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On Thin Ice

Can ice fishing—and coldwater fish like trout—survive in a warming New York?

(Hell Gate)

On a recent sunny winter morning in the Adirondacks, I found myself dragging a sled loaded with gear across the frozen surface of Raquette Lake, which was covered as far as the eye could see by a thick sheet of ice. My companion, a fishing guide named Mike, and I were the only warm-blooded creatures on the lake, except for a preternaturally still bald eagle huddled on the ice, hundreds of yards away.

Mike, a tall, wiry guy decked out in full-body camo, has been a guide for two decades, and has ice fished for even longer. The ice seemed so solid that it felt like it would remain forever, but Mike was concerned; it had been yet another warm winter in a string of warm winters. "Usually by now, there's two feet of ice and you can drive your truck out," he told me as we pulled our sleds. "But right now, there's about 12 inches. It's weird." He repeated himself. "It's weird."

Today's modern accouterments have turned ice fishing into an astonishingly pleasant activity—Mike quickly set up a pop-up tent, complete with a propane heater; drilled three holes in the ice using an augur the size of a small child; and propped up his fishfinder, which would allow us to see any nearby fish and whether they were interested in the bait we were tossing down to the bottom of the lake. I was hoping for a lake trout, that beloved northern coldwater fish that can only be found in deep, frigid lakes. He beckoned me to enter the tent, handed me a tiny ice fishing rod, explained the basics—"Keep your tip over the hole," he told me—and I was off. 

Sitting on a plastic cooler, I began slowly lifting and twitching my rod up and down, hoping to tempt a nearby fish with the minnow on my hook, which glowed yellow on the fishfinder. Soon, a much larger blob of yellow slowly glided into view. "Drop the bait on his head, then pull it up, slowly," Mike told me; the fish, whatever it was, began inching up toward my bait. 

My rod tip bent—it was on!—and I set the hook. "Let him run," Mike urged. I obliged and then began reeling in, and slowly, the fish emerged from the cold depths and up through the hole in the ice—a juvenile lake trout, his body glistening with tiny pewter scales. 

A largemouth bass followed in quick succession. "Ice fishing rules," I typed into my notes app. The day appeared as if it would be a success, at least when it came to catching fish. 

But Mike is considering dropping ice fishing from his offerings. He remembers a time when, as he once wrote on his website, "below freezing temperatures descended upon us for weeks on end, with no interruption of thaw and rain, and the ice on the lakes grew thick and safe, winter after winter after winter."

Those days are gone, replaced now with uncertainty. "We just don't get the winters we used to get. The winters have just started to get worse," he said. "Around 2016, it started to really show." In 2023, half of his scheduled ice fishing trips were canceled due to unsafe ice. "Last year was my worst year, and this year is pretty much worse—no ice," Mike said. "This is the first year I can remember in a long time that they’re not safely fishing in Alexandria Bay. They're not even fishing on the St. Lawrence."

He added, referring to the Adirondacks, "Where we are right now, this is it."

This OnlyFins columnist with her juvenile lake trout. (Hell Gate)

Winter activities as we know them are on track to becoming a thing of the past across the northern latitudes. Climate change, according to the National Ski Areas Association, is "the number one threat to the snowsports industry." But if ski resorts can rely on pricey (and energy- and water-gobbling) snowmaking machines to maintain the illusion that everything is fine, ice fishing devotees have no such magic trick. 

Canceled ice fishing events have become the norm. Last year, I was all set to go ice fishing in the Catskills at the Sullivan County Conservation Club's annual King of the Ice event on White Lake, only for it to be canceled; there wasn't enough ice. In 2020, it was also canceled due to "areas of thin ice and potentially open water." This year? It was canceled again. A youth ice fishing derby scheduled for the end of January on Crystal Lake? Also canceled because of a lack of safe ice. The list goes on: The Lawson Lake Winter Festival, which features ice fishing? Canceled. The Mahogany Ridge Hunting and Fishing Club's ice festival and pig roast? The pig roast happened, but the ice fishing did not. The Hurleyville Fire Department's 36th annual ice fishing contest scheduled for February 10? Canceled, the organizers wrote, "due to poor ice conditions and a lack of winter." "I've witnessed myself over the past couple of decades less and less safe ice. We have annual ice fishing contests every year and we would schedule these contests every year in January or February. In the last four years, we've scheduled 12 contests, we've only held one," said one long-time resident of New Jersey's Lake Hopatcong in 2019. 

