. One such track showed a little rounded hollow where the mouse had loosened an acorn from the frozen soil. Others just kept going without any apparent finds. Sometimes the little tracks end with intersecting tracks of a fox or coyote, or maybe a pattern of wings on the snow where a hawk or owl has swooped down for a meal. We didn’t find any exciting stories like that on our walk.

The lake was covered with the tracks of ice anglers and the Swiss cheese patterns of holes they’d drilled looking for fish. Quite a few anglers would have been out sitting on buckets next to a couple of small holes in the ice on even such a chilly day not so many years ago. Some would have been sheltered by heavy, semi-permanent wooden fish shacks back in those days. There were only a few parties out on the ice during our walk, though, and they were all sitting inside portable tent ice fishing shelters. Some of the shelters most likely had portable heaters inside, and might even have had a portable TV to watch the pregame shows. Some might have had “fish cams” along to supplement the information being received from their fish sonar rigs. These portable systems allow an angler to drop a little fish-shaped video camera right down the hole to actually see what’s making their little sonar screen flash. Is it a runt green sunfish or a nice slab-sided bluegill or crappie? Fish cams also help anglers evaluate what kind of structure the fish are hiding in. My guess is that watching a fish cam could be at least as entertaining as the pregame shows!

The smaller shelters for one or two anglers can still be pulled out by a single person since they’re all built to fold into their own plastic sled base. It was obvious from the tracks that the larger ones that can handle four or more anglers are often pulled out with the aid of a 4-wheeler or snowmobile. The fact that most of the fishing sites showed multiple larger-diameter holes indicated that anglers were almost universally using gas powered augers. It would be exhausting to drill that many holes through more than 12 inches of ice with a hand auger like the one I have. I don’t know if the few anglers who were out were catching any fish, but I’m sure that they were at least enjoying the experience of trying.

Hickory Grove Park has what I’d call very good wildlife habitat. It wasn’t unusual in years gone by to see a flock of 20 or 30 pheasants or at least their tracks. We looked in all the usual places and couldn’t find a single pheasant track in the new snow, though. The park is a refuge, so it’s not like all the birds were shot. The lack of pheasant tracks is more evidence that last spring’s frequent flooding rains prevented the already depressed pheasant population from reproducing again. Pheasants aren’t very long-lived birds and few survive to even three years. If they can’t reproduce they just die out. Flash rises of the lake during those excessive rain events destroyed most of the area’s Canada goose nests, too. Canada geese live longer lives and the surviving adult birds will return for another go at nesting in only a month or so. I’m more concerned about the lack of pheasants, though. Looking at the barren harvested fields around the area, I can’t see anyplace for the pheasants to return from.

(Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation.)

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