What Will Be Lost is a series of reported stories and essays exploring the ways climate change is affecting our relationship to one another, to our sense of place and to ourselves.
Photography by Amy Sacka
ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. ― It’s pitch black at 6 a.m on the shortest day of the year. In the far end of the parking lot behind the St. Clair Shores Library, just north of Detroit, a small group of ice anglers congregates. They are the dedicated and the few, all champing at the bit to get a jump on what is already a late start to the season.
Under a still-rising half-moon, about 20 or so men in full-body coveralls, parkas and hats with huge earflaps trot home-fashioned rigs of equipment on wagons out into the marina docks; ice drills, scoops, spring-loaded tip-ups (akin to a bobber), 5-gallon buckets sloshing with live bait. Their breath forms white clouds in the frigid predawn air.
Fishing on Lake St. Clair is out of the question ― it isn’t frozen. But a brief cold snap over the past few days has finally produced a rime of ice in the canals leading into the lake ― enough to drill a hole and cast a line through, but not enough to stand on safely. This morning’s experienced diehards drill their holes and cast their lines from the docks. Later in the day, the temperature rises to the high 40s, where it stays until the new year.
For most of 72-year-old ice fisherman Tim Sacka’s life, the ice season began in late December and lasted well into March. These days, he says, it’s far less predictable.
“Back 30 years ago… the ice lasted in the canals until April 1,” he said. “And it seems like it’s getting later and later for the ice to form.” Last year, he says, the ice formed early but lasted only a few weeks.
The 2019-20 ice season here was “a disaster,” says bait shop owner Veronica Pinto. Pinto has owned and operated Lakeside Fishing bait shop in St. Clair Shores for 43 years. It’s been one disappointment after another, she says, as temperatures hovered well above freezing all season. Bait and tackle sales are way down. The Lake St. Clair Cold as Ice winter ice fishing festival and tournament was canceled. The previous year it was delayed a month due to the unpredictable ice.
“It’s been a terrible time to be trying to sell fishing tackle. Nothing is predictable,” she says. “We don’t have the seasons anymore like we used to.”
Pinto doesn’t think the lakeside economy here in St. Clair Shores can absorb another bad ice year.
Many anglers who might otherwise have fished on Lake St. Clair this winter are heading farther north in Michigan or to Canada’s Lake Simcoe in search of ice, Pinto says. That means lost revenue for bars, restaurants and hotels, an entire industry that relies on people who come each winter from near and far to drill holes in the frozen lake and sit in ice shanties.
Two percent of Michigan’s gross domestic product is dependent on tourism for outdoor recreation, with snow activities bringing in $73 million each year.
“We’re following three bad winters already,” Pinto says. “Our economy is based on having a season in the winter where you sell a product, and it just hasn’t happened.”
Unpredictable Is The Norm
Not everyone agrees that what’s happening this year is a trend. Tim Muir, president of the Lake St. Clair Walleye Association, which puts on the Cold as Ice festival, is one of them.
“I mean, it goes in cycles,” he says. “Some years you get a lot of ice and it’s all the way through March, and other years there’s no ice, sorta like this year.”
It may be counterintuitive, but Sacka, Pinto and Muir are each correct, in their own ways. Long-term climate data show a definite trend toward less ice cover overall and a shorter duration of the ice on the Great Lakes since 1973. But year-to-year, the variability is so high you might miss it.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climatologist Jia Wang says maximum ice cover during the 2020 season was about 16% across the entire Great Lakes basin. The average since 1973 is 55.7%, ranging as low as 11.9% in 2012 and as high as 80.9% in 2019.
But long-term climate data also clearly show a downward trend. A 2012 study found cover in the Great Lakes basin has declined by 71% on average since 1973. A 2016 analysis took a closer look and found that a sudden shift, or “change-point,” occurred in the late 1990s for Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and during the mid-1980s for Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario. The authors theorize that the sudden shift on Superior and Huron may have been related to the strong El Niño of 1997-98 that somehow pushed the system into a new climatic regime. That study also found that shoreline areas of all the Great Lakes ― the places people go to ice fish ― showed a rapid decline in ice duration.
