LANSING - Get the waders and rods ready: Unseasonably warm weather may spur an early emergence of the aquatic insects that trout love to eat.
With temperatures in much of the Great Lakes region approaching 70 degrees, the internal clock of certain mayflies and caddisflies could signal that it's time to get out of the water earlier than usual.
Caddisflies are small moth-like insects, and mayflies are in the dragonfly group of insects. Trout-seeking fly anglers often use lures that imitate them.
A fly fisherwoman is seen playing out her line in a local stream. Experts say fly fishing may get an early boost this spring because the unseasonably warm weather the region has experienced may spur an early hatching of insects, such as the mayfly. (Journal file photo)
Richard Merritt, a professor of entomology at Michigan State University, predicts an early emergence of both.
"The life cycle is based on heat over time," Merritt said. "Once they gather enough heat units in their bodies, they'll move on to the next stage. If it's warm they'll emerge."
The insects lay their eggs on stream surfaces in the previous summer or fall, and the eggs sink to the bottom where they hatch. Most larval growth takes place during the winter - no matter how cold it gets. Then they emerge after a certain amount of warm weather.
For those who make their living chasing trout, the early spring means reaching for their Mahogany Dun No. 16 and Blue Winged Olives No.18 a bit earlier.
"You just have to be versatile," said Matt Verlac, a fly fishing guide from Gates Au Sable Lodge in Grayling. "The hatches are always different -sometimes they are early, sometimes late."
However, it's not all good news for trout-fishing enthusiasts, especially if earlier warm weather becomes more common.
Merritt said climate change could make early insect emergence common, which would change ecosystem cycles - sometimes for the worse.
"If the insects come off early because of heat and then it snows or freezes, it could kill off all of their eggs when they reproduce," he said.
He also said migrating birds and other predators that depend on emerging insects for food might be unable to adjust to different timing.
It's not just the fly anglers' favorite insects that could emerge earlier, but stinging, annoying bugs too.
"I expect an early black fly season in the Upper Peninsula, and mosquitoes to come off earlier too," Merritt said. "Which mean biting people earlier too."
The early spring comes on the heels of a mild winter, so the snowpacks that feed rivers are either already gone or disappearing quickly, said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan's Trout Unlimited chapter based in DeWitt.
Burroughs said that may be good for spring anglers but could hurt summer fishing.
"With less snowpacks, the rivers will get to lower levels pretty quickly. In the spring, bugs will crawl around and it will kick things into gear faster," Burroughs said.
But trout and salmon are cold-water fish and become stressed out if summer water temperatures are more than about 70 degrees, Burroughs said. The warm water increases their metabolism and need for oxygen, while water's ability to hold oxygen decreases when warmer.
Precipitation plays a role in hatches too, said Mac Strand, an associate professor in Northern Michigan University's biology department.
Aquifers at stream and river headwaters regulate temperatures - keeping them cooler in summer and warmer in winter. That's because groundwater stays at about the local annual average air temperature throughout the year.
Aquifers are like a sponge, Strand said. Once the sponge is full, it will discharge, so increased precipitation could regulate stream temperatures and combat abnormally warm temperatures.
Verlac said the biggest challenge from the lack of predictability is getting the word out to would-be visitors. For example, his lodge sent employees to a recent Detroit-area fly fishing show to advise anglers that hatches may be earlier than usual.
Some people book their trips a year in advance though, Verlac said. This means one thing: adjust."Sometimes they'll catch the tail end of a hatch that they drive up for - but that's just part of fishing."
And Verlac said the fishing guide business goes on despite any unpredictability and regardless of weather.
"If anything it's a good thing, especially for us guides who make a living off of this," Verlac said. "It just means our season is longer. "Fish are always in the river. You just have to figure out how to catch them."