By mid-winter, tiny villages pop up on the frozen surface of Lake Champlain. Fishermen huddle in colorful shanties tending lines that descend to depths where perch, trout, and salmon swim below the ice.
Gerald “Jake” Putnam of Crown Point, a town in upstate New York at the southern tip of the huge lake, started fishing as a child with his father, Maple “Bud” Putnam. They still like to fish together.
Jake Putnam enjoys catching “pan fish” like perch, “pumpkinseeds,” and blue gills – best breaded and fried up with olive oil, he says. Sometimes he can “make a little jingle on the side” by selling to the local market.
Over the years, Putnam and other ice fisherman have seen subtle changes in the winter ice. The official opening of ice-fishing season is November 1, but the lake usually begins freezing around Christmas. Bays on the southern lake freeze first, but fishermen like to head to the ice north of a former bridge to Vermont, a wider area of the lake.
“It’s news around here when the lake doesn’t freeze,” Putnam said, but in recent decades, open water in mid-winter has been a relatively frequent occurrence on the middle of the 8,200-square-mile lake straddling New York, Vermont, and Quebec. It has yet to freeze this year.
According to a climate change study by The Nature Conservancy, freeze-up on Lake Champlain is happening two weeks later than in the early 1800s — that is, in the increasingly rare winters when ice covers the main body of the lake at all.
With a 2-degree-Fahrenheit average annual increase in air temperature in the Champlain basin between 1976 and 2005, changes to the climate are not only affecting human activities on the surface of one of North America’s largest lakes, but are also having unseen effects on the fish living below the ice.
With warming lake water, fish species such as trout, salmon, and other prized game fish that need periods of cold water for their life cycle may have less optimal habitat and face competition from warm-water fish.
Putnam works as a maintenance foreman at the Crown Point state historic area. As part of the management plan for the old fort site on the lake, he is no longer applying pesticides and is following a reduced mowing schedule, which lowers fuel consumption and carbon emissions while allowing for bird nesting at the conservation area.
To help keep the lake ecosystem healthy amid a changing climate, the Conservancy recommends similar strategies. What people do to manage the natural resources around them can help avoid additional negative impacts. So, for example, reducing pollutants to the lake (such as runoff that contains sediment and nutrients like phosphorus), can avoid oxygen-depleted zones in the lake that can harm fish.
Putnam uses a small portable shelter (a prize from a fishing tournament he won in 2006) that covers him from the wind, but some ice fishermen set up semi-permanent shanties – some outfitted with propane heaters – that dot the lake ice for weeks. Trophy fish include lake trout, salmon, or walleye.
Sometimes the competition is informal between the friends who come along on an ice fishing outing. Often on the ice by first light, it’s not unusual for Putnam to stay all day, “especially if you’ve got a good bite goin’ there.”
There’s nothing like heading home as the sun drops, ruddy-cheeked but warm from exertion, with a bucket full of perch for dinner and a feeling of satisfaction.
Lisa Hayden is climate change writer for The Nature Conservancy
Photo courtesy of Jake and Pam Putnam (Jake Putnam catches a northern pike.)
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