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Thanksgiving and wild game go together

Gourmet Gone Wild executive chef Dan Nelson begins to pluck feathers from a wild turkey. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Gourmet Gone Wild executive chef Dan Nelson begins to pluck feathers from a wild turkey. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A wild turkey is shown in fall in Michigan. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A wild turkey is shown in fall in Michigan. Photo from Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Reports of the first Thanksgiving dinner indicate that the Pilgrims and indigenous peoples certainly feasted on venison and wild fowl, but whether that fowl was wild turkey is a matter of conjecture.

Though wild turkeys were known to exist in the area and have been mentioned as hunters’ quarry in other accounts of early American life, it is just as likely the fowl at that celebratory feast were ducks, geese, swans and/or the now extinct passenger pigeons.

In any case, wild game was certainly at the center of the first Thanksgiving.

Though domesticated turkey has assumed the role of main course in the intervening years, wild game – often venison – is on the menu at many homes during Thanksgiving – and why not? Thanksgiving occurs during deer hunting season.

Wild game offers challenges for cooks. For the most part, it has less fat than domesticated meat and the fat is located differently in the body. Cooks must refine their techniques to get the most out of wild game.

That’s the view of Dan Nelson, a restaurant chef, who also serves as the main man in the kitchen at Gourmet Gone Wild events in Michigan.

Gourmet Gone Wild is an outreach program sponsored by several entities, including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The program highlights to young professionals and families, in urban to suburban environments, the health benefits of eating wild game, while also emphasizing its connection to environmental stewardship, sustainability and conservation.

Nelson, a 35-year-old lifelong sportsman/cook, says overcooking is the biggest mistake most beginners make when tackling game.

“Wild game is not as fatty as domesticated meat and most of the fat that’s stored in wild game is in quick-access areas,” said Nelson, who puts on a dozen Gourmet Gone Wild events each year. “The intermuscular fat we see in beef and pork is fat that is long-term storage. Quick-access fat is just below the skin and the centerline—close to the backbone and within the gut. Those are all fats that game animals can turn to on a daily basis as a constant energy source.

“In processing, you remove most of that fat from the game itself. That means you either have to put fat back into it or cook it in ways that accommodate that lack of fat.”

Nelson said he prefers to accommodate and that means serving most wild game rare.

“Every degree of temperature you add to the muscle causes muscle fibers to constrict,” Nelson said. “When a steak hits the grill you see the steak constrict – the muscle fibers pull in reaction to the heat. That’s why a hamburger gets smaller when you cook it.

“All that constriction drives fluid out of the meat. That’s why I have a very accurate meat thermometer. I don’t like to go a degree past where I need to go. If I’m looking to cook something rare or mid-rare, I know the exact temperature I want to go to.”

Although rare is the option for dark meats, wild turkey – which has both white and dark meat – offers a different complexity.

“Wild turkey is something that should be cooked more well-done because of the possible pathogens that are found in poultry,” Nelson said. “That only changes the temperature, but it doesn’t change the fact that you don’t want to go over the temperature you’re aiming for.”

What is that temperature?

For white meat, shoot for 165 degrees, for dark meat, 180 degrees, Nelson said. You want to cook the dark meat (i.e., the drumsticks) longer because the meat is tougher.

“Wild turkey is extremely difficult to roast,” Nelson said. “To make use of the skin, you have to pluck it very thoroughly and clean it very thoroughly. And with toms, that readily accessible fat is in the sponge and it’s not delicious at all.

“Wild turkey lends itself to being cooked in pieces. You can cook the legs and the wings/breast separately. And I would cook the breast separate from everything else – it’s helpful to have them in the same pan so you have the juices to make gravy, but have them cut up in such a way as you can remove pieces as they reach ideal temperature. You want to bake it in a way in which you’re starting the dark meat first. Don’t overcook it.”

Another key to wild turkey is to slice it thin, across the grain, Nelson said.

“Wild turkey breast is extremely low in fat and has extremely long grain to it. There’s just no fat to keep your mouth moist while chewing,” Nelson said. “Eliminating the length of chew is the most crucial part of having delicious wild turkey breast.”

