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Since 1977, personnel from the DNR's Hutchinson Fisheries Management Area have conducted fish house counts on up to 59 lakes each year across five and more recently seven counties. "The surveys get us out on our area lakes during the winter," according to Lee Sundmark, area fisheries supervisor. "Even better, it gives us a chance to talk to anglers and find out what they're thinking and answer questions."
Counts are conducted the first two weeks of January during daylight hours. This provides consistency when comparing data over a period of years. As each lake is visited, the number of fish houses, permanent and portable, are counted and recorded.
Over the past 35 years, there has been an average of 14.25 fish houses counted per lake surveyed. This year the average was only 1.9.
A grand total of 111 fish houses were counted on 59 lakes during this year's survey period. This compares to an average total of 734 fish houses counted per survey period since 1977.
Sundmark sees a couple of possible explanations for the dramatic dip in numbers. "Obviously our warm weather and eroding ice conditions have been an issue with anglers getting fish houses out on lakes this year," Sundmark said. "We've had record-setting temperatures and treacherous ice. It stands to reason that fewer fish houses will be out."
Another trend impacting survey numbers is changing technology with ice fishing anglers. Sundmark said that through the years there has been a dramatic shift from anglers using permanent fish houses to anglers fishing in portable ones.
"When we're out doing our counts during the day, we know we're missing many anglers that don't come out until after work," Sundmark said. "They pop up their house, fish for a few hours and then pack up and head home."
He said it is easier than ever for anglers to ice fish for short periods of time and switch from one lake to another. Proof of that is evident when fish are biting on a certain lake. "Cell phones spread the news fast. We can go from a couple fish houses on a lake to a dozen or more in hours," Sundmark said.
The forecast of cooler temperatures should improve ice conditions and bring more anglers out on lakes, but Sundmark advises caution. "Make sure you know your lake and check ice thickness," he said.
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