It’s the second week of January yet in most Great Lakes states there’s neither ice on the lakes nor snow on the ground.
And, while some rejoice the mild winter, the late ice and warmer temperatures hurt regional economies and could lower springtime water levels.
“Ice and snow are a real boon for our local businesses,” said Linda Tuck, executive director of the Houghton Lake Chamber of Commerce. Houghton Lake is in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.
“We have one of the most popular fishing lakes in the state, in the summer and winter, and this winter we’re seeing a real downturn,” Tuck said.
Houghton Lake is one of many regional communities that rely on ice anglers, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers to support businesses in the winter.
The lake usually freezes over in mid-December, but now in early January it still has spotty ice, open water and some “fools in shanties,” Tuck said.
Local businesses feel the pinch.
“I have 18 shanties that I rent that are just waiting to go out,” said Lyman Foster, owner of Lyman’s on the Lake, a bait and tackle shop in Houghton Lake.
“We’ve had about 50 percent less business than what we usually have this time of year,” Foster said. “It’s starting to hurt.”
Joy VanDrie, executive director of the Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau, said the late winter hurts the northern Michigan town.
“Snowmobile dealers, ski shops, lodging facilities … they all rely on the weather getting cold and snowy,” VanDrie said.
The bureau tries to find other ways to keep people visiting during increasingly mild winters, VanDrie said.
“We’ve been trying to get our arms around more of what we can do that’s not weather related,” VanDrie said. “We still have a lot of indoor roller skating, ice skating and hockey … there are still things to do in the area.”
While the lack of snow and ice harms the business climate, it also means that come spring water levels could be much lower.
“Generally, when all things are equal, more ice will lead to higher water levels in the spring,” said Craig Stow, a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “With less ice, you will see more evaporation.”
Ice keeps water cooler later into the spring, which will also minimize evaporation.
It’s too early to tell how the late winter will affect water levels, which are determined not only by evaporation but by precipitation.
“A lot of late snow and ice could tip the scales, but it’s been late and minimal this year,” Stow said.
The lack of ice doesn’t change things for fish.
“Fish rely on their environment to control their body temperature,” said Todd Grischke, fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “They find the water that’s most comfortable, and, in the winter, that’s near the bottom.”
Regardless of temperatures, fish hang out near the bottom – undisturbed by hooks for the moment.
But with a recent brisk spell across Michigan, that could soon change. Foster said fishing is already about three weeks behind schedule and people are “ready to get the hell out there.”
“I’d say four out of five calls I get are people asking, ‘is there any ice?’” Foster said.
There is more at stake than a fish dinner. The visitor bureau tags fish in local lakes for cash prizes.
“It’s part of a fishing contest … people love Wally Walleye and Betty Bass (two of the tagged fish),” Tuck said. “And the lack of ice is cutting into people’s time trying to catch them.”