I haven’t blogged for many months. I’m sure most will understand when I say ‘there have been a myriad of reasons’ for my yap gap.

My last post was – posted – before the Covid madness had descended. The pandemic has changed every-bodies lives, everywhere in the world and continues to do so.

There’s a lot of talk about what the new normal is going to be, the one that emerges after all this period of change settles down, but who’s to know when that will be, or what it will look like. A phrase that I keep going back to is one about how the only constant in our lives is change. Every day is a new day, also comes to mind.

Except for a swath along the equator, most of the world sees constant, seasonal change. Even equatorial regions have alternating wet and dry seasons. No two seasons are ever exactly the same, although patterns and trends may be clearly evident.

Since my last posting, the ice and snow that covered our field, marsh and forest has melted away, replaced by many shades of mostly greens. A blue pond now compliments the summer skies. Goslings and ducklings have come to be and fawns now need be aware of bears as well as wolves. It’s summer!

Anyway, thoughts about the consistency of change that comes with the seasons is an underlying premise of this blog. Things are always different than they used to be, although trends are clearly evident..

The posting has been published. It’s my latest column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. 

As per my practice, the posting is the unedited version of the column. I know the two are always a bit different, but I seldom compare the two and if I do, it’s only a very cursory look. Editors edit – that’s their job and most are good at it.

I’ll keep posting. There was a time when I posted about once a week – well, I can’t do that anymore.

Until next time, stay safe.

 

What Goes Up, Does Come Down

By: Bruce Ranta

I heard the hunter before I saw him. When we met on the trail, he looked at me, somewhat perplexed, then blurted out “They’re extinct!”

We were hunting moose – moose weren’t ‘extinct’, of course, but it did seem that way. Neither of us had seen a fresh track or any other sign of moose.

Unfortunately, the lack of moose didn’t surprise me. Moose on my stomping grounds close to my Kenora home had been on a steep decline for several years – and not just where I liked to hunt. Moose populations had been on a similar downhill slide in much of northwestern Ontario, neighboring Manitoba and Minnesota, as well as further afield, in places like Vermont and New Hampshire.

What was going on?

There were many theories. To sort it through, Dr. Murray Lankester, a parasitologist with Lakehead University and I analysed data pertaining to moose and deer in the Kenora area going back, in some cases, over 100 years. We concluded that several factors were driving forces behind moose (and deer) population fluctuations.[i]

For one, we found that both moose and deer populations surged in the aftermath of large, landscape scale disturbances, namely fires, large blowdowns, clear-cut logging and spruce budworm epidemics.  Deer abundance was also tied to winter severity – long, cold and snowy winters knocked deer down – short winters without much snow saw big upticks in deer numbers.

In the 1990s, deer and moose numbers swelled in tandem. Winters were mild and food was abundant. Even a bad winter in 1995 didn’t have much of an impact on deer – the woods were full of easy to reach and nutritious arboreal lichens growing on millions of balsam trees killed by a spruce budworm outbreak. The same thing had happened 40 years earlier.

When deer became super-abundant, moose numbers began to plummet. Brain worm appeared to be a factor. The parasite has no discernible impact on deer, but is deadly on moose. When deer densities get above 4-5 deer/km2, the disease becomes problematic to moose.

Deer densities rose to at least twice that level.

Exacerbating the problem was the weather – a series of wet summers made conditions ideal for terrestrial snails and slugs, the brainworm’s conduit for the disease.

High deer numbers also led to skyrocketing wolf numbers.

The quantity and quality of moose browse declined precipitously with a slowdown in logging and the maturing of burns and blowdowns.

In short order, the moose population crashed.

Deer eventually depleted the supply of arboreal lichens. Winters turned cold and snowy. Wolves were everywhere. Deer too, crashed.

Today, there aren’t a lot of moose or deer in much of the Kenora area (except in the city where deer are relatively safe from wolves and people feed them).

With deer numbers down, will the moose recover?

Maybe, although with only low levels of logging and no recent large forest fires or blowdowns, moose habitat is presently sub-optimal.

Deer have continued their downward spiral owing to a spate of snowy winters and continued predation by wolves. With few deer, wolves will eventually crash. Then, with at least a few mild winters – deer might stage a comeback. The next spruce budworm epidemic will help, but that’s still a few years off (budworm outbreaks occur about every 40 years).

The fact is, ups and downs are normal in many populations of wildlife.  Stable populations, especially in seasonal climates, are the rarity.

What happened in the Kenora area isn’t exactly why moose – or deer – numbers have gone up or down elsewhere. Still, there are parallels and commonalities.

Food availability is commonly linked to population changes, as is weather, the abundance of predators and human hunting pressure. Diseases are also problematic, especially during population peaks.

Across North America, some populations of barren ground caribou have recently shown dramatic declines. Although somewhat alarming, it’s not unprecedented. Northern herds have a history of spectacular ups and downs. In Alaska, the caribou population dropped by more than 50% in the late 1970’s. In Quebec/Labrador, the caribou population jumped from less than 200,000 in the late 70’s to around 1 million in just 20 years. They have recently plummeted to only a few thousand.

