By Shawn Perich
Last Saturday, I walked to the mouth of Minnesota’s Brule River, a Lake Superior tributary near the Canadian border. A long sand and cobble spit separates the river’s estuary from the lake. A foot of snow had fallen the previous day and an absence of human footprints showed I was the first person to trudge out there since the snow fell. Other tracks revealed an otter had been ahead of me, crossing the spit from the lake to the river. Two geese had done the same.
The sun was shining—a rarity this spring—and Lake Superior was mirror-still. The world was brlliant white and blue. Vast rafts of pack ice drifted on the lake. The river, while open, was lined with walls of shelf ice and chunks of ice floated by with the current. It seemed as though I’d been transported somewhere far north of Minnesota, into the Arctic, where spring and summer occur in a few short weeks.
While spring has sprung in most of Minnesota, up here on Superior’s shores, we are still enduring winter. At this writing, deep snow covers the landscape, although the snow is beginning to recede along sun-kissed banks and hillsides. The North Shore trout streams are flowing, although the northernmost ones have low water levels because the spring melt hasn’t begun.
On Sunday afternoon, Vikki and I took drive to the end of the Arrowhead Trail, which runs 18 miles from Lake Superior to the edge of the Boundary Waters at McFarland Lake. Snowmobiles were still running on the unplowed side roads. Snow in the woods was anywhere from knee- to waist-deep. Some of the small creeks and drainages were snow-covered. Larger creeks were barely open. McFarland Lake was covered with snow and ice. The Royal River, which flows out of the lake, was open at the outlet, as it has been all winter. But looking downstream we could see the river was still frozen.
A week ago I talked with a woman who makes maple syrup. At that time, she was hoping the days would be warm enough that maples would have consistent sap flow. Sugaring in the third week of April may seem late to folks elsewhere in Minnesota, but she said it was business as usual for her operation. While the winter was colder and snowier than what we’ve experienced in the past decade, she thought it was more “normal” than not.
Based on steelhead fishing, my spring passion, I’d say winter is dragging its heels. Generally, by the latter part of April, the rivers around Grand Marais are high with snowmelt and steelhead are starting their spawning run. That isn’t happening this year. When the steelhead run will begin in earnest is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, it will have started by the time you read this. Another big question is when the lakes in the Arrowhead will be ice-free. Opening day, May 10, isn’t very far away.
I won’t make any predictions about ice-out dates, but here’s an observation about Arrowhead winters. If you live outside Lake, Cook and eastern St. Louis counties, chances are you don’t have a clue about how long winter hangs around up here. Every spring I have telephone conversations with folks “down below,” who refuse to believe we remain locked in snow and ice. Why? Because from wherever they are calling me from, spring has already arrived. Surely, it must be spring “up north,” too.
And so I tell them what they don’t want to hear. Usually that means they have to change their weekend fishing plans. If they decide to go ahead and do whatever it was they intended to do, so be it. Old Man Winter will be here to greet them.
Bobwhites in the Banana Belt
The bluff country south and east of Rochester is, at least to me, down south. It’s the only part of the state that looks like it ought to have wild turkeys, not to mention the opossums, timber rattlers, shagbark hickory and other southern flora and fauna which reach the northern extent of their range in the Mississippi River bluffs and valleys. One bird that ought to be there is the bobwhite quail, a native species that is barely hanging on in far southeastern Houston and Fillmore counties.
Years ago, I was fishing the Kinnikinnic River near River Falls, Wisconsin when I heard the distinctive calls of a covey of bobwhites. Wisconsin still has a bobwhite hunting season with a daily bag limit of five. The birds, while diminished in abundance, are still found throughout much of southern and western Wisconsin, ranging northward to Interstate 94. This means on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers, quail are found as far north as the Twin Cities.
This is noteworthy, considering Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen recently introduced a bill directing the state DNR to develop and implement a bobwhite quail management plan. If quail can exist in Wisconsin, it stands to reason there should be room for them in southeastern Minnesota, too. If Hansen’s legislation succeeds, the timing appears to be right to make forward progress in quail habitat restoration.
Minnesota has a small, but enthusiastic cadre of bobwhite fans who are willing to initiate habitat work. Pheasants Forever has a sister organization devoted to quail, which means the nonprofit conservation infrastructure is in place. More importantly, quail habitat improvements ought to be a shoe-in for Outdoor Heritage funding.
Since the DNR game and fish programs are mostly funded with hunting and fishing license fees, the agency may be reluctant to undertake habitat work for a game bird that may never become abundant enough to allow hunting. But quail habitat—brushy fencerows and field edges—is excellent cover for all farmland game, including species such as pheasants and cottontail rabbits. All farmland wildlife is essentially suffering from the same problem—a loss of habitat due to clean farming practices. If the DNR has willing partners willing to address that habitat loss, the agency should take advantage of the opportunity to work with them.