Driftless Outdoors: Muskrats Predict cold winter

By Capn. Ted Peck

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The Old Farmer’s Almanac has been predicting America’s winter severity for over 200 years. This journal predicts a snowier and colder winter here in the Driftless Area as we look to 2024. Few folks would wager a Ben Franklin against the Almanac’s forecast of heavy snow and colder temperatures in late December through mid-January.

Back in the 1940’s, Congress authorized a study of Wooly Bear caterpillars as a predictor of winter. In 1940’s dollars, this endeavor was almost as valuable as a recent expenditure documenting shrimp travel on a treadmill.

Wooly Bear caterpillars are the larval stage of a tiger moth. The caterpillars shed an average of six times over the course of several years before morphing into tiger moths and carrying on the family name. The winter prediction theory is based on band width of caterpillar “fur.” Wooly Bears have a reddish-brown band in their middle with black bands on either end: the wider the middle band, the milder the winter.

But weather, like politics, is truly local. Caterpillar band width changes every time the caterpillar sheds. According to the internet, the oldest documented wooly bear caterpillar lived to be 14 years old. What a great Christmas gift for that special niece or nephew on your list!

It might be wiser to note the size and height of muskrat houses here in the Driftless. There are thousands of them. The Minnesota Cass Lake Band of Chippewa used these huts to forecast winter severity long before Ben Franklin was publishing an Almanac and became the principal face of the world’s cash economy.

Chippewa lore says the bigger and taller muskrats build their houses, the more brutal winter weather will be. Using this metric, winter here in the tri-state area will be semi-brutal in late-December through mid-January.

At this juncture, there are still quite a few tundra swans paddling in semi-frozen backwaters of the Mississippi. My marginally serious research on wildlife and weather trends in Allamakee and Clayton counties clearly indicated the open water fishing option on the Mississippi is continuing. This study clearly indicates the big white birds migrate out of here 72 hours ahead of an all-encompassing freeze in the river’s backwaters.

Given the time between writing and publication of this column, it may be colder than Billy Hell as you read these words. But when they were written, walleyes and saugers were still biting aggressively in 34–37-degree water, near the bottom in 26-31 feet of water.

Some days they want a vertical jigging presentation with a hair jig or blade bait. Yesterday they wanted a tomato core Pulse-R plastic on a ¼ oz. pyrokeet B-Fish-N tackle quarter ounce jighead pulled slowly upstream at 0.3-0.5 mph.

Since print media delivers local news days later there is a good chance a couple of these fish-catching parameters may have changed. But if the tundras are still here and you are fishing instead of reading about it, few things taste better than a fresh-caught walleye sandwich.

Mary “Fishin’ Machine” Christoffer, 87, of Lansing came up with my favorite fish fry recipe, years ago: equal parts Bisquick and corn starch, 1T Vanilla, beer and a FORK. If the batter clings to the back of the fork but not between the tines it is the perfect consistency.

My old neighbor, Bob Wohlers, of New Albin convinced me all weather is truly local about a dozen years ago. My wife, the “Admiral” and I live on Sand Cove, just south of town. Wohlers observed weather forecasters can predict severe inclement weather in the Tri-state area. More often than not, the worst of it will bypass Sand Cove.  

Sand Cove was Iowa’s second largest desert long before Greta Thunburg went on her global rant. There are cacti growing in Sand Cove. Iowa’s largest population of hybrid Horsetail Ferns is just south of here. The Driftless is a truly special place!

One Swiss weather legend you can bank on is a formula Lansing’s Arla Wagner has been using since she was a little girl to predict the annual number of snowfalls. Wagner, 60, owner of Arla’s Sewing Room on Lansing’s Main street said her grandmother revealed this Old World wisdom when she emigrated from Sweden.

Take note of the date of the season’s first snowfall. This year the first trackable snow was Oct. 31. Count backward from the first snowfall date to the last new moon. This year the new moon’s celestial appearance was Oct. 14. 

Add these two numbers and the number of trackable snowfalls between now and spring will be revealed! Using Wagner’s formula this part of the Driftless will experience 48-inch snow deep enough to track a deer.

Last season the first snowfall was Nov. 13, eleven days after the new moon. These two numbers add up to 24. There were 24 trackable snows last winter. Spot on! Wagner said the Swedish snow prediction formula was only off by a wide margin in a significant El Nino year in the decades since she was a young girl.

Humans are fallible in their very best attempts at predicting natural truths. Over the past 20 years the 72-hour tundra swan migration window has been wrong twice. Only the Maker of the stars knows the exact timing of worldly events. How the arrival of serious winter gets whispered to tundra swans three days before they continue migration on to Chesapeake Bay is just another mystery in that special place we call the Driftless.

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