In winter, caribou eat lichens, a very slow-growing plant, almost exclusively. Although over-grazing lichens isn’t the only issue they face (wolves, hunting pressure, disease and parasites and the weather are also important), food does matter.

After being reduced to paltry numbers (and extirpated in eastern Canada), wild turkeys, aided by re-stocking and re-introductions, underwent a huge expansion in range occupancy and population. But in the USA, turkey numbers peaked about a decade ago, and have since declined – again, not unexpectedly – ‘new’ or reintroduced populations often flourish, subside, then have years of – you guessed it – ups and downs.

While wildlife population ups and downs can’t be curtailed, they can be managed.

As OFAH Wildlife Biologist Keith Munro says, “We really need to take a big picture approach to wildlife management. Rather than focusing on a single factor that may be affecting a wildlife population, we need to consider the whole system which includes, but is not limited to, harvest (both licenced and rights-based), predation, competition between species, diseases, parasites, and habitat”.

But no matter what we do, what goes up – does come down.

[i] To read the entire study, see Ranta, B., and M. W. Lankester. 2017. Moose and deer population trends in northwestern Ontario: a case history. Alces 53: 159–179. https://alcesjournal.org/index.php/alces/article/view/227)

 

I haven’t posted in a while . . . been busy doing renovations to the house, among other things.

It’s been a relatively nice winter. The snow hasn’t piled up too deep, not overly cold and today it’s sunny! But hey, it’s a northern Ontario winter, which means that although there’s been snow on the ground since the end of October, there will still be snow on the ground a month from now. It gets to be a drag.

There are not many deer left in this part of the world. A few hang around the house, which is nice. And while there are still timber wolves lurking about, their numbers are down. How could they not be? Few deer and even fewer moose. Maybe they are Farley Mowat wolves, surviving on mice. 

Anyway, here’s my most recent column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. It’s the unedited version, as per usual.

What’s a Deer Yard?

wtdeer-24

Year round,we have deer in our yard, but our yard is not a deer yard. A deer yard is an area where deer concentrate during the winter months.

In Ontario, deer yards can be as small as a few hectares or cover tens of square kilometers – they have been talked about, described, managed and mismanaged for at least 100 years. Today, deer yards are more properly referred to as ‘deer winter concentration areas’.

White-tailed deer have been described as ‘yarding up’ for the winter ever since the days of early settlement, when knowing where deer were was critical information – especially during winter, when food and money were often scarce.

Deer biologists have long believed deer living in the forest, on northern ranges where winters can be long, cold and snowy, yard up for two main reasons: ‘energy conservation and as a defense against predators’.

Deer have relatively long legs, but by the time snow depths hit 50 cm, movement is severely restricted. Conifer cover intercepts snow and deer can move around under conifers with relative ease.

But, when deer from any given area are concentrated under conifer cover, food availability becomes an issue. Problems are exacerbated because browse is not that abundant under heavy cover and deer yards that are used year after year – a common behavior – tend to become over-browsed. Eastern white cedar, a tree that provides both food and cover, often has a distinct browse line, where there is no greenery below the reach of the deer.

To cope with deep snow, food shortages and potential predators, deer in forested areas make trails, use windswept ridges, frozen lakes and rivers, snowmobile trails and even plowed roads.

In the forest, conifer cover is a critical component of a deer yard – it’s usually where deer spend most of their time – but other, adjacent habitats are also important.

Deer don’t exist only in the forest. They also thrive in mountains, prairies, agricultural lands and, increasingly, in urban areas. Wherever they are, especially if winters are snowy, deer generally use habitats differently in the winter than during other times of the year.

For example, in southern Ontario, where forest cover can be limiting but snow cover often is not, deer still tend to concentrate in certain areas during the winter months. A winter concentration area might be a park, ravines, a string of woodlots or something else – anyplace where there’s resting, hiding and escape cover, abundant food and a dearth of predators.

In northwestern Ontario, deer yards used to be a problem with the old Land and Forests and later, the MNR. Managing a deer yards was problematic because the consensus was that deer in northwestern Ontario ‘didn’t yard up’. Since they didn’t ‘yard-up’, forestry and wildlife habitat management prescriptions weren’t applicable.  Deer did – and still do – concentrate their winter activities in certain areas, just not in what could be described as a ‘yard’.

Management issues around identification of deer yards were largely resolved with the adoption of deer winter concentration area concepts.

In Ontario, a mapped winter deer concentration area is information useful in land use and resource management planning on both private and Crown lands. All levels of governments, and agencies like the OFAH, have policies and directives that recognize deer winter concentration areas as a value.

Deer winter concentration areas are constantly changing. With time, forest fires, insect infestations, severe winds, floods, logging, and infrastructure development of all kinds change the landscape. Predation levels rise and fall.

Concepts and definitions of deer winter concentration areas are important, but it’s still okay to talk about ‘deer yards’. Just be sure to make it clear what you’re talking about . . .

The Loring Deer Yard

Situated in the wilds somewhat below the French River on the Pickerel River system, east of Hwy. 69 and west of Hwy.11, The Loring Deer Yards has been one of the largest and longest lasting deer yards in Ontario.

