“So, what do you do in the winter time?” is a question Michele Sadauskas, Oneida County’s Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) coordinator, gets asked all the time. Keeping AIS at bay in a county with close to 500 lakes is a daunting task, but the work doesn’t stop when lakes freeze over. “We’re finding out that many people don’t really know what happens to invasive species when ice covers a lake,” she said. “It’s probably because they can’t see weeds or animals like rusty crayfish or zebra mussels through the ice so they think the problems aren’t as prevalent as in the summertime.”
But a big part of Michele’s job is educating visitors and locals about AIS and just recently her department has acquired a unique “classroom” that fits in perfectly on a frozen lake in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. It’s a Frabill ice shack adorned with AIS flags, and ice anglers are about to see a lot more of it in the weekends ahead, especially those who compete in fishing tournaments.
The shack was purchased late this fall with a $2,800 grant provided by the Department of Natural Resources. Part of the money was used to purchase the shack, but it is also funding a part-time worker to distribute a survey geared toward ice anglers. The Frabill structure serves as a headquarters for Chris Hamerla, who is in charge of hauling and setting up the shack on area lakes.
And the one-of-a-kind survey is already showing surprising results in the short amount of time data has been gathered. Chris’s target group is ice anglers and he will be visiting seven tournaments this winter until the end of February. So far this winter, the shack was set up at a tournament at the Thirsty Whale in Minocqua on Jan. 26. It was at another fishing tournament on Feb. 2 on Stack’s Bay, also on Lake Minocqua. This weekend, it will be at the Lions Fisheree on Boom Lake both Saturday and Sunday. In addition, it will be at a fishing tournament on Lake Tomahawk on Feb. 16 and on Brandy Lake on Feb. 23. On non-tournament days, anglers may see it on the Willow or Rainbow flowages.
For several years Michele and her crew, including many volunteers, have staged themselves at boat landings across the county, asking open water anglers what they knew about AIS, particularly Eurasian water milfoil. This was part of a Clean Boats, Clean Waters campaign that was aimed at surveying and educating boaters about how invasive species can hitchhike from lake to lake on equipment. Information from lake users was documented on sheets that volunteers filled out as each question was answered. Also during these boat dock sessions, volunteers and workers talk about other invasive species such as the spiny water flea and creatures such as zebra mussels and rusty crayfish, educating the public about the importance of not spreading AIS.
Then last year, a member of the Pelican Lake Association asked Michele if she had ever targeted ice anglers. “This person told me about the huge number of ice fishermen that would come to Pelican Lake every year,” she said. “It was like a light-bulb-going-off moment. Suddenly, it dawned on me that we were missing an entire demographic of lake users that we could get information from.”
Michele developed a survey in coordination with the DNR and last year one of her part-time employees ventured out to area lakes on the weekends, asking ice anglers questions about AIS. The survey is handed out to fishermen and they have the opportunity to fill it out themselves. “It really gets a very different response than just verbally asking questions,” said Michele. “It has turned out to be a lot more interactive. Not only do people fill out the survey, they also ask a lot of questions which we are more than happy to answer.” Last year 172 anglers participated in answering the questionnaire.
The survey consists of 11 questions that are geared toward garnering information about the habits of ice anglers, including if they open-water fish; if they fish multiple lakes in one day; what species of fish is being targeted; periods of the day they are fishing; how many tournaments a year they participate in; if they have traveled from another state to ice fish in Wisconsin; and how many miles one way they traveled to fish on a certain body of water.
Two questions on the survey are already providing some interesting and surprising answers as far as what the general public knows about AIS. One question asks, “Do you believe AIS are dormant (inactive) in winter?” Survey takers have four choices which include “I don’t know enough about aquatic invasive species to answer,” “yes, all AIS become dormant in the winter,” “some become dormant but others remain active,” and “no, all AIS remain active during the winter.” So far, 79 percent of the participants didn’t know enough about AIS to answer the question. “That really surprises me,” said Michele. “But knowing this will help us develop programs to educate people about how AIS work, no matter what time of year it is.”
And just having an AIS worker out on the ice can result in a teaching moment. Take for instance the time Chris watched as an angler pulled up a clump of very healthy-looking Eurasian water milfoil on his auger. “Those are the moments you can educate people about what is going on under the ice and it also proves how easily AIS can spread, whether that’s on a boat propeller or an ice auger,” Michele said.
Another question that has really surprised Michele is the one asking anglers if they have ever been approached by a Clean Boats, Clean Waters volunteer. So far, the survey results show that 58 percent have not. “That tells me there is a gap in the program,” said Michele. “It makes us think about how to close that gap and restructure programs for the future.”
While 172 surveys were taken last year, that number has already been reached this year. The goal is to get at least 300 during this ice fishing season, hopefully even more, and the new AIS ice shack is already helping accomplish that goal. “Granted, we are sampling a small number of people and our survey certainly doesn’t represent all ice anglers or even a majority of ice anglers, but this survey gives us a chance to understand Oneida County ice anglers better,” said Michele. “It’s not by any means a scientific study, although it has already proven to be been extremely helpful in the fight against AIS.”
To learn more about the work being done to fight AIS in Oneida County, visit oneidacountyais.com. Any lake association members who are interested in distributing the survey on their lakes may call Michele at (715) 365-2750.
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