A spring like never before

I have a confession. Like many Sunset Country anglers who enjoy fishing in the autumn months of September and October, I’ve mused many times about how enjoyable it would be if our weather remained “fall-like” much of the year.
Well, let me say I now have a much better appreciation for the old Chinese proverb: “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”
Indeed, Environment Canada has now declared it official. May and June were the coldest we’ve had on record. We’ve never shivered through a more frigid spring. Ever.
So, I have only one thing to say if the weather gods are still listening. I didn’t mean it. Honestly.
If you think the cold temperatures and never-ending rain have plagued Sunset Country anglers this spring, though, it has been much worse for the fish. Likely disastrous in many cases.
With water temperatures only now inching above the 15-degree C (60 F) mark for the first time, it has had a negative effective on virtually every spring spawning species.
Walleye, for example, generally begin spawning when water temperatures reach 6.7-8.9 C (44-48 F). As anyone who wiped frost from the windshield on opening day this year remembers, it was the lower end of that range out on the water.
Indeed, several of the walleye we caught in late-May—up to 10 days after the season started—still carried eggs.
Some of these fish likely threw in the towel, reabsorbed their energy, and abandoned the spawn altogether. It is a phenomenon that’s not uncommon further north, at the edge of the walleye’s range.
In fact, I recently returned from the Lac La Ronge area of northern Saskatchewan where opening day saw ice still covering most local lakes. The biologists there tell me they often observe walleye backing off on their egg-laying chores when conditions like this persist and favourable water temperatures fail to materialize.
More of a problem for our neck of the woods, though, is the almost certain delay in the incubation of the eggs that were deposited and in the growth of the fry.
That is unfortunate since the best walleye year-classes usually are produced when spring water temperatures warm up early and then rise consistently after the fish lay their eggs—hardly what happened this year.
Still, the walleye aren’t likely to get any sympathy from the bass population. They’ve experienced even more excruciating spring conditions.
According to MNR bass guru Dr. Mark Ridgway, the odds of north country bass surviving the first year of their lives are about the same as playing Russian Roulette—at the best of times.
Rarely do all the stars line up perfectly. This year, though, they haven’t even appeared in the sky!
Dr. Ridgway says the recipe for a successful bass year-class is a spring that arrives ahead of schedule, a long hot summer that extends into the fall, and then a late winter freeze-up followed by another early warm spring.
“Smallmouth fry living at the northern edge of their range must be at least 2.5 inches long by the fall to have any chance of surviving the first winter of life,” Dr. Ridgway told me.
“And the odds of that happening this year appear to lie somewhere between zero and zip.”
To highlight the infrequency of strong bass hatches, MNR Rainy Lake biologist Darryl McLeod says many of the fish he expects to see weighed in at next month’s Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship will be the product of the 1987 year-class.
According to McLeod, Rainy Lake enjoyed an excellent spawning and growing season that year and some of those fish are still swimming around in the lake today.
What this means is that the winning teams will be relying upon bass that were born in 1987.
McLeod helps puts our current weather conditions into perspective by noting the 1992 year-class is weak while the 1993 class is a “total disaster.” Those were bass spawns following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 that spewed ash into the atmosphere.
The global dust cloud prevented normal amounts of sunshine from heating the earth. As a result, 1993 was extremely cold and our Sunset Country weather conditions actually were more typical of Moosonee.
Consequently, virtually all of the bass born that year perished.
Now, compare those conditions to this year’s coldest spring on record and you get an idea of what is likely in store for the smallmouth population.
Few species are likely to escape this spring’s cruel joke, including muskies.
Before his recent and untimely death, I spoke with Dr. Ed Crossman, who arguably was the most knowledgeable and respected authority on muskellunge.
Dr. Crossman explained how Sunset Country muskies have developed several unique adaptations to live comfortably alongside northern pike. Growing to a much larger size is one of the modifications, as bigger female fish can lay more eggs.
Spawning twice in the spring is another unique distinction. So is the use of “vastly different spawning grounds” than the areas frequented by pike. And that, at least this spring, is the rub.
Those “vastly different spawning grounds” include more exposed main lake areas that are subject to what Dr. Crossman called “catastrophic spring winds” which can stir and churn up the lake bottom, deposit silt over the eggs, and lead to significant losses.
And you thought you had it tough this spring.

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