It was first identified as a deer yarding area soon after deer in central Ontario became common, around the turn of the 20th century.

Severe winters, especially in 1961, wiped out tens of thousands of deer in the province, alarming many who loved deer and deer hunting.

Logging, which had seemed to coincide with surging deer herds in forested areas, was on the wane. The Dept. of Land & Forests was led to believe that by replicating logging efforts, the deer population south of North Bay could be rejuvenated.

By the late 1970’s, the Loring Deer Yard was an official MNR program. Bulldozers and snowmobiles were used to build and maintain trails to help deer move through deep snow; browse and later, other deer foods like pellets were provided; and, wolves were trapped to reduce predation.

Studies were done and results published. Policies, directives and reports were written.

There wasn’t a deer manager or biologist who didn’t know about the Loring Deer Yard and who hadn’t heard about Ernie Bain and Paddy Stillar.

By 1988, management efforts had doubled the size of the Loring Deer Yard. In some winters, it held as many as 20,000 deer.

But, time brings change. MNR(F) adopted new policies and directives. Active deer yard management efforts declined. Eventually, trail-making and feeding was a role for volunteers. Predator (wolf) control was discontinued.

In recent years, deer numbers in what was once the best known deer winter concentration area in Ontario, if not Canada, have plummeted.

Is the Loring Deer Yard history? Only time will tell.

January, 2020. Happy New Year!

Winter has set in and the forecast is for a cold spell. But first, some (more) snow.

It was cold early to mid-fall in 2019, but then it turned ‘mild’. Not a snow-melt above the freezing mark mild, but few -200 C bone chillers, the last couple of days a minus 32, but no minus forties at all. All in all, a rather pleasant Christmas and New Year holiday season.

The moose and deer seasons are closed and I stop grouse hunting on Dec. 15. For years and years Dec. 15 was when the moose, deer and grouse hunting seasons used to simultaneously close here in the part of northwestern Ontario where Lil and I live. In recent years, there have been some season length extensions to grouse seasons, but I haven’t taken advantage of them. It seems that once the snow comes, the grouse are hard to find and from my perspective, a 3 month hunt for big and small game that ends Dec. 15 is all I want or need. By then it’s time for get ready for the upcoming holiday season and try and be primed to participate in the festivities.

And so here I am in early January at the beginning of a brand new decade. A hundred years ago we’d be entering what came to be known as the roaring 20’s.

But this is a new time and place. We’ll just have to see where it leads.

As usual for me, this is when I reflect on the hunting seasons that just passed. As I previously wrote, I had a wonderful hunt with Neva, our Wachtelhunde hunting dog and companion.

I didn’t go moose hunting as neither Lil nor I even applied for a tag to hunt an adult moose. In the two Wildlife Management Units we like to hunt, there was only 1 tag available in each unit. One of the tags was for a cow, which seemed ridiculous (if there are so few moose that licensed hunters are provided with only 1 tag, why would it be for a cow?) and in the other WMU, we had no idea where there might even be a moose in a place with both access and where there was a reasonable chance of success. So we opted out of applying for a tag, but bought licences to retain priority for future draws. Prior to the season, and then during the season in a WMU where I was deer hunting, I did see moose.

I didn’t shoot a deer, either. I did have opportunities, but did not have a doe tag and the few bucks I saw I opted not to shoot.

There are lots of places where I see game during the fall hunting season where I can’t hunt. Some of the animals are on protected areas and other properties I have no permission to hunt on; sometimes I see animals I don’t have a tag for; and, there are a lot of animals that are on or adjacent to a road. Around here, you can’t shoot down, across, or from the traveled portion of a road and on some roads you can’t even have a loaded firearm until you are well away from the right-of-way. And on many roads, it can be dangerous to come to a stop unless you can pull off, which isn’t always possible. Often, there is simply no space to stop, pull off or park.

So given all these places where I’m not hunting, I take advantageous of photographic opportunities when I can. As with a gun, there’s still much more seen than shot, and there’s still places where I can’t shoot with the camera – but there’s more spots where I can pull out the camera to try and get a shot than there are spots I can pull out a gun.

I also have to say that shooting wildlife with a camera isn’t easy. Often, it’s harder than with a firearm. For example, shooting ruffed grouse on the fly with a camera is quite the challenge that I haven’t yet mastered and likely never will (although for me, the same is true with a shotgun . . . ). Still, I sometimes score and when I do, it’s a very satisfying feeling.

Similarly, I’m always trying to get good shots of buck deer. Deer are not near as plentiful here as they used to be a few years back, but there’s still some around. The best place to see buck deer though, is in the city. Over the past few decades, deer in northwestern Ontario, like in a lot of villages, towns and cities all across North America, moved in, found suitable housing and are now a fixture in many neighborhoods.

