By Kelly House and Janelle D. James, Bridge Michigan
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- The Black Lake sturgeon spearing season is a highly-anticipated winter event
- State officials have canceled it, citing unsafe conditions on thin ice
- It joins a long list of winter event cancellations as Michigan endures a shockingly warm winter
Warm weather has prompted the cancellation of the iconic Black Lake winter sturgeon fishing season, where anglers get a rowdy-but-brief opportunity to spear dinosaur-like fish through the ice.
The cancellation, announced Friday morning less than 24 hours before the season was set to begin, is the latest in a series of disappointments for winter recreationalists, as the one-two punch of El Niño and climate change have caused one of the warmest Michigan winters in history.
“We’ve had a couple of people fall through [the ice] just walking out,” said Jay Woiderski, president of Sturgeon for Tomorrow, which hosts the Black Lake Sturgeon Shivaree. “My big concern is that if somebody does go through, then they have to launch a rescue team out there and that puts all those people in danger.”
In a statement, DNR Fisheries Chief Randy Claramunt said the Black Lake cancellation is meant to protect both people and fish.
Black Lake straddles Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties near the tip of the Lower Peninsula and its ice is so thin that DNR officials worry about monitoring harvests, which is of utmost importance given that the season’s catch limit is just six fish total.
The Black Lake season rarely lasts more than a couple of hours, and DNR officials keep tabs on harvest by zooming across the lake in snowmobiles.
This year, that’s impossible.
“In addition to protecting the lake sturgeon population, the safety of anglers and staff is critically important,” said Claramunt. “We encourage all anglers across Michigan to use extreme caution while on the ice, as we have been experiencing above-average temperatures.”
The annual Sturgeon Shivaree — a party on the lake featuring music, poker tournaments and raffles — is still a go. How attendance might be impacted by the Black Lake winter sturgeon fishing season cancellation remains to be seen.
“There’s no question that this is not a good thing for the local businesses around here because some people will have canceled their motel reservations,” Woiderski said. “There won’t be as many people here to eat in our local restaurants.”
In addition to the sturgeon season, the warm weather has forced cancellations this weekend of the Gaylord Snowmobile Fest and the North American Vasa Nordic ski and bicycle races in Traverse City.
The UP 200 dog sled race, which was scheduled to begin Feb. 15 in Marquette, was also canceled for the second straight year after rainy conditions last year forced race organizers to cancel for the first time.
And it’s looking like next weekend’s Free Snowmobiling Weekend, hosted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, will be missing snow.
“I suspect they’ll be trails that may be usable right now, might not be in a few days,” said Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation for the DNR. “So it makes it a bit chaotic for people trying to plan a trip.”
Olson said the DNR will not cancel the Free Snowmobiling Weekend and advises visitors to check their website for updates on open trails. Currently, there are 13 trails temporarily closed and three permanently closed.
“If there are trails available, you can ride on them, if they’re not, the trails will be closed …it varies from area to area,” Olson said.
The Caseville Chamber of Commerce will still host its annual Shanty Days winter celebration schedule for Feb. 16-17. Despite the lack of ice, the event will still include the ice fishing contest and tug of war on ice.
“We don’t have any ice but we have the breakwall that goes out into the water that fishermen fish off of,” said Michelle Louwers, spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce. “There’s always a backup plan because of the weather so we don’t have to cancel anything.”
Louwers said in the 32 years the event has been going on, there was only one other year where there wasn’t enough ice for ice fishing.
Activities like inner tube racing and an ice fishing tournament planned for the Frostbite Winter Festival in Harrison have been moved from the lake to city park because organizers of the event could not get a permit to host the festival on the lake due to the lack of ice coverage, according to city officials.
That’s just a partial accounting of Michigan’s lost winter of 2024.
And the snow doesn’t appear to be returning anytime soon. The extended forecast for the next 10 days calls for daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s across much of the state.
The long-term average high for Michigan in February is typically around freezing. But strong El Nino in the Pacific is causing a warming pattern across the U.S.
“Ice hasn’t been able to grow on the Great Lakes this winter and obviously this warm period we’re in now and continuing through next week, that’s going to further prevent the ice growth,” said Don Rolfson, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
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Featured image: Black Lake’s annual sturgeon spearfishing season is viewed as a celebration of conservation success, made possible by a team effort to promote the fish’s recovery. But this year, weather has canceled the event. (Bridge photo by Dan Welihan)