The trip this past Sunday was an unbelievable bust for all anglers who braved the cold conditions.
With nearly 10 amazing tournament trained kayak anglers throwing everything in the book at the fish, on a beautiful lake like this, not one fish got brought to the boat. For a seasoned veteran fisherman, and a devout biologist, I have to break down the conditions to explain how such a skunk event occurs.
In this article, I will cover the breakdown of the entire lakes conditions, including: Water Quality, Forage, Cover, Structure, Vegetation, and Fish Activity relating to each condition. Hopefully, as you read through this breakdown, you will be able to see some of the connections of events and conditions that culminated in the creation of a fishless day for all who were unlucky enough to get skunked this day. Forage: The first, and I’ve found, most important piece to this puzzle is the availability of food in the lake for the fish to eat. After conversing with my fellow anglers regarding this trip, one main topic kept arising: Baitfish.
From my own experiences from this trip, with water clarity as good as it was this day, and with the amount of available cover for fish, strangely not a single fish of any kind was even observed without the use of electronic fish finders. This seemed to be a common thread amongst all the fisherman who joined us this day. Not a shad, minnow, bluegill, bass, crappie, carp, or any other of the known species inhabiting this lake was even spotted on this day without the help of sonar equipment. While water temperatures were extremely low, which generally causes fish to school up and seek the warmest areas of the lake to survive, this particular day was eerily empty, as if the fish simply did not exist, at least not in the numbers necessary to support a thriving fishery. Further studies during better conditions are necessary. Cedar Lake is an unbelievably beautiful lake. With its breathtaking bluffs rising from its depths, to its wild shores of old growth forest surrounding it on all sides, the lake seems to have structure and cover galore that appear to be perfect habitat to hold fish just about anywhere in the lake. As you traverse its waters, and fish its shorelines, however, you start to get a picture of the whole lake as a deep rocky hole with extremely steep shorelines. An overview of the bottom structures from a sonar scan, reveals a solid rock flat plane with very little structure to hold fish. In these conditions, fish tend to have two separate patterns of where they spend their days. Firstly, they hold tightly to the shoreline structures and cover for shelter, as well as for ambush spots. And Secondly, they roam the lake in schools as safety is in numbers, and the smallest members of the school make for easy food in a pinch.
Many anglers don’t know the difference between structure, and cover. Structure is a solid, never changing feature of the lake, such as a giant boulder, a river channel, a main lake point, or a rock hump or even a large sunken ship on the bottom. The term “Cover” is defined as a place where fish like to hide. This can be as simple as a patch of grasses, a large group of bushes, to sunken or downed trees lining the bottom or edges of the lake, to floating docks. In this lake, however, cover consisted of downed timber at the shorelines that were shallow enough to hold them, and large areas of Hydrilla growing up from depths unknown, as sonar could not penetrate them well. Plant life in a lake is a very important factor as to the success of a fishery as a whole. It provides oxygen, cover, shade, and even warmth for some fish during certain times of the year. On this trip, in Cedar Lake, only one species of plant could be seen regularly: Hydrilla verticulata.
No other plant in our native waters has such mixed reviews from fisherman as Hydrilla. Many absolutely loathe the existence of this plant, as it is very hard to penetrate its heavy mats to get to where the fish live in the undergrowth forest created by its many wispy chutes. If bringing back more vegetation with every cast than catching fish is your worst fishing fear, then these mats are places to be avoided.