Cooks preparing waterfowl should either cook in a manner that preserves moisture or add fat.

“There’s no better fat than goose or dabbling ducks,” Nelson said. “That’s liquid gold. Way too many hunters are breasting their birds and not taking advantage of the rest of it.

“Besides a lot of valuable meat on the carcass, there’s a lot of extremely valuable fat on the carcass. Either marinate with it or add it to stock. And if you’re sauteing, that would be the fat you would use in the pan.”

Any game should “rest” after it’s out of the oven before it’s served, Nelson said.

“Every piece of meat you cook you should rest for about as long as it took you to cook it,” Nelson said. “If there is still built up heat and you didn’t let it rest, that tension that is in there is going to squeeze all the moisture out. Make a little tin foil hut and let it sit there – the top of the oven is going to be warm because you’ve had your oven on.”

That’s especially true for venison, Nelson said.

“If you’re eating something that has venison fat in it, it coagulates as soon as you put it in your mouth,” he said. “It’s not that it tastes terrible, it’s just that it coats your mouth. After it’s sliced, hit it with some heat to raise the temperature of the fat. Take a platter of meat, pop it in a high-temperature oven for a couple of minutes to warm the fat up, and warm the serving platter up to hold the heat.

“And serve a good red wine with it,” he said. “That’ll cut the fat out of your mouth right away, too. The bolder, the more tannic your red wines, the better they are at cutting the fat.”

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Teen gets buck first time hunting

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A Courtland Township teen is all smiles after getting a buck the very first time he went hunting.

Garrett Floria, 15, the son of Chadd and Wendy Floria, was hunting with his dad on his grandparents’ property near Remus, in Mecosta County, on the first day of rifle season, November 15, when he got this nice five-point buck.

Congratulations, Garrett!

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Smells of Thanksgiving

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Thanksgiving turkey smells stimulate stomach growls. Smell has a major impact for organism nature niche living and survival. Flowering plants release odors that attract pollinators that ensure plant species survive. An unintended byproduct is survival of people depending on plants. If insects did not smell the plant and pollination did not occur, the plant would not produce seeds or fruit people require.

We should offer thanksgiving for the insects that pollinate and provide for the continued production of plants. Insects taste a plant with feet (tarsi) to make sure it is the appropriate species to lay eggs on so offspring have a suitable plant to feed on when eggs hatch.

Mammals depend on senses for survival also, but few have the exacting smell and taste of insects because they are generalist feeders, unlike many insects that require very specific feeding requirements. It is to the benefit for mammals that smells do not need to be in a direct unimpeded line to catch attention. Odor molecules drift around obstacles like trees walls or other barriers to make it to animal noses. We can smell a turkey roasting from a neighboring room because molecules work their way around corners. Our sense of sight and that of wild animals depends on a direct line of light. If there was no odor working their way around corners to the living room, we would not know a turkey was baking in the kitchen based on sight. Light traveling in straight lines does not bend around corners.

Most mammals have a much keener sense of smell than people. Moles smell their way to worms in the darkness underground and do not depend on sight for their next meal. A great many mammals are nocturnal and depend on smell more than sight. Coyotes have a sense of smell tremendously more sensitive than anything we experience. Moisture is important to help with odor reception. Dogs lick their nose and it helps. Licking our nose does not help but having moisture inside our nostrils is important. Smells are more easily noticed in humid weather than in dry air.

When looking for wild raspberries or a dead animal to eat, bears and coyotes have a great advantage over us. Once drawn close by smell, they can use sight to zero in on the food. Molecules from the berries or the smell of a dead animal drift and make it possible for a mammal to work its way toward the greater concentration of molecules until the object is in sight.

People depend on sight to a greater degree than smell. That probably is not the case for many mammals. The use of the two senses together provide increased survival value. Add the sense of sound and it offers another aid to survival success and challenges. I was walking in an aspen forest with thigh high bracken ferns where I could not see or smell a deer bedded ahead of me. It stayed hidden until I was about ten feet from it. It was listening to my approach and rose in front of me like a giant scaring me half to death. It bounded into a thick conifer forest before I recovered from heart stopping startle.