The other thing with the camera is that you can shoot any species at any time with no need for a license or a tag. There’s waterfowl, fur-bearers and basically anything that walks, crawls, slithers, swims or flies can be the subject of a photo shoot.

whiskey-1

But now that we are into January, there’s not near as much life around. Big game hunting is over as it is for waterfowl and upland game birds. With respect to photo shooting, the majority of birds have left, many of the animals have gone into hibernation and most of the deer have lost their antlers. I still see a few grouse – lately a couple come each evening just before it gets dark to bud in the white birches. A few other odds and sods, but it’s not a wildlife viewing paradise by any stretch.

rgrouse-12

So the hunting season is a wrap and photo season has transitioned.

Still, it’s a New Year and it’s all good.

Time to go ice-fishing.

trout

Some of the Kenora area wolves I have seen.

Back in 2014 I wrote on my blog how the local wolves, particularly the big wolves that prey on deer and moose, were still doing well. Locally, meaning within about a 100 km radius from the city of Kenora, the moose population had collapsed and white-tailed deer numbers were plummeting – but there were still a lot of big wolves around. Smaller canids, namely coyotes, were present, but not numerous.

These days, I can report that moose populations have not recovered and deer populations really crashed; there are still some deer around, but very, very few moose.

Surprisingly, a sizable population of big wolves has endured here, but maybe not as many as back in 2014. Coyote and other smaller wolf numbers seem to be up.

With respect to wolves in general, there remains much controversy regarding wolf taxonomy and wolf management. Research on wolves continues to provide interesting information on wolf biology.

Big wolves are widely distributed – they are found across much of North America and Eurasia, as well as India, China and even parts of Africa. There’s general agreement that the majority of these wolves are all one and the same species, the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus). Some claim there are not one but three species of wolf in the world; the Grey Wolf, the Red Wolf (C. rufus) and the Ethiopian Wolf (C. simensis). A few – mostly some Ontario-based biologists and scientists – say the Algonquin Wolf is also a separate species of wolf ( C. lycaon).

In North America, there is also the other ‘wolf’, the Coyote (Canis latrans), which many suggest is not really a wolf.

 

Small Wolves . . . .

The trouble with taxonomy is that there are no clear rules as to what constitutes a species. It appears that all these wolf species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. So are they all one species with a lot of variety, or  . . . what?  For example, the Red Wolf is in danger of extinction in large part because of hybridization (interbreeding) with coyotes.

The Algonquin Wolf was, until recently, referred to as the Eastern Wolf, a sub-species of Grey Wolf or perhaps a distinct species. However, recognized hybridization with Coyotes and Grey Wolves messed thing up and somehow it became the Algonquin Wolf. Interestingly, on the official Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry website on the Algonquin Wolf (https://www.ontario.ca/page/algonquin-wolf), the scientific name provided is Canis sp. Which seems to me to say: ‘We don’t know exactly what it is, but we know one when we see one.’

Anyway, regardless of the taxonomy, the prevailing attitude almost everywhere is definitely pro-wolf protection (the exception may be coyotes). Often, the attitudes and management direction seems to me, to be totally bizarre.

For example, on the USA side of Lake Superior, Grey Wolves have been re-introduced to Isle Royale (at great expense), after apparent inbreeding brought the resident Grey Wolf population down to two. Two wolves couldn’t keep the moose population in check and moose were eating themselves out of house and home.

The resident wolves on Isle Royale came to be there by crossing the ice, like the moose (when early Europeans went to the Isle, they found Caribou; apparently, there were no moose, or wolves).

Natural re-population of wolves from the mainland was thought to be a non-starter because climate change was making the chances of an ice-bridge in the future unlikely. Same with Caribou.

Meanwhile, over on the Canadian side, wolves crossed Lake Superior’s frozen waters a few years ago and pretty much wiped-out the resident Caribou on the Slate Islands.  Then wolves proceeded to do the same on Michipicoten Island – to save the not so long ago introduced Caribou (a species officially classed as Threatened under the provincial and federal legislation), the Ontario government  . . . decided to catch the Caribou and move them to (again, at great expense). . . the Slate Islands.  In other words, save the Caribou (???), but only by doing no harm to the wolves.

The Grey Wolf, by the way, is a species that in Ontario is not at risk under the Endangered Species Act, (they are common and widespread in distribution); although the Algonquin Wolf is listed as ‘Threatened’. By consensus, the wolves around Lake Superior are thought to be Grey Wolves, not Algonquin Wolves.

Back on Isle Royale, ice has made a bridge from the mainland to the Isle a couple of times in the last few years. On at least one occasion, researchers documented wolves from the mainland did cross the ice over to the island, but they didn’t stick around.

It’s supposed to be another colder than average winter in the Great Lakes Region, so chances seem good that in 2020 there will once again be an ice bridge from the mainland to Isle Royale.

Back home in Kenora, I’ve been seeing coyotes (brush wolves?) on our property over the last few months. I have seen tracks of much larger wolves, but haven’t seen one lately. When I was out deer hunting about 50 km from the house the other day, my hunting partner and I came across tracks of a pack of at least three big wolves.

Off property, I have been deer hunting on 8 different days – neither I nor my hunting partners on those days have seen a deer (or a wolf).  But one day we did see a moose!

