Groundhogs stumble from burrows, emerge for spring

Groundhogs, once rare in Ohio, can be found in all 88 coun­ties. They emerge from a ‘pro­found hi­ber­na­tion’ each spring.
Groundhogs, once rare in Ohio, can be found in all 88 coun­ties. They emerge from a ‘pro­found hi­ber­na­tion’ each spring.

Forget the robins bouncing around on the lawn, the crocus that has pushed its way through the mulch, or those long lines of fishermen who have braved the chilly waters of area rivers in search of spawning walleyes.

There is another convincing sign of spring that is revealed with much less color, splash, or fanfare.

While traveling along area interstate highways, state routes, or the country roads, if you see a short-legged, drab character stumbling along the tops of the ditch banks, looking like a drunk trying to find his car in the parking lot of the local tavern, then it is officially spring.

Groundhogs are a good barometer of when it’s safe to say the word “spring.” Also known as woodchucks or whistle-pigs, these furry fellows have had their reputation ruined by that carnival sideshow in Pennsylvania each February, but life for most groundhogs is more mundane. It always includes a long winter’s nap that is ending about now.

Groundhogs are a rodent and the largest member of the squirrel family. At the first indication of frost in the fall, they retreat into their burrows, which are usually carved into ditch banks or along the edges of agricultural fields.

Inside the burrow, the groundhog finds a chamber below the frost line and goes Rip Van Winkle for a few months. It drops into something called “profound hibernation” where its heart rate plummets, its metabolism goes into low gear, and its body temperature is reduced to as low as 40 degrees.

In the winter months, the groundhog lives on the storehouse of fat it has built up throughout the summer, and by spring, hibernation will have reduced its body weight by nearly half.

As the days grow longer and the temperature occasionally flirts with 50, the groundhog’s internal clock and hormones work as an alarm, snapping it out of that deep slumber.

When that woodchuck staggers out of the burrow and sees the light of day for the first time in four or five months, it looks thin, disheveled, and a little punch drunk. But more than anything, it is hungry.

Groundhogs will gorge themselves on clover, dandelion greens, grasses, and even an occasional insect, but this early in the year the pickings are slim. They usually go right to work on the edges of wheat fields, where the crop that was planted last fall is in a suspended state, waiting for the right amount of warmth to trigger new growth, but it is still green and a form of nutrition.

The groundhogs we see now as the harbingers of spring take a while to bust out of that winter stupor and crank up the metabolism again. They are somewhat comical as they fumble their way through the first few days back in the daylight.

Groundhogs will spend the rest of spring and the summer on a rigid schedule of eating and sleeping. They usually breed in April and a month later deliver a litter of about five. Two months later, the young groundhogs are out of the burrow and on their own.

Once rare in Ohio, groundhogs proliferated as forests were cleared and agriculture soon dominated the region. Today they are present in all 88 counties in Ohio. By fall, these groundhogs will have put on a thick layer of fat, and it will be time to prepare for that extended nap and start the hibernation cycle over again.

FISHING REPORT: The Ohio Division of Wildlife reports that the water level on the Maumee River is low for this early stage of the walleye spawning run, but the water temperature is still a crisp 39 degrees.

The water clarity was fair on Thursday and is expected to continue to improve. As the weather warmed, the fishing pressure increased to a moderate level by Thursday morning, and the success rate was picking up after a fairly slow last week or so.

Maumee Tackle reported that anglers were reaching Blue Grass Island by wading and that fishing had improved to the point where some anglers were bringing back limit catches of four walleyes. Most of the fish being caught are jacks, with a few in the five-pounds-plus range. Continued improvement in the weather should bring about more fishing pressure, and more fish.

Most successful anglers are using a floating jig head tied to a long leader, with an in-line weight or an egg sinker. The jig is tipped with a twister tail of 3 or 4 inches, with most anglers using white, chartreuse, or fluorescent colors. Maumee River fishermen are primarily working from the boat launch area at Orleans Park up the river to Jerome Road.

The Sandusky River was at 43 degrees Thursday with the water level a bit above normal and the clarity listed as poor by the Division of Wildlife. There was a moderate number of fishermen in the river, but the fishing continued to be slow. The best area was around the Miles Newton Bridge.

Spring river anglers are reminded that a number of special regulations are in place for the walleye run. Fishing is permitted from sunrise to sunset only, until May 1, and walleye must be at least 15 inches to be kept. Any fish snagged or not hooked in the mouth must be returned immediately to the water. Fishermen must use a single hook only in the restricted areas.

HARNESS-TYING DEMO: Bobby Johns will give a free harness-tying demonstration on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Jann’s Netcraft on Briarfield Boulevard in Maumee, just west of I-475. Jones will discuss the various techniques for tying walleye jigs and harnesses and demonstrate his preferred methods.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.