Record heat’s a hot topic

St. Paul — Without exception across Minnesota, it’s been a hot late winter. And spring, which arrived earlier this week, is looking much the same.

How hot? Words and phrases from fish and wildlife managers, as well as climatologists range from “unprecedented,” to “extraordinary,” to “uncharted territory.” Record highs (as of Monday, daily high records had been set eight of the past 10 days) in mid-March rid lakes of ice and set into motion DNR Fisheries activities typically reserved for weeks down the road.

It’s also served to make some officials a bit anxious.

Dennis Topp is the DNR’s assistant fisheries manager in Baudette, and he’s been around now for more than 20 years. He said ice-out and rapidly warming waters may serve to compress typical spring activities, plus, it might make various fish species react differently in terms of movement and spawning activities. Fisheries personnel in Baudette take on pike sampling, as well as sturgeon and walleye-spawning assessments in the spring.

“We scrambling all over to see how fish are going to react to this,” Topp said, adding that low flows caused by dry fall conditions and lack of winter snow also complicate matters. “This is uncharted territory for us here.”

Just down the road, anglers were taking advantage of the lack of ice on the Rainy River, Topp said.

That’s not unusual, he said. But typically the Rainy – a hot spot for early season walleye aficionados – is opened by flow rather than by warm air. The river gradually opens from Rainy Lake west to Lake of the Woods, a distance of about 90 miles. Monday, the river was open to Clementson.

“I expect by the end of the week it may be open all the way to Lake of the Woods,” Topp said.

That would give anglers all along the river a solid three weeks to fish for walleyes there; the season this year closes April 15. (The limit remains two walleyes; any fish 19.5 inches or longer must be released.)

“The walleye population here is in good shape, and there are lots of year-classes available,” Topp said.

Ice-out

Fishing by boat wasn’t just a river phenomenon this week. Ice-out had occurred in most locations in central Minnesota, from the east to western border. A few ice-out record-early dates were established, including Big Stone Lake in Big Stone County (March 18 this year; March 22 in 1987 and 2000). There were several just-misses, many of them by just a few days of the record-setting winter/spring of 2000.

“With some lakes, it was the earliest ever,” said Greg Spoden, a DNR climatologist. “The rule of thumb is, it’s been 2 to 21⁄2 weeks early (compared to average).”

It’s likely by the weekend, the options will have multiplied and moved north, as above-average temperatures were forecast well into the future.

“Nothing is in the forecast that indicates this pattern will abate,” Spoden said.

He noted that record temps were not simply exceeding the old records; they were shattering them, sometimes by 7 to 9 degrees.

“It makes me a little jittery,” Spoden said.

Early fish netting

Once ice is off southern Minnesota lakes, their dark waters warm fast. This year, that’s meant DNR Fisheries crews have had to have their nets ready ahead of schedule, according to Ryan Doorenbos, DNR area fisheries supervisor in Windom.

The DNR is conducting an ongoing study of Fox Lake muskies, which includes netting and fitting them with PIT tags – something that’s already under way.

“It’s been more of a mid-April netting, based on water temps,” Doorenbos said earlier this week. “Here, when the lakes open up, they warm up quickly – we don’t want to miss (the optimum time to catch shallow-water muskies).”

The early warmup also could affect Windom-area collection of northern pike that are stocked into DNR rearing ponds. However, a dry 2011 fall might mean poor habitat (low water) conditions in those ponds this year, Doorenbos said.

How the weather will affect angling activity remains to be scene; the general inland game fish opener is still a month and a half away.

Weather for the birds

There’s still the uncertain nesting and brood-rearing season ahead for Minnesota’s pheasants, but the lack of a “real” winter in the pheasant range bodes well for the group that will be producing chicks this spring.

“We’re in the middle of March and we’ve pretty much had a non-existent winter,” said Matt Holland, a Pheasants Forever biologist in New London. “Survival from this winter should be good … and (pheasants) should be in good shape coming into nesting.”

He adds that dry, warm weather still will be required for successful reproduction, once the critical nesting and brood-rearing season comes around. Chicks rely on insects, he said, which require the proper habitat and weather conditions.

Given the good condition of hens at this point in the season, egg production should be optimal too, he said.

But that’s a ways off; the peak of the hatch typically isn’t until the second week of June.

Lack of sap

As those who tap maples and create their own maple syrup in Minnesota probably know by now, high daily highs, along with high daily lows, isn’t a recipe for high flow of sap. It’s also a challenge to keep that sap cool enough so that it doesn’t spoil.

While there might still be time for some production from state trees, early this week most reports were sub-par.

According to the DNR, “The key to a successful season is having the temperature fall below freezing at night and rise (preferably into the 30s and 40s) during the day for extended periods.”

Mimi Barzen, a DNR Forestry specialist in Grand Rapids, said production of sap in her part of northern Minnesota has lagged far behind the usual output.

Early fire season

A dry past fall and an early spring have resulted in burn restrictions set to kick in already in parts of Minnesota. Earlier this week, the DNR announced burning restrictions would take effect March 26 (Monday) for much of central and northern Minnesota.

According to the DNR, most wildfires in the state occur during April and May, and 95 percent are caused by human error.

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