Recent studies in Minnesota are confirming Grey Wolves can move vast distances and set up a new home range. Hundreds of kilometers of movement does not seem all that unusual, as evidenced by northern Minnesotan wolves re-locating to the Red Lake, Ontario area (about 300 kms, as the crow flies). See https://www.facebook.com/VoyageursWolfProject/ for interesting updates on their findings.

From my perspective, wolf management, or a lack thereof, is symptomatic of the problems facing the wildlife management profession everywhere.

Too much emotion, too little use of scientific principles.

It’s a big problem.

The last three fall bird hunts have tended to be  . . . poor.

That’s not really the right word to describe those hunts, but it’s a start.

The issue has been injuries to my good buddy and hunting dog, Neva.

One year, she had a run-in with a porcupine within the first hour of the pheasant hunt in Alberta. It was a full-on face plant of quills and required a trip to the vet, in Medicine Hat, over an hour’s drive away. Never did shoot a pheasant that year . . .

Another year she cut her paw on glass, we presume, on our first ruffed grouse hunt of the season. There was no reason for glass to be there in the bush, but it was close to a forest access road, and way too many people throw their garbage – like beer bottles! – out the window when driving around. Regardless, it was a deep cut, needed stitches, and put Neva out of commission for a good month. By the time she had recovered, there was snow on the ground, which seems to result, at least around here, in the virtual disappearance of the grouse. I don’t know what happens, but once there is snow on the ground, you can go for miles and hardly ever find a bird. So that year was also a washout.

Last year we were on our property, hunting grouse for the 2nd or 3rd time, when Neva flushed a grouse, ran over an old garbage pile, and cut a paw again. Needed stitches, out of commission . . . . .

The fellow who last lived on our property – back in early post-war years, I think – was for the most part a bootlegger. We’ve removed pick-up loads of cans, bottles and iron over the years. There were literally huge piles of cans and bottles all over the place. I know there’s still a couple out there, but I can’t recall exactly where. If I find them, I’ll clean them up too. At least the places and trails where we usually hunt and go for walks with the dogs have been cleaned up. I still worry about shards, though.

So far this year Neva has avoided getting injured. And we had a great time!

We didn’t kill a lot of birds, but we flushed many. I even shot a few woodcock and saw and missed several others. Most woodcock I have ever seen in the Kenora area. A banner year!

Neva was 5 this year. Given her history of hurts, it’s easy to see she hasn’t had a lot of bird hunt time.

ruffed grouse-164

I thought we’d see a lot of grouse on our property as we had seen a number of coveys during summer. However, that wasn’t the case – sometimes we’d be out for an hour and not see a single grouse. I suspect the foxes and coyotes cleaned them up as well as the 10 skunks (10!) Lil live-trapped in the yard.

I haven’t hunted with her for a few days – the deer rut is on and smelly bucks are distracting to a dog that loves to hunt. I have to admit I’ve never seen dogs that like to hunt as much as these Wachtelhundes.

Unfortunately, there’s snow on the ground and I haven’t seen a grouse for days, not even during a full day of deer hunting where birds had been plentiful in early October.

Fortunately, there’s not a lot of snow – yet.

Oh well, it was a great fall, full of flushes and even some shooting. If the weather holds, we might even get to do a bit more of both.

And next year, maybe Neva and I can do some duck hunting.

Neva-13

Most of us rely heavily on our eyesight just to get through the day.

Unsurprisingly, having good eyesight is highly appreciated by hunters. Hunters search for game – mostly, but not exclusively – with their eyes.

Some people – and some hunters – have much better vision than the average person. With superior vision, they tend to quickly see a heck of a lot of stuff that others can’t see without considerable difficulty.

Most of us are familiar with vision that’s rated as ‘20/20′. Someone who has 20/20 vision generally doesn’t require corrective lenses. What 20/20 doesn’t say, but tends to imply, is that having 20/20 vision means having great vision. With corrective lenses, my eyesight is 20/20.

Put simply, all 20/20 vision really means is that if you have it, you can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance.

Some have much higher rated and better vision than 20/20.

For example, those who have 20/15 vision – not that uncommon – can see things clearly at 20 feet that someone with 20/20 vision needs to be 15 feet away to see clearly.

Having 20/20 vision and being able to see clearly what one should ‘normally see’ doesn’t add up to much. People with extra-ordinarily good eyesight have other attributes that provides them with eyesight that’s superior to the average. They might have better peripheral vision (they can spot things off to the side of what they are focused on), better depth perception (everything’s clear in 3D), colours are brighter, crisper, clearer and so on.

Most people have reasonably good vision. But, some have it (much) better than others. Regardless of how good – or poor – your vision is, your vision is generally better when you are young. As one ages, eyesight tends to fade. That’s no big surprise.

Obviously, it’s a boon to have great vision if one is a hunter.

But ‘search image’ is also important. Search image is the ability to spot what it is you are looking for – in Africa it was any number of antelope, birds like sand grouse – really a myriad of birds and animals – wherever they might be. Hunters with a great search image can spot their quarry hiding in the shadows, sitting in the sand or slinking through the forest; those without a good search image often miss out.

