Changing seasons

Barely a dusting of snow covers the ground here in Grand Forks, but winter seems to have arrived in full force just a couple of hours away.

I made a trek to the getaway in northwest Minnesota over the weekend and was surprised at the amount of snow I encountered. There seems to be a line that begins somewhere west of Karlstad, Minn., and from that point east, the ground was covered with at least 3 inches of snow on the level — that’s just a rough guess; there could be more — everywhere except plowed fields.

Snow falls Sunday afternoon as ice forms along the shoreline of a northwest Minnesota river. (Brad Dokken photo)

Snow falls Sunday afternoon as ice forms along the shoreline of a northwest Minnesota river. (Brad Dokken photo)

Saturday afternoon, friend and frequent fishing partner Brad Durick of Grand Forks and his 5-year-old son, Braden, joined me for an overnight stay. There was nothing particular on the agenda except a big campfire, but with the amount of snow on the ground, I couldn’t resist the temptation to fire up the snowmobile and take it for a spin.

Braden and I made a couple of laps around a snow-covered field, and I had to laugh when we pulled back into the yard, and Braden exclaimed, “That was the best ride of my life!”

This kid obviously is easy to please.

The mercury again has risen back above freezing — at least during the day — but the abrupt cooldown that took place last week has resulted in a drastic change to the countryside, even in areas where snow hasn’t fallen. Wetlands are frozen, ice is forming along the edges of rivers across the region and it won’t be long, at this rate, before anglers begin taking the first tentative steps on the hard water of smaller lakes.

Anglers who are especially brave may have tried walking out in a few places already, though it’s not something I would recommend.

Nature’s calendar is behind schedule compared with last year, when cold temperatures arrived unusually early. Last year, we ventured onto frozen Lake Laretta near Michigan, N.D., before Thanksgiving and found 10 inches of solid ice.

This year, I don’t anticipate getting out on the ice for at least another week, and that’s fine by me.

I’m not a big fan of winter driving, especially when it means traveling icy roads, but I do hope this winter brings more snow than last year. If we’re going to have winter — and that’s inevitable here in the Northland — we might as well have enough snow to enjoy snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, which is one of my favorite forms of winter exercise.

Despite its early arrival, last winter was a disappointment for everything but ice fishing.

This year’s extended fall no doubt was a treat, but I’m ready for winter. About as ready as I can be, at least.

Sharptails provide winter photo opps

The cold weather that has descended with a vengeance the past few days has wildlife scrambling to consume enough calories to keep warm.

That can present some great opportunities for wildlife watchers.

A sharp-tailed grouse feeds on frozen berries in the yard of Gary and Phyllis Lund, who live near Roseau, Minn.

Gary and Phyllis Lund of rural Roseau, Minn., have sent me several photos the past couple of days of sharp-tailed grouse in their backyard — and sometimes right on their deck.

The prairie grouse, which can be notoriously skittish, don’t seem to mind the human company and have been feeding on frozen high-bush cranberries and other foodstuffs that have been set out for the birds.

This sharptail definitely rules the roost.

Gary Lund said the photos have been taken out the house windows, anywhere from 50 feet to farther out, using a Pentax with a 12- to 48-mm zoom lens. They’re fun shots that are worth sharing.

A plump sharptail roosts on the deck of Gary and Phyllis Lund’s resident near Roseau, Minn., on a cold Tuesday morning.

It’s not common for the sharptails to perch on the deck.

“We’ve had them land on top of our other bird feeder,” as well, Lund writes. “Quite comical.”

Roseau and other parts of northwest Minnesota are situated in a unique region between the prairie and boreal forest, which provides the opportunity to see not only prairie grouse such as sharptails, but woodland species such as ruffed grouse and spruce grouse, as well. The abundant snow that’s fallen to date is a boon for all three species, which burrow into the snow to escape the cold. All three are able to withstand cold northern winters providing they’ve got enough food and places to roost. The sharptails obviously have found the Lunds’ yard to their liking.

What a difference a year makes

The temperature hovered near 0 degrees Tuesday morning, and I couldn’t help but think back on what I’d been doing a year to the day earlier.

On March 26, 2012, two friends and I launched my boat at the Wheeler’s Point access near the mouth of the Rainy River to fish walleyes in Four-Mile Bay, the part of Lake of the Woods that picks up where Rainy River leaves off.

Bob Glassmann (right) of Roseau, Minn., and Jason Laumb of Grand Forks weathered the cold and a stiff southeast wind to catch walleyes from a boat March 26, 2012 near the mouth of the Rainy River. This year, the same area remains buried under a thick layer of ice and snow. (Brad Dokken photo)

The weather wasn’t particularly nice that day, and a stiff southeast wind kept us bundled up against the cold, but we were in a boat on Lake of the Woods in March, barely a long cast from the Ontario border.

This year, by comparison, we could have driven to the spot with a snowmobile. Perhaps even a truck, if the snow had settled enough to keep us from getting stuck.

The winter of 2012 was a nonevent as North Country winters go, and spring came earlier than usual. But I couldn’t help but marvel at the contrast in conditions.

I also found myself longing for the opportunity to fish from a boat again, the relaxing sound of the water lapping against the hull.

Despite the blustery weather, fishing was pretty darn good during last year’s March open water debut. Anchored in about 10 feet of water, action was just fast enough to keep things interesting and we didn’t move the entire day. We boated about 20 walleyes up to 27 inches in length and missed our share of others.

Spring seems a long way off as I write this, but a report I saw this afternoon on the Clementson Resort website offered cause for optimism. Ice-out on the Rainy River is way behind last year’s early start, but the resort, located along the river east of Baudette, Minn., posted photos on its website showing anglers dragging small boats across the ice at Birchdale, Minn., about 30 miles upstream from Baudette, to access open water.

No word on the fishing, but the sight of open water, even though it was only a sliver, was encouraging just the same. With warmer weather in the forecast and ample flows, open water on the Rainy should work its way downstream at a steady clip during  the next few days.

See for yourself by clicking here.