Outdoors Winter Wonderland

There is something starkly beautiful about the woods and lakes in winter. Bare trees are not nearly as pretty as they are in the fall with colorful leaves or in spring with bright fresh green leaves, but they do have an allure all their own.

Even the wind sounds different. Rather than the dry rustling of fall leaves or the swooshing sound of green leaves blowing in the wind, this time of year the bare branches make a mournful howling sound. At night it can be even more spooky.

The sky looks different, too. The moon and stars are bright and hard in the cold air rather than the fuzzy twinkling light shining through layers of warm, moist air. And bare trees mean you can see them even better.

On the lake, the water seems to either be a steel gray cold or orange mud cloud. Neither are inviting as the warm hues of summer. No one wants to jump in the water in winter, unless you have a desire to join the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. Instead of the enjoyable cooling splashing of summer it is a dangerous hypothermia inducing cold.

It is still fun to be outdoors this time of year. There is time to roam the fields and hedgerows to find quail and rabbits before seasons end. Tree rats stand out as they scurry around in bare branches and are easier to spot, but harder to stalk since they can see you easily, too.

Some folks like to walk deer trails and bedding areas looking for antler sheds. Bucks around here usually start shedding their antlers in early January and continue until March, so now is a good time to find them.

Whitetail bucks are amazing. They start growing their antlers in the spring and they grow until late summer. As they grow they are covered with a layer of soft, blood rich material called “velvet” that supplies the antlers with nutrition to grow. In the last summer this material starts to die and the bucks rub it off to polish their antlers. The antlers stay hard and strong, firmly attached to the deer’s head, until the end of breeding season. They then fall off and the buck starts the cycle again in a few months.

You must be quick to find shed antlers. Squirrels and mice love to eat them for the nutrients they contain, so if you do not find then within a few days of being shed you are likely to find gnawed remains or nothing at all.

Fishing in the winter can be great, especially for big bass. Crappie feed well, too. You can catch large numbers of crappie suspended over deep water when you find a school of them, and bass also school up in deep water where you can catch a lot of them in a small area.

Big bass often roam the shallows looking for a meal. If you fish shallow water you may not get many bites but you may hook the biggest fish of your life. I caught my first eight pound bass in a January tournament at Jackson lake in the 1970s and a few years later caught my second one weighing over eight pounds, again in a January tournament there. My biggest bass every, a nine pound, seven ounce largemouth, came in a February tournament at Jackson.

All three of those fish were caught when the water was very cold, and in all three cases that one bite was the only one I got all day. Fishing eight hours or more for one bite is tiring and frustrating, especially since you may not get even one bite and that one bite could be a smaller fish, but it can be very rewarding if you stick with it.

Many folks catch and clean bass and crappie in the winter and are surprised the eggs look like they are ready to be laid. Fish go through annual cycles, too, and those cycles are based more on length of day than anything else, but water temperature does play a part.

Since fish are cold blooded their body functions slow way down. That is why they don’t eat much in cold water. So, their eggs need to start developing in the fall and slowly maturing over the winter. That is why fall fishing is so good, the fish are feeding up for the coming winter so their bodies can survive, and the females can develop eggs.

By the time the water is warm enough for spawning the eggs must be ready. Since water warms quickly to spawning temperatures, the eggs cannot grow that fast so they must be almost mature. That is why in the winter you may gut a crappie and it be full of eggs that look like they are ready to be laid. They are, they just need a few days of warm water to finish the final process.

Cycles of nature are amazing. We have developed the ability to change our environment and do not rely on natural cycles like wildlife and fish. In winter, we can build a fire or produce heat in many other ways. In the heat of summer, we have developed methods to keep our homes comfortable. Wild animals must adapt to the weather, they cannot adept their habitat to make themselves comfortable.

Get out and enjoy the outdoors in winter. Just be happy that you can go back inside your warm house when you want to, unlike the animals and fish you have been hunting or catching.