Put excellent eyesight and a great search image together and you have the makings of someone who can be, at the least, an extraordinary game spotter.

Unlike vision, which is what it is – unless modified with surgery or with corrective lenses – developing a search image takes time and effort.

On my recent trip to South Africa and then Namibia, I had the luck to hunt with PH’s who had fantastic eyesight and absolutely astounding search image capabilities (PH stands for Professional Hunter: these are accredited hunters and foreigners MUST hunt with a PH in these countries).

Wik and Colin, the PH’s I hunted with in South Africa (https://www.game4africa.co.za/), were in their 20’s and could spot game like there was no tomorrow.

As described in a recent post of mine, Wik found me a once-in-a-lifetime bushbuck, which I (eventually) shot. One thing that really struck me was that I had a really hard time seeing it when I was trying to find it in the scope. A couple of times I had to look again with my binos – I could see it well with the binos – but looking through the scope I initially couldn’t pick it out.

The problem wasn’t the scope – it was a high end Swarovski – it was the fact I was reduced to using one eye at 230 m. which didn’t provide me with the depth perception – 3D – the binos did. Everything looked flat and the bushbuck faded into the scene. Just in time I finally got my eye to focus and things worked out. I had not experienced that problem before and took it as another sign of my eyes, like the rest of me, are ageing and can’t do things near as well as was the case 20 years ago.

bushbuck-6

A day later we went on a hunt for mountain rhebuck. Once again, Wik showed off his astounding sighting abilities.

“There’s a good-sized group over there”, he told me, pointing to some cover several hundred meters away.

I couldn’t see anything.

“I can see their ears,” he explained.

All in all, there were about 20 animals in the group.

At some point the group spooked. As we tracked after them, they broke off in different directions and, lucky for me, a mature ram made a mistake and came to within about 130 m of us and stopped broadside to stare. That one, even with my old eyes, I could see clearly; I made sure the Sako 7MM mag did its job.

Back at the lodge, the phrase “I can see their ears” was repeated often that evening as we lounged by the fire.

mtnreed-59

Wik – “I can see their ears”

One nice touch at the lodge was the large cleared fields out front. A ‘no hunting’ zone, one didn’t need great vision to watch the animals come and go. Zebra, eland, wart hogs, monkeys and guinea fowl were regular visitors. One evening, a large group of Cape buffalo came out to graze. What a sight!

A few days later we were in Namibia in pursuit of eland with Westfalen (http://www.westfalenhuntnamibia.com) and Onduri Hunting Safaris  (http://www.onduri.com/). It was dry dry dry and the animals seemed very spooky.

On the 2nd day, Helmut, one of the PHs, spotted eland at about 800 m, on the far side of a savannah. NiCoo, out tracker, said there were several animals in the group. Neither were using binos when they spotted the animals.

At first, I didn’t see any. But eland are huge, and finally I did see a couple of spots, which I could confirm as eland with the help of my binos.

Our stalk was successful and I took a very large, old bull eland.

My hunts were successful, but I owe a lot to young eyes that were coupled with a great search image.

eland-52

This is another of my recent articles in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. As per my practice, this is an unedited version.

Owning land where one of the main objectives is to manage it for wildlife is widespread in some places around the world, but not so much in Canada. In parts of Texas and the American west, large tracts of private land are for wildlife – and hunting – often combined with ranching. In parts of Africa, particularly in the south, huge chunks of land  are managed for wildlife – and hunting – again, often combined with ranching. 

Looking after our 200+ acres is really nothing like being in charge of tens of thousands of acres, but it’s something. 

One more thing. The office locations, addresses and suggested links were at one time all valid, but things change quickly these days so some of the information in the article may no longer be correct or valid.

 

Growing up, I always thought it would be great to own a big chunk of undeveloped land. My grandfather lived on what was once farmland outside Sudbury near the hamlet of Wahnapitae, a haven with a beaver pond to hunt ducks on and a woodlot where I could chase snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse. From a very young age, acquiring land was high on my wish list.

Life may get in the way of dreams, but dreams never die. Finally, when I was about 40 years old, Lil and I bought a long abandoned homestead. A few years later, we built a house and started our country life.

One of the main reasons we wanted to live in the country, on our own land, was to manage it for wildlife. Lil also needed space to accommodate her needs associated with being a wildlife rehabilitator – it can be awkward looking after loud and squawking injured critters in the suburbs.

We knew what we wanted to do, but needed direction to be in compliance with pertinent laws and regulations. The Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program (MFTIP) provided that direction.

The MFTIP was a good fit because it could be used specifically to manage private lands for wildlife and also “offer a reduction in property taxes to landowners of forest land who prepare a plan and agree to be good stewards of their property”.

To qualify for enrollment in MFTIP, there must be > 4 ha (9.99 ac) of forest land owned by a Canadian citizen or resident who has a commitment to good land stewardship. Then a stewardship plan has to be prepared and subsequently approved by a Managed Forest Plan Approver.