The changing ice, said Brendan Wiltse, the chief scientist at Paul Smith's College Adirondack Watershed Institute, "is one of the more direct ways, I think, that people can understand that climate change is happening, is here and in our region. It's not this abstract thing that is existing somewhere else." Wiltse, who runs the center's water quality research and monitoring programs, added, "If you talk to folks that have lived here their whole lives, they've observed these changes themselves, they've witnessed it."

The data is unsparing. "We're seeing this long-term decline in ice cover," Wiltse noted. "Over the last 120 years, on average we've seen a decline in ice cover of 26 days, which is, you know, pretty significant. The pattern is consistent. We're seeing less ice on our lakes, not only here in the Adirondacks, but around the planet," he said, an assertion that is backed up by numbers from other states. As an extreme example, Wiltse pointed to Lake Champlain, which used to regularly freeze over completely in the winters; today, that only happens twice every decade, and it's predicted that by 2050, that will drop to once every decade. One study from 2020 examined 80 years of data on 122 lakes worldwide and "found the number of ice-free winters among the lakes had more than tripled since 1978." 

In 2019, a team of researchers published a global study in Nature that found lakes were already becoming ice-free and that, in their words, local communities were "unprepared for loss of ice." 

"In reality, winters are very variable. It isn't going to be like we have ice, ice, ice, ice and then bang, no ice," John Magnuson, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a co-author of the study, told the New York Times. "It'll be an increasing frequency of winters without ice. That will play out over the next decades." Another one of the co-authors, Catherine O’Reilly, an associate professor of geology at Illinois State University, struck a moodier tone: "Our grandkids are not going to have the same experiences we did." 

Less lake ice also means less ideal conditions for coldwater fish—ice cover acts as protection from winter storms for fragile lake trout eggs, which incubate over the winter and hatch in the spring. Less ice also means less oxygen. "As our lakes are losing their ice cover, and our climate is warming, the period of time that the water column in our lakes is stratified thermally—so warm on top and cold on bottom—is getting longer," the AWI's Wiltse explained. "By having less ice cover, it often means we have prolonged thermal stratification, which results in this reduction in oxygen at the lake bottom, which puts more of a squeeze on those fish." 

The loss of ice is only the most obvious indicator of how warming temperatures are changing our waterways and threatening freshwater fish. Globally, one out of every four freshwater fish species, including Atlantic salmon, is at risk of extinction. Closer to home, our beloved brook trout—the official fish of New York state—and lake trout, both fish that depend upon cold waters to survive, are facing a dire future. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned that on our current trajectory, New York, along with much of the northeast, will lose much if not most of our trout habitat by 2100; our lakes, creeks, and streams will simply be too warm to sustain robust and healthy fish. That assessment was echoed this past January, when a team of researchers found that without a reduction in greenhouse gases, "only about five percent of Adirondack lakes may continue to maintain water that is cold and oxygenated enough to support coldwater species."

Not good! (Environmental Protection Agency)

Are ice fishers worried about climate change? I posed the question to a New York ice fishing group on Facebook this winter, and the replies were all decidedly in the "no" camp. "Climate change is a farce!" wrote one fisher, adding, "We will have ice again, we just happened to have a shitty season." "Climate change is a hoax to enrich leftist activists," another opined. "Stop with the climate change bullshit 🙄," wrote a third. 

Not everyone thinks this way. The advocacy group Trout Unlimited surveyed its membership about climate change in 2019—nine out of 10 respondents said they believe climate change is real, and eight out of 10 expressed worry about a warming planet. 

"Our membership leans more Republican, and so I think that says a lot," Helen Neville, Trout Unlimited's senior scientist, told me. Forty percent of the respondents also shared that their fishing had suffered in recent years, a sign that the diminished future predicted by researchers has already begun to arrive. "For a long time, there's been lots of projections around climate change," Neville said. "But I would say now, we're in the era of actually having real observations." In 2014, the Nature Conservancy reported that lake trout no longer lived in dozens of Adirondack waterbodies where they had once been found, a decline of about 42 percent. When Neville and I spoke, a study had just come out that found that brook trout populations in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park—"one of the most high-integrity habitat conserved places in the East," Neville pointed out—had significantly declined from 1996 to 2022. "Sometimes, populations can respond really quickly, if they're knocked down. They just bring more fish, and they can actually rebound quite readily in some cases," she said. "But they're finding that the impacts of extreme flow events and the high, high temperatures are happening to a greater degree than the fish can actually respond to."