Had I walked to its side, it might have remained quiet, still, hidden, and unnoticed to my sense of smell or sight.

Like insects, our sense of taste requires physical contact. Touching with our hands does not work for our sense of taste. Touching cannot be used to decide we do not want that taste in our mouth. Insects can touch with feet and decide not to place that taste in their mouth. Feeling objects has its own advantages we can use to evaluate food in the grocery or woods based on it how feels.

Smell gives us pleasure and/or disgust. It is important in reproduction for most species. It drives success and failure for many species. For now, simply enjoy the pleasure of Thanksgiving dinner and a full stomach.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Hunting continues to drive economic impact in Michigan

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LANSING, Mich. – Hunting remains a vibrant annual tradition in Michigan, with generations across the state and beyond preparing for Opening Day on Tuesday, November 15. Along with that rich heritage comes a significant impact on Michigan’s economy.

This year, more than 525,000 hunters are expected to participate in the annual firearms season for deer, which accounts for the largest economic impact of hunting in the state. The DNR estimates more than 90 percent of Michigan hunters will pursue deer this year, with hunters spending an average of 7 days afield during the firearm season. In Michigan, 60 percent of hunters hunt only deer making the upcoming firearm season especially critical for the economy.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates hunting in Michigan generates more than $2.3 billion in economic impact in the state, including expenses related to food and lodging and $1.3 billion spent on equipment.

“Hunting provides the perfect opportunity to get out and experience Michigan’s vast natural resources while contributing to the tremendous quality of life found here in our state,” said Michigan Economic Development Corporation CEO Steve Arwood. “We know hunting drives travel to Michigan as well as within the state, and that travel in turn generates economic impact for communities and businesses across Michigan.”

In addition to the overall economic impact of hunting provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2015 leisure travel spending on hunting reached an estimated $123.8 million, up from $85 million in 2014, according to data from D.K. Shifflet. Hunting and fishing leisure travel spending came in at a combined $340 million in 2015.

“Deer hunting is one of Michigan’s most important outdoors traditions,” said Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh. “We encourage hunters across the state to enjoy some treasured time with family and friends, support local economies and have a safe and fun time in the woods.”

A marketing partnership between Pure Michigan and the DNR is running a hunting-specific campaign to highlight the experience of the hunt in Michigan. The largely digital campaign has been running since August and has targeted younger sportsmen and sportswomen in addition to individuals whose interests, such as fishing and camping, may intersect with hunting. The goal of the campaign is to drive license sales and also continue to grow the number of hunters in the state. The campaign includes partnerships with Michigan Out of Doors, Outdoor Sportsman Group and OutdoorHub.com as well as a paid social media campaign.

In addition to in-state hunters, the campaign reaches hunters in neighboring states including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. In 2015, more than 75 percent of the page views on the Pure Michigan landing page on OutdoorHub.com came from outside the state of Michigan, up from 62 percent in 2014. This landing page, with original content and videos as well as key information on hunting and fishing in Michigan, continues to be a central component of Pure Michigan’s hunting and fishing marketing efforts.

“Hunting, as well as fishing, are prime examples of activities that people are passionate about and travel to take part in,” said Dave Lorenz, Vice President of Travel Michigan, part of the MEDC. “Our campaign reminds people about the thrill of the hunt found in our state, and is reaching a younger audience to ensure these traditions continue for years to come.”

Michigan continues to be one of the top states in the nation for paid-hunting license holders and last year, there were 63,900 new customers for all hunting licenses combined. Both hunter satisfaction and hunter success rates increased from 2014 to 2015, according to the DNR.

Pure Michigan is a brand representing business, talent and tourism initiatives across Michigan. These efforts are driven by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which serves as the state’s marketing arm and lead advocate for business growth, jobs and opportunity with a focus on helping grow Michigan’s economy.

For more on the MEDC and its initiatives, visit michiganbusiness.org. For Michigan travel news, updates and information, visit michigan.org.

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Rare, Endangered, Secure?

Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Dr. Hugh Iltis from the University of Wisconsin Madison became aware of a rare species with potentially great human significance in the mid 1970’s. It was a perennial corn that he, with others, named Zea diploprennis. He flew to Mexico to see, study, and collect it. It was found on a few habitat acres that were about to be destroyed by development. The development would have eliminated the species from existence. Big deal?