I have to admit the preparation and writing of a stewardship plan for our property was a lot more difficult than we had surmised, despite the fact both Lil and I had degrees in Biology and had written numerous articles, papers and plans. My friend Brian Hutchinson – a Parks Canada biologist – expressed similar sentiments when he wrote a plan for his property near Ottawa.

A major tenet for the plan is a requirement to identify general property objectives – improving wildlife habitat was one of ours – and how to achieve those objectives.

The plan requires maps showing the location of the property and the surrounding area, the location of buildings, roads, trails, hydro lines, etc., and property ‘compartments’.

Compartments are areas with similar vegetation, topography and soils. For example, on 232 acres we have a bog, a marsh, mix-woods of deciduous and conifer trees, as well as rocky, thin soiled hills of mostly jack pine. With the help of aerial photography, we identified and mapped more than a dozen compartments.

For each compartment, forms have to be completed that identify general characteristics pertaining to soils and drainage and provide specific details on vegetation and forest cover (e.g., shrubs present, tree species and their abundance). There is also a section on history of the compartment, where things like past logging or grazing by cattle is included.

And that’s only a fraction of what the stewardship plan requires – one onerous requirement is a schedule of planned activities for each compartment for 10 years, as well as keeping a record of activities actually carried out.

Lists of animals, fish, insects, rare plants as well as habitat features (e.g., snags, dens, wildlife trails) also have to be prepared.

Writing a stewardship plan is a lot of hard work – but it certainly made us focus on how, specifically, we could achieve our goals and objectives.

Some of Our Stewardship Plan Activities

  • Annually mow, or burn, our old field and hay marsh compartments to arrest forest encroachment.
  • Harvest 80 acres to remove over-mature aspen.
  • Plant white and black spruce, white pine and red pine on appropriate sites.
  • Erect nesting boxes for wood ducks, bluebirds, tree swallows and owls.
  • Build and maintain walking/hiking trails.
  • Maintain brush piles as wildlife cover.

There’s a myriad of other things we’ve done and plan to do on the property, including – with the help of some of Lil’s rehabilitated and released beavers – build and maintain a pond in front of the house. It’s almost unbelievable the amount and diversity of wildlife associated with our pond. In the spring, the cacophony of singing frogs and toads is so loud we have to shut the door to talk on the phone or listen to the TV.

Oh, and yes, hunting activities, including planting food plots, are perfectly acceptable as goals and objectives in an MFTIP. We enjoy hunting ruffed grouse and deer on our property.

Despite what I believe is needless complexity, the MFTIP is a good way for property owners to enhance wildlife values, while simultaneously reducing the tax burden.

MFTIP Details

In brief, it’s a 10 yr program. Eligible land is taxed at 25% of the municipal tax rate set for residential properties. After the plan has ended, a new plan for a further 10 year period can be submitted.

For information contact:

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

Managed Forest Tax Incentive Program

300 Water Street, Peterborough, ON K9J 8M5

The MFTIP website is ontario.ca/MFTIP; for info, call toll free 1-855-866-3847, or email MFTIP@ontario.ca .

You can also call, toll free 1-866-296-6722, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation, web is www.mpac.ca.

Other Programs for Rural Landowners

There are various stewardship councils in much of southern/central Ontario that can be consulted to help one manage wildlife and natural resource habitats. Visit www.ontariostewardship.org.

If you are interested in planting trees, visit www.treesontario.ca.

If MNRF has identified natural heritage features on your land, you may be eligible for property tax exemptions. Call 1-800-268-8959; your local MNRF office; visit the website Ontario.ca/CLTIP or email cltip@ontario.ca.

 

 

Spotting Bushbuck: there’s one inside the circle I’ve drawn on one of the photos. It’s a bit more visible in the blow-up photo. Kudu were everywhere. Note the sharp horns on the Bushbuck! Rocky was quite pleased with himself following the chase and fight.

I recently returned from another fabulous trip to Africa. Like last time, this was a two-legged journey – but this time, our first stop was in South Africa.

In South Africa, Drew, Brian and I stayed with Game4Africa (https://www.game4africa.co.za/), owned and operated by the Coetzee Brothers, Wikus and Colin. We were in the region known as the Eastern Cape, an area well-known for it abundance of game, particularly Kudu (the best chance of getting a Kudu anywhere in Africa, according to the Wik and Colin).

For Drew and I, the focus was Bushbuck.

The Cape Bushbuck (Tragelaphus sylvaticus) or more commonly, the Bushbuck, is a smallish antelope with large males weighing slightly more than 50 kg. Females are smaller and don’t have horns.

Bushbuck, are one of the four African antelope with twisted horns, the others being the Kudu, Eland and Nyala. Although it’s the smallest antelope of the group, the Bushbuck has a well-deserved reputation for having a nasty temperament. They will turn on and fight predators – including human hunters – when wounded and cornered. The horns are very sharp.

On day one, Brian and I hunted with Colin close to the main lodge, while Drew went further afield with Wik. Colin, Brian and I scanned heavy cover in steep hill country, but had no luck in seeing our main quarry. Before the morning was over, though, we had word that Wik and Drew had been successful and Drew had shot a very nice Bushbuck.