As for humans, the question now before coldwater fish is how they can adapt to life in a warming world. Trout Unlimited, with their partners like New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), focuses on, as Neville put it, "improving habitat and, and improving the condition of different populations so that they can better deal with climate change." But those efforts won't amount to much if we don't end our dependence on fossil fuels. "Mitigating emissions. Stopping emissions," Neville said. "That has to happen. That has to happen." She added of Trout Unlimited's climate adaptation efforts, "Doing those is important as well, but they're not going to get us over the hurdle for what we need to do to keep our climate in anything that's sustainable or survivable."

(Hell Gate)

In New York state, those efforts are focused on preserving what scientists call "refugia," coldwater pockets where fish can get away from the heat, Fred Henson, the DEC's Coldwater Fisheries Unit Leader at the Division of Fish and Wildlife, told me. In practice, this means removing barriers like dams or outdated culverts that prevent fish from getting to those cooler waters, and planting trees that, once fully grown, will provide necessary shade. "The gears are constantly turning of, how do we give these important fish and the habitats they depend on, the best chance they have to persist for as long as they can? And hope that, you know, society writ large makes the right decision so that our work is meaningful," Henson said. "Finding these bad culverts or dams that have outlived their usefulness—if we can address these issues over the next decades, we can still manage these as fishing opportunities." 

Henson is hopeful. "It's not all doom and gloom," he said. "Climate change is going to interact with our coldwater lakes, ponds, and streams at a very granular, localized level. And I've been surprised by fish many times." He gave the example of the Carmans River on Long Island, which often has water temperatures above 70 degrees in the summer. "But it's got a bunch of springs in there that the trout hang out in during the day. And when the sun gets low in the sky and the temperature drops, they're out eating bugs," he said. "Coldwater species are beleaguered, but they are also resourceful and adaptable. If we give them half a chance, I think they'll be with us for a long time."

Still, Henson knows the long-term prognosis isn't great. "Emotionally, I mean, it's kind of a gut punch," he told me, of thinking of the loss of these fish. "After the gut punch, I regain my balance, and I'm not ready to throw in the towel. We're trying to do the best we can with keeping these species around for New Yorkers, into the coming decades." He added, "I think there's a lot of important things that we can do, that we are doing, to mitigate the impacts of climate on coldwater fish. But for those to pay off, society needs to take the larger issue seriously. We'll do our part."

Henson is an avid ice fisher. "Ten years ago, as soon as I put away the Christmas tree, I'm getting my ice fishing equipment out of the attic, and putting fresh line on my tip-ups, getting everything ready to go, because I'm expecting to be out there in early January," he said. "And, this year, Christmas came and went. And to make a long story short, I never even got my sled and my tackle and my ice augur out of the loft in my attic, or in the garage. So that's a big change."

I brought up what I had heard from a lot of ice fishers—it's an El Niño year, so of course it'll be warmer. "You know, this isn't my first El Niño winter," Henson replied. "But it's the first one in a long time where I haven't bothered to get my ice fishing equipment out and get out ice fishing."

(Hell Gate)

That day on Raquette Lake, the bite had slowed down after the morning, so we decided to venture out of the tent in search of hungry fish. Mike drilled more holes, and I sat on a bucket and waited. The weather had turned from sunny to cloudy and back again, and Mike theorized that the rapid changes in barometric pressure were making fish less prone to feed. Still, we found a school of eager yellow perch, pulling them up one after another. The wind picked up, my feet began going numb, and my bladder started screaming, but sitting out on the open ice, the mountains in the distance, I felt a calm settle upon me, as if my heart was slowing to match the stillness and the quiet all around us.

The air temperature had steadily ticked up during the day and the ice had started to melt, creating small pools on top of the lake. Mike began worrying that his scheduled trip for next week—his last of the season—would have to be canceled. "This might be the worst ice fishing season of my life," he said again.

The next day, it was a blistering 60 degrees in parts of the Adirondacks. "All of our climate sites have a new record high temperature today,” a National Weather Service meteorologist noted. "It's the warmest it's been in over 20 years."

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