A house cat peers out the window, as a bobcat cleans up scraps around the bird feeder.
Fish, Birds and Cats
It appears the ice fishing season has begun in earnest, with a safe cover of nearly a foot of ice securing a majority of the region’s lakes and ponds.
Recent reports from the inland lakes and ponds have been good, and fish have been on the take. However, angler reports from the Lake Champlain indicate times are still tough for smelt fishermen.
“We just aren’t catching smelt like we used to,” an old friend recently explained after a day on the ice near Port Henry. And obviously, he isn’t the only one!
In recent years, many veteran, Lake Champlain ‘smelters’ have retreated inland from the Big Lake. They’re now chasing smelt in places like the Saranacs, Tupper Lake, Schroon Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Rollins Pond, Indian Lake and other such haunts.
Although numerous theories abound, there does not appear to be a single, definitive answer for the perceived lack of angling success for those targeting smelt on Lake Champlain.
However, several biologists believe a perceived decline in the smelt population is the result of two burgeoning populations of non-native species.
In recent years, the ever growing population of invasive, alewife has severely impacted the forage base of many species of ‘pan fish’ including smelt, perch and blue gills. There's no doubt the smelt population has been impacted by alewives through predation on eggs and fry, and competition for food sources.
The arrival of invasive alewife in the Lake Champlain ecosystem has already disrupted the established interactions of many native species due to overlaps in habitat range, breeding capacity and competition for a shared forage base.
However, many anglers believe that another, non-native invader has played a much greater role in reducing the lake’s supply of smelt, perch and other pan-fish.
First spotted on Lake Champlain in 1981, cormorants have been establishing rookeries on the lake’s islands ever since.
Studies estimate the various populations of these fish-eating birds once peaked at nearly 20,000, prior to recent population control efforts. Estimates put the current number of the winged, interlopers in the range of 12,000 to 14,000 birds.
Researchers examining stomach contents of these bird’s have discovered cormorants prey primarily on panfish such as yellow perch, sunfish, and rainbow smelt. However, they also feed on the fry of popular game fish including bass, salmon and lake trout.
Although bird populations have begun to decrease, studies indicate they continue to forage nearly three pounds of fish, per day, per bird. Based on current population levels, the pesky birds consume nearly 20 tons of fish per day, and over the course of the season, it’s been estimated that cormorants are responsible for removing nearly 3,600 tons of fish from the Big Lake. Considering the average smelt weighs about a third of a pound; the impact is obvious.
However, the birds can’t take all of the blame. In recent years, water quality issues, invasive species and climate change have all combined to put a whammy on the lake’s fisheries.
A recent study conducted in Germany reveals there is a correlation between lake ice and the growth of plankton, which is a key component of the aquatic food chain.
The research revealed a decrease in the duration of lake ice will result in less plankton, which reduces the available diet for primary plankton consumers, the panfish. With trends indicating increasingly warmer temperatures and the ever diminishing duration of lake ice, it appears our fisheries will remain in danger.
According to records from the 19th century, the Big Lake had frozen over nearly every decade from the 1820s through the 1920s, with open water occurring only about once in a decade. The lake failed to ice over completely twice during the 1930s, but only once in the 1940s. However, since that time, complete freeze-overs have become much less common. During the decades of the 1980s and 2000s, the lake froze over only about half of the time, and in the 1990s, the lake froze completely for only three winters.
Lake Champlain has not been frozen completely since March of 2007, although there is now safe ice over much of the lake.
As most hard water enthusiasts know all too well, in recent years the Big Lake has been setting up nearly two weeks later than average, and it continues to break up much earlier.
Killer Kitty Cats
Forget about the cougars and bobcats! That cute, little cat out in the barn may not be as innocent it looks, according to a recent study conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Migratory Birds. The research indicates predation by outdoor cats is likely much greater than was previously estimated.
Published in the online journal, Nature Communications, the study reveals outdoor cats may be responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds and between 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals annually.
Researchers believe the mortality caused by cats may actually exceed all other sources of bird and mammal mortality combined, including windows, buildings, communication towers, vehicles, and pesticide poisoning.
The study indicates the vast majority of mortality is the result of stray, farm or feral cats that do not live with humans.
It also indicates that free-ranging cats and projects intended to manage those populations such as Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) actually result in greater harm to native wildlife species such as birds, mice, shrews, voles, squirrels, and rabbits.
As Dr. George Fenwick, President of American Bird Conservancy, explained, “The very high credibility of this study should finally put to rest the misguided notions that outdoor cats represent some harmless, new component to the natural environment. The carnage that outdoor cats inflict is staggering.”
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at email@example.com.