Potentially this corn, closely related to Zea maize (corn) that humans depend on, could contain genes with disease resistance that were bred out of domestic corn. If gene splicing could be used to make domestic corn perennial, it might grow annually without farmers needing to replant. That would be a huge economic savings.

A great many plants are being pushed toward extinction as habitat is destroyed without concern for fellow species needing space and unique growing conditions. Ecologically, humans are not the only important species in existence but our actions for sharing living space often ignores other species’ value.

The movie Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery, illustrates this point as the scientist is on the cusp of finding a cure for cancer, while the habitat and species containing the valuable resources are being eliminated from existence. Consider watching the movie about the hidden mysteries found in wild organisms.

Many rare species are secure and survive well in limited habitats of small size with unique growing conditions. Those conditions might have unusual minerals, water quality, or insect interactions that contribute to survival. We have not discovered many of the unique characteristics needed by the plants, insects, fungi, or other organisms. Most species’ significance for humans or ecological communities remains unknown.

Just because a species is rare does not mean it is endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Many species are rare, few in number, but are secure from a survival perspective. Rare and Endangered are two different conditions.

Some species can be abundant and endangered. Endangered means it is likely to disappear from existence in the relatively near future. Rare simply means not abundant but does not mean in eminent danger of extinction. Rare species might hold the most important secrets with value for human use and ecological sustainability.

When a species is recognized as declining, it can be politically classified as a species of Special Concern, Threatened, or Endangered depending on how serious the danger is for becoming extinct in the near future. The passenger pigeon was likely the most abundant bird species in existence that rapidly declined and became extinct. The causes were likely a result of human altered environmental conditions. The migratory population of Monarch butterflies was abundant and is now rapidly declining like happened with the passenger pigeon. The decline is likely related to how humans are altering environmental conditions.

One thing we have discovered from Monarchs is that cardio-glycosides have been useful for treating people with heart conditions. Recognize the significance of secrets held by other species.

The passenger pigeons and monarchs were not secure just because they were abundant. Do not confuse abundance with security. Many rare species are not threatened because their numbers are few. Rarity does not mean eminent danger for extinction. Rare species will become endangered if we do not maintain the unique ecological habitat nature niche conditions they require.

I have long suggested it is important to maintain at least 10 percent of every habitat and ecosystem as wilderness to provide secure living conditions for species that inhabit Earth’s environmental biodiversity. The idea can be viewed as sound scientific planning, religious tithing of Earth’s ecological creation care, socially responsible behavior to preserve valuable resources, and for maintaining economic security.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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DNR urges caution with fire as hunters head to the woods

 

With warm weather, remember to check for burn permits before burning yard debris

With dry conditions expected throughout much of the state this week, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is urging hunters, and folks out cleaning up their yards, to keep fire safety in mind.

“There is a chance for rain tonight, but overall it’s very dry throughout much of the state,” said Jim Fisher, DNR state fire supervisor. “The DNR is reminding everyone enjoying their time in the woods, or those at home cleaning their yards, to be careful with campfires and debris burning this next week. If you do decide burn yard debris, remember to check the burn permit website or call the DNR’s toll-free number to check if burn permits are being issued in your area.”

The DNR encourages residents with Internet access to visit www.michigan.gov/burnpermit to get their burn permits online. Residents can use the interactive map to find the burn conditions in their area. If a “yes” is shown in the “burning permits issued” column, burning is allowed for that day. There is no need to print anything; this serves as a burn permit.

For those who prefer to get their burn permits by phone, the DNR’s toll-free burn permit number is 866-922-2876.

Dry conditions paired with increased outdoor activity had DNR firefighters, along with local fire departments, responding to 12 fires on 60 acres across the state last week. Firefighters’ actions saved seven structures, and only one outbuilding was lost.

Three of the fires were caused by campfires and four were started by people burning yard debris.

Fisher said these recent fires served as a reminder to be safe if camping while hunting.