However, for the seasoned angler that is versed in the methods of penetrating heavy cover or burning top-water lures over its hulking masses, it is a virtual playground where fish of many species find shelter, places to ambush their prey, as well as housing millions of invertebrates that act as food sources. On this particular day, a cold calm winter day, just as the ice melts off during an “Indian summer”, this particular cover becomes an oxygen depleting, water quality fouling mess. As it dies off due to the cold water temperatures and lack of light, it breaks down into a brown slimy mass, staining the water and ruining water quality. As well, bacteria that are responsible for this breakdown, also use oxygen, depleting the water around it, rendering it almost useless as valid cover for the fish during the winter months. However, this does not entirely dismiss it as a place to find fish during winter months, due to the fact that as the same bacteria that feed on the decaying plant material do their jobs, the process also gives off some heat, thus attracting some fish in search of any reprieve from the frigid water temps. To properly break down the conditions of this foreboding day, I have to put a mention to one of the main conditions that led to such a massacre of good fishing, water temperature. While air temps climbed to nearly 55degrees Fahrenheit, water temps were barely above 38—40, with patches of ice to break through. No Buenos for the fish or fisherman. Largemouth Bass, during these frigid conditions slow way down, as their cold blooded metabolism slows to save energy required to survive and be able to move to avoid being predated apon themselves. This period of inactivity also means that they require less food to support their activities, which in turn, makes fishing harder as bites are fewer and farther between. As a side note to water temperatures, An unfortunate event happened on this trip. One of our newest members had a catastrophic equipment failure of his seat, which resulted in him turtling his boat into freezing cold water. (pic is a stock photograph, not the actual event). While most of our participating members were close-by and quick to come to his aid, this story has a happy ending. Had they not been there, this may have ended in a tragedy. This member was not, I repeat NOT wearing his PFD! As it was his first trip out with our group, he apparently had not been told that it was a club rule that pfd’s be worn at all times, and felt it was appropriate to wear it. With all of the confusion of meeting new members and catching up with old friends, none of us had noticed his failure to apply his lifesaving device. Luckily all that was lost was some of his gear, and not his LIFE. This is a lesson, and a warning to ALL S.I.K.C. MEMBERS:
PFD MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES DURING CLUB EVENTS, FAILURE OR REFUSAL TO FOLLOW THIS RULE WILL LEAD TO EXPULSION FROM THE CLUB, WITHOUT REFUND, AND COULD POSSIBLY END YOUR LIFE!
Water quality is an important factor to fishing on any given day, on any body of water, and can make or break the fishing for anyone. This particular day, on this particular lake, I believe it had an extraordinary effect on the fishing of all of our members in attendance. As you can see from the picture (right) the water on this day had a quite distinct green/brown tinge to it. This is called Tannin, which is simply described as a “stained” water quality by most. Tannins are chemicals like dyes, that generally come from the breakdown of biological matter like leaves, or in this particular case,
As was described earlier in this article, under the vegetation section, Hydrilla was dying off due to cold water conditions, as well as winter lighting conditions. The breakdown of this large mass of vegetation releases large quantities of Tannin, essentially staining what would have been gin clear water. This gives the fisherman a false sense of security in their ability to hide from the fish. Unfortunately for anglers, it does no such thing. Tannin in general does not have a great effect in water clarity, or the fishes ability to see through it, only the color of the water itself. It does, however, change the pH of the water to a more acidic level.
Tannic, Acidic or High PH water, such as this, has several negative effects on our local species of fish, especially largemouth bass, which thrive in a more Alkaline environment. Bass suffering from sublethal pH stress will suspend many of their normal activities, including feeding. Prolonged exposure to lethally low pH levels will ultimately result in death. If you would like to read further into this, there is a great article here… https://www.bassresource.com/fish_biology/ph_levels.html
This, combined with several other factors, I believe is the main and ultimate reason for the low numbers of fish on Cedar, as well as the cause for the poor fishing for our entire group on this particular day.
A solution to this unfortunate problem is to treat the entire lake with large quantities of Ag-Lime, which will bring the overall PH of the lake up to a sustainably alkaline level. Sadly, with the state of Illinois current economic state, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
While weather was beautiful for the fisherman, with high temps reaching near 55F, and near zero wind allowed for some beautiful water for kayaking, Rising barometric pressures and bluebird skies added an additional stress on the fish. When barometric pressure is high, the fishes swim bladder feels increased pressure and the fish becomes slow and tired, thus leading to a poor fishing condition. The best times to fish generally correlate with dropping barometric pressures. This is also a contributing factor as to why no one in our group caught anything this particular day.
To put it gently, Cedar Lake in January whooped our entire team’s tails collectively. With a combination attack of epic proportions, the conditions of this particular trip made it nearly impossible for even the best fisherman to get so much as a nibble. We hope that this trip is the proverbial “first cast” of bad luck, that will clear the path for our future endeavors to be much more enjoyable. We also now have a score to settle with this lake, and we will be returning one day to hopefully turn the tide on this particular story. Thank you for reading along, and keep your eyes open for future articles, that will be more in-depth on how we catch the fish, instead of explaining how we did not.
Tight lines, and God Bless!!
Lee Van Hoose