The warmer weather affects me like paroled madman every year and I find myself standing on the boat ramp at Spencer Lake Wildlife area, flanked by my fellow former inmates; sportsmen so anxious to get in their boats and go fishing that they too want to see just how much the ice has drawn back from the shore. It’s not much, mere inches, and every night it refreezes so it’s slow going before we’ll be pitching crankbaits at submurged tree stumps here. But as the ice draws back, it offers up a grizzly find and our sunny hearts sink. At the end of the dock we see a dead three pound Smallmouth and a what is certainly a Fish-Ohio Award Crappie. What joy these fish would have brought on the end of a line in the sun of a mid-summer evening. Now they just float here white and water-logged, belly up waiting to have their bones picked by crows or marauding seagulls, venturing far in from Lake Erie’s shore to feast on this macabre buffet of death.
Gizzard Shad are everywhere; usually a nuisance to fisherman but an important food source for the larger gamefish and bass that are so popular at this lake. Now the food chain is damaged if not broken, and although some dead fish are normal to find in the Spring, you could almost step from one to the next all the way around the shore. Panfish carcasses are numerous in the kill but probably underrepresented for as many of them as this lake holds. In warmer times this is the perfect place to take the kids and spend the happiest of days catching bluegill after bluegill while lunching on bolognie sandwiches. Now I’m holding my breath to see how many are left.
Many large catfish litter the banks, usually the dwellers of the bottom where it’s always cold and dark. Way back in the 80′s Bob, Pete and I used to come out here to night fish for these lunkers by the light of a Coleman lantern. A few years down the line, this lake holds many memories for me and great inland fishing close to home still today. I just hope the good times aren’t over for good.
It’s a condition called “Winterkill”, and it happens when there is a significant decline in oxygen levels during a long period of surface ice cover. As long as the body of water is partially open, oxygen levels will remain high enough because diffusion of oxygen from the air and wind agitation adds more oxygen to the water than the fish use. A lot of people think it’s the temperature that kills the fish, but that’s actually not true (and yes, cold water does hold more oxygen but read on).
With a thick layer of ice like we had this winter and shorter hours of sunlight the process of photosynthesis in aquatic plants grinds to a halt, and the water receives little oxygen from them. If the ice is thin and clear, aquatic plants can manage to carry on and pretty well compensate for the oxygen used by fish and decomposition of aquatic life (an aerobic process too). But if the ice thickens, or worse yet, is covered by snow (which also happened this year) then it gets much harder for photosynthesis and the oxygen situation gets worse. It doesn’t have to be much worse, just one or two parts per million less oxygen in the water and fish begin to die. If this happens throughout the lake, a complete and total fish kill is possible.
Ohio Division of Wildlife is on top of the situation here, calling this “a substantial kill event that has affected many fish species” but it’s clear that we need the ice to melt back a bit to get a better look at the entirety of the situation and for fish management specialists to come up with a strategy. Spencer Lake is in many ways the perfect combination of factors for Winterkill to happen. It’s shallow (no more than 16 feet deep in most places) a man-made lake surrounded by trees with very little natural flow. If this sounds like a lot of places in our area, that’s right. Phil Hillman, fish management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife said, “It will not be unlikely that we hear more stories this spring of winter-kill events in other shallow, productive (nutrient rich) smaller lakes and ponds.”
So for now, we watch the seagulls feast, we walk the banks, and wait for the sun to come out and melt the ice, hoping for the best from a bad situation.