“Keep an eye on your fire and extinguish it so it’s out cold before you leave it,” he said. “A good rule of thumb for anyone burning outdoors is to always have water and tools available when burning.”

For more information about wildfire prevention, visit www.michigan.gov/preventwildfires. To check if burn permits are being issued in your area, go to www.michigan.gov/burnpermit.

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Reminders for those who hunt deer where there is wild elk

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Deer and elk comparison. Elk can weigh several hundred pounds more and stand 2-4 feet taller than deer

A bull and cow elk in Michigan.

A bull and cow elk in Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources reminds deer hunters hunting in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan that wild elk are also found in this area and cannot be harvested without an elk hunting license.

“Unfortunately, in the past we have had deer hunters who make the mistake of harvesting a young male or a calf elk thinking it’s a white-tailed deer,” said Shelby Hiestand, DNR wildlife biologist. “Although a mistake, this would be an illegal take of game, which is a serious wildlife offense.”

Elk and white-tailed deer are close relatives and from the same , but hunters can tell the difference between them by looking at a few characteristics.

“Always positively ID your target before pulling the trigger,” said Hiestand. “You have all of the control over taking an animal, so be certain on what you are harvesting.”

Deer and elk have significant size differences. Elk can weigh several hundred pounds more and stand 2-4 feet taller than deer. Elk males also have a different appearance, with a lighter back and hindquarters and a darker, reddish-brown neck and head. Female elk are a reddish-brown color without a color variation. Both male deer and elk have antlers. Adult bull elk antlers are typically significantly larger than white-tailed deer antlers and branch beyond the ears; however, young spike bulls can have significantly smaller, unbranched antlers.

“If you know of a wildlife violation that has taken place or you have made a mistake, call our Report All Poaching line at 1-800-292-7800,” said Hiestand.

Michigan has had an elk hunting season annually since 1984, and a weighted lottery system has been used since 2003. In 2016, 200 elk hunting licenses were available to those selected in the random drawing.

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Target shooting rules have changed on state game and wildlife areas

 

With firearm deer season almost here, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reminds hunters that target shooting rules were recently changed through a land use order by the DNR director.

“Many hunters head to local state game and wildlife areas to sight in their guns, and with the recent changes to target shooting on these specific areas, we want to help hunters be legal,” said Tim Payne, DNR southeast regional wildlife supervisor.

Previously, target shooting on some state game and wildlife areas resulted in user conflicts and management issues. Some of the issues included congestion of people, unsafe use of targets, early morning or late night shooting, and damage to habitat and restoration efforts (tree damage, litter, etc.).

To help alleviate conflicts and to provide a safer target shooting experience, target shooting rules on state game areas and wildlife areas now are as follows:

A person shall not do any of the following:

  • Target shoot at anything other than a paper, cardboard or commercially produced portable target designed and manufactured for the specific purpose of target shooting.
  • Use or attempt to use incendiary or explosive targets.
  • Use or attempt to use incendiary or explosive ammunition.
  • Use or attempt to use armor-piercing ammunition (as defined by section 224c of 1931 PA 328, MCL 750.224c)
  • Possess or be under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol or a combination while target shooting.
  • Use or attempt to use a firearm, other than a pistol, revolver, shotgun, rifle, hand-held firearm or a muzzle-loading firearm.
  • Use a muzzle-loading firearm exceeding .80 caliber.

A person must adhere to the following:

  • When skeet and trap shooting, use only clay targets and shot size BBB or smaller, unless posted otherwise.
  • No target shooting before 9 a.m. or after 7 p.m. or sunset (whichever is earliest), or as posted.
  • No one shall possess or be under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol or a combination of a controlled substance and alcohol while target shooting.
  • The DNR recommends shooters familiarize themselves with their firearms and ammunition and the distance that individual rounds can travel. To ensure their safety and the safety of other users of state game and wildlife areas, shooters are encouraged to be aware of their surroundings, including neighboring homes, topography and the backstops they are using for shooting. Target shooters are reminded that it is illegal to use a tree as a target, or as a holder for a target.

Target shooting may not be allowed at all state game and wildlife areas, and each game or wildlife area may have additional restrictions and guidelines. Learn more about the state game or wildlife areas near you.