Laura Briley, a climatologist with Great Lakes Integrated Sciences & Assessments, says that variability in ice cover has actually increased in recent years.
“Recent years have experienced those high and low amounts of ice,” she says. “So we’re getting more at the extremes, and you have low ice years followed by high years.”
Wang says that highly variable atmospheric phenomena that act on the scale of days, months and decades can explain most of the ice cover variation on the Great Lakes. Climate change has an influence, Wang says, but other natural phenomena overwhelm it.
“Global warming is absolutely secondary,” he says in an email. “If the warming trend goes on, then the overall ice cover and thickness will reduce, the winter will be shorter, and ice duration shorter; nevertheless, year-to-year change in air temperature is still larger than the warming rate.”
There likely will still be some good ice years ahead for anglers. But those years will be shorter and less dependable.
‘Not This Year’
With such unpredictable winters, ice anglers are changing up their routines. On a sunny but frigid Friday afternoon in late-February, anglers George Cini Sr. and Jr. headed out to fish on Lake Erie in their charter boat.
First they met up at Big Al’s Sports Grille for some burgers. There was a small lunch crowd in the tavern, one of the few such establishments around in this rural area. Manager Heather Francis, who has worked there since the bar opened decades ago, says it’s been a quiet winter.
“Typically, guys will come in for breakfast, go out on the ice, come back for lunch, go back out on the ice, maybe end the day here,” she says. “Not this year.”
The Cinis finished up their lunch and made their way to the boat launch, with a stop at Bottom Line Bait & Tackle to pick up some live minnows from proprietor Joe Dougherty. It’s been another slow day in a slow season for Dougherty as well.
“We built our business on being here for people and having our doors open every day,” he says. “But we bought a bunch of stuff anticipating that we’d have decent ice fishing, and really we haven’t sold a tenth of it. We bought augers and a couple of shanties, and now all that stuff’s just going to have to be put away here in another month.”
The Cinis launched from a public dock at Lake Erie Metropark for the mouth of the Detroit River, passing through floating ice chunks as they searched for walleye. Nearby, a flock of seagulls stood at attention on an ice floe just offshore. There’s plenty of open water.
“Ice fishing was horrible this year,” says the senior Cini, steering the boat toward a known walleye hot spot. “We have not been able to get out at all on the ice.”
Cini is a charter captain and prefers taking out the boat to trudging out on the ice. If he wants to get in some true ice fishing, he’ll head up to northern Michigan, to Houghton Lake or Higgins Lake, or to small lakes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, inland lakes that freeze over more reliably.
“The only time you really can’t find a place to fish is when the ice is starting to make, and you can’t take the boat out and you can’t walk on it because it’s not thick enough,” he says.
After about 40 minutes, the Cinis give up the search. They’re not biting.
Houghton Lake was also the site of Tip-Up Town USA in January, Michigan’s annual two-weekend ice festival. It attracts crowds of tens of thousands, not only to fish but also to participate in a hometown parade, polar bear dip, ice slide and pie-eating contest.
Winter festivals such as Tip-Up Town are common across Michigan and other Northern states, serving as a way to celebrate winter identity. Attendees return again and again, displaying festival badges from every year they’ve gone.
This year, it was possible to get on the ice on Houghton Lake, though it wasn’t as thick as it had been in years past. The season ended early.
Mike Joseph, 48, likes to head up to Houghton Lake with his dad and other friends and family several times a year. He lives in Ohio and usually rents a shanty from Lyman’s on the Lake bait-and-tackle shop starting in December. This year, he says, the ice wasn’t solid enough until mid-January. He only made the trip once.
“I’ll probably just put my stuff up for the winter,” he says. Instead, he plans to head up to Lake Erie in the spring to fish on the water from a boat.
Muir decides to cut his losses for the year. By mid-February, he’s heading south.
“Yeah, actually I’m driving down to Kentucky right now to go fishing for the weekend,” he tells me via phone as he speeds toward Appalachia on I-75. Like most serious anglers, Muir is undeterred. He’s already on to the next fishing hole.