The DNR also has seven staffed shooting ranges that are open for use. Bald Mountain Recreation Area and Island Lake Recreation Area both have staffed shooting ranges that are managed by Michigan Shooting Centers.  The DNR also staffs five other shooting ranges at Dansville State Game Area (Ingham County), Ortonville State Game Area (Lapeer County), Pontiac Lake Recreation Area (Oakland County), Rose Lake State Game Area (Clinton County) and Sharonville State Game Area (Jackson County).

Learn more about the DNR shooting ranges including offerings, locations and hours or search for other ranges around the state at Michigan.gov/shootingranges.

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Shades and shapes of fall

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Fall yard raking is upon us and provides healthy physical activity. We rake leaves onto a tarp and drag them to the Island Bridge Trail or Peninsula Bridge Trail at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where they protect boot soles from clogging with mud in wet locations.

The fun work is watching the occasional wood frog hop to a new hiding place, noticing the mosaic of remaining colors in fallen leaves and varied shapes. Encourage children or grandchildren to join with yard clean up. My kids helped by piling leaves and then jumping on them or crawling into the middle of the pile to hide like a frog. They are good memories that last a lifetime, even though their work might not have been very productive.

Most leaves have a yellow tinge. A great activity is finding leaves from one tree that express many shades of the same color or even different colors. Examine leaves on a tree that match colors with fallen leaves. It is a great way for you and children to learn attention to detail. We are not too old to live like a child. We just get too hurried in life. My writings are to encourage nature niche experiences primarily for adults and hope kids will learn and grow to appreciate continued outdoor activities that were learned from parents and grandparents.

It is excellent for all family members to participate in nature center activities for fun and learning. The Howard Christensen Nature Center has many programs locally and other nature centers in Grand Rapids and Ottawa County have wonderful activities as well.

After collecting leaves on the ground from one tree to compare colors with those that remain on the tree, collect leaves from different tree species and align them in a row to create a smooth transition within one color and then among various color shades. Arrange them in the ROYGBIV spectrum of the rainbow. ROYGBIV is Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet.

Identify as many colors as possible and determine which are most to least abundant. Learning details about chlorophylls, carotenes, and xanthophylls can wait until you feel like delving into the science of pigment color and function.

Compare leaf margins and sizes of leaves from the one tree and with different trees species. Compare with leaves remaining on the tree. It will be noticed that leaves with greatest sun exposure are smaller than leaves that are more shaded. They are referred to as sun and shade leaves. For those that like exploring on the internet, look up those terms and look up trees to identify them by matching leaves. Googling “Michigan Flora” will help limit your search to Michigan species.

Most of us have not spent time noticing varied leaf shapes. Some are long and thin, round, oval, wavy or toothed margined. Teeth on the margin might have large and small teeth alternating or have teeth of equal size. Some have many teeth or few. Different oak species have rounded or sharp pointed lobes. Oaks tend to turn purple or brown as fall progresses. Where does purple fit into the ROYGBIV sequence? It is a good discriminating activity for all of us.

If that is not enough, learn to separate tree species based on their growth silhouette. Yardwork can be fun.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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DNR sees success in fall walleye stocking

A healthy fall walleye fingerling, reared in DNR ponds near Belmont in Kent County, is ready to be released into Crystal Lake in Montcalm County. Photo courtesty Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A healthy fall walleye fingerling, reared in DNR ponds near Belmont in Kent County, is ready to be released into Crystal Lake in Montcalm County. Photo courtesty Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Fall is harvest time in Michigan, and while most may be thinking of picking apples or plucking pumpkins, Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries crews are thinking about walleye.

Specifically, they’re collecting the last of the walleye fingerlings that are raised in rearing ponds for stocking and getting the fish to where they want them to be.

For the most part, walleye are reared for a short period of time in ponds and stocked as spring fingerlings—most at less than 2 inches in length—in high densities. But fisheries biologists know that fall fingerlings can be stocked at much lower densities and produce better results than spring fingerlings.

Volunteer members of the West Michigan Walleye Club lift a fyke net (a bag net for catching fish) of fingerlings out of a DNR walleye pond near Belmont in Kent County. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR.

Volunteer members of the West Michigan Walleye Club lift a fyke net (a bag net for catching fish) of fingerlings out of a DNR walleye pond near Belmont in Kent County. Photo courtesy Michigan DNR.

Recently, DNR technician supervisor Ed Pearce brought his crew (technicians Mike Wilson and Matt Smith) to the state’s walleye ponds near Belmont in Kent County to get the walleye out of the ponds and into a couple of southern Michigan lakes.

A dozen or so members of the West Michigan Walleye Club, who spent the summer babysitting the ponds, assisted the crew in the operation.

“We have found that if we put in fall fingerlings, their survival is very, very good,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s Lake Michigan Basin coordinator. “It’s really the key to stocking walleye in southern Michigan. We’ve done it with fry, but it’s really hit or miss.”

Although walleye are much in demand—anglers love them—most southern Michigan waters are not ideal for the fish, which prefer cooler water than most southern Michigan lakes maintain in the summer.

In addition, most lakes have established fish populations that predate heavily upon the tiny walleye. By stocking fall fingerlings, fisheries managers not only enjoy better fish survival but are also more likely to establish fishable walleye populations.

“If we can get a cool-water hatchery facility, our capacity to raise more fall fingerlings would increase,” Wesley said. “Right now, we’re kind of doing it experimentally, pond by pond, but we need a coordinated effort at one hatchery to really get it going.”

At some ponds, crews leave a percentage of the fish there after spring harvest to grow into fall fingerlings. At Belmont this year, production was so poor that fisheries managers decided to leave them all in the pond to grow until fall.

The operation at Belmont consists of three ponds—a fill pond, fed by a natural creek; the walleye pond; and a minnow pond, which is stocked early in the season with fathead minnows that will reproduce and provide forage for the walleye pond.

Members of the club tended the ponds all spring and summer. In spring, they fertilize the ponds to produce the plankton the fry need to survive.

“For six weeks, we put 500 to 600 pounds of fertilizer—a mixture of alfalfa and soy meal—into the ponds to provide the nutrients for the plankton,” said Al Davis, club director. “We started with 100 pounds of minnows in the minnow pond, and we produced more than 400 pounds of minnows this year—and we’ve still got minnows in there.

“We had more than 90 man-hours in just feeding fish and transferring the minnows from the minnow pond to the walleye pond.”

Fall harvest involves lowering the water level to congregate the fish more closely, then installing trap nets to collect them. It takes two days of water-lowering and net-setting to get the bulk of the fish.

Next, the remaining water is drained into what the guys call a “wolf trap”—a concrete and screen box below the pond’s discharge tube—where the remaining fish are entrapped and netted out.

“We’ll get 90 percent of the fish out with the nets, then we’ll seine the wolf trap,” Pearce said. “We’ll get all of those fish.”

Pond production is highly variable, depending largely on environmental factors over which no one has control. The poor production this spring led to a bonanza of fall fingerlings.

“It has been a good year this year,” Davis said, as he handled nets at the recent fingerling harvest. “In 2010, we had a bunch of fish, but a flood came through and blew the dike. The fish all wound up in the Grand River.

“But since 2009, this pond has produced more than 800,000 walleye fry.”

Raising fingerlings is costly and time-consuming. The club chipped in to help defray the cost of fertilizer and provided the bulk of the labor.

Pearce, who praised the club effusively, said the program would be nearly impossible without the club’s assistance.

“These fall fingerlings are worth their weight in gold,” Pearce said. “We use them in lakes that are full of bluegills; bluegills are good predators, so we put them in at a size that they’re not going to get eaten up.”

Fall fingerlings tend to measure 5 to 7 inches. It’ll take about two years for them to recruit into the fishery, when they become legal targets at 15 inches.

Schoolchildren from two nearby schools also attended the first day of the fall fingerling harvest.

For his part, Pearce said the fall fingerling harvest is one of his favorite tasks as a fisheries worker.

“This is enjoyable,” Pearce said. “You’re doing your job, and you’re educating kids, too. These are the days we look forward to.”

Get more information on DNR fish stocking at michigan.gov/fishing.

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