For day two, the decision was to head back to the general area where Drew had been successful the first morning. The morning was cool and in the hills, there was a stiff breeze. Despite having donned a heavy shirt, a fleece-lined hoodie and warm gloves, it was hard to keep comfortable. Scanning the hillsides hundreds of meters distant through binoculars was tasking, as my eyes kept watering and smearing my glasses.

Finally, after what seemed like a couple of hours, someone, Wik or Drew, spotted and Bushbuck and Wik said we’d have to try and make our was down the hillside to get within range to try for a shot.

What a climb (down)! We wound our way down on game trails a couple of hundred meters; often we seemed to be going almost straight down and it took quite the effort to keep balance and not fall head-over-heels down the ravine. I was thankful for my good boots and their solid grip, and the thought that I’d have been snookered if I’d opted to bring the other pair of hunting boots I had contemplated bringing, kept popping up in my mind.

Finally, we found ourselves on a bit of an opening with the Bushbuck still way below us. Wik asked me if I could see it and through the binos, I could. I had difficulty locating it through the scope, though, and then couldn’t keep steady on the steep slope. Wik did some speedy adjustments and we found a way for me to sit down and just as the Bushbuck took a step and was about to disappear under the canopy, I squeezed off a shot. There was a solid ‘thwack’ and the Bushbuck was gone.

“Two hundred and 30 meters. Good Shot!” said Wik.

Wik radioed for his tracker and his dog Rocky, a solidly built Jack Russel Terrier. Apparently, Jack Russel’s are favoured by many African hunters in tracking down antelope and have a reputation as being the breed to deal with Bushbuck.

It took a while, but eventually Wik’s tracker, carrying Rocky, found us. Wik pointed out where we had last seen the Bushbuck and down the ravine the tracker went, still carrying compliant little Rocky under his arm.

At some point we started following. We saw the tracker get to the spot where the Bushbuck had been shot and he let Rocky go.

Almost immediately Rocky started barking and growling and we could heard barks and grunts from the Bushbuck as well. We couldn’t see either Rocky or the Bushbuck, but did catch glimpses of the tracker running about in circles, apparently trying to get to the Bushbuck and dispatch it, which, eventually, he did.

“It’s over!” said Wik.

We got down to the Bushbuck, the tracker and Rocky, who was splattered in blood and seemed to be very pleased with himself.

The Bushbuck was a magnificent animal with long, sharp, heavy horns. Apparently, it was a once-in-a-lifetime Bushbuck. Actually, it was quite similar to the one Drew had taken the day before, the main difference being mine was slightly wider.

Bushbuck can be quite common, but are often found where cover is thick and the terrain steep (like where we were), which can make for tough hunting. Wik and Colin thought we did well in part because of the weather (cold nights, sunny mornings) and the lack of a moon during the night. This resulted in the animals being more apt to be in openings than the norm.

Drew attributed our success to us being great hunters (sarc!).

Two great Bushbucks in two days. Thanks Wik!

And thanks especially to Rocky!

 

The magazine and print industry in general continues to tank – this was a story I wrote for a mag – that was supposed to be published  – but for reasons beyond my control, never was. So rather than waste it or try to find another outlet, I’ll simply post it here, on my blog. I understand the proprietors Darryl, John and I stayed with flew sold to another outfit, but I haven’t checked. At any rate, if any of you readers want to book a trip into Metionga, just Google the lake name.

Hope you enjoy the read.

 

“You should join us. Fishing is fantastic!”

It was Darryl Choronzey on the line.

Darryl  – “Cronzy” – founded and ran ‘Ontario Fisherman’ magazine and then went on to host the TV show “Going Fishing”. These days, Darryl is retired, but keeps active in fishing world through a network of contacts he made during his career. He still likes to fish.

I’d met Darryl when I was a biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.  I had lined up some media personalities to help promote our new fisheries management strategy; mostly, it meant me fishing with celebrities.

That’s how Darryl and I wound up spending a day on Lake of the Woods after walleye, plus a couple of fly-ins for trout and muskie; we had a great time fishing, filming and swapping stories.

30 years went by and while we had kept in touch, we hadn’t fished together again.  So when Darryl suggested I join him and his good friend John, on a fly-in fishing trip to Metionga Lake, I had to say yes. I really didn’t have a choice.

Any hesitation I might have had had been dispelled when Darryl described, in the colourful narrative he’s known for, how Metionga was the best walleye and pike fishing  he’d ever had.

Getting There

I said yes and Darryl made arrangements. The plan was to meet in the town of Ignace, which is on the TransCanada Highway two hours west of Thunder Bay; a 3 hour easterly drive for me from Kenora. Our rendezvous point was Ignace Outposts, an airbase on the shores of Agimak Lake. Once there, we’d load up a DHC-3 de Havilland Otter and take a 40 minute flight to Metionga Lake.

After a long morning drive on the big day I found myself checking in with the airway and outpost camp proprietors Brad and Karen Greaves. They told me Cronzy was at a motel in town.

It wasn’t much of a wait and although we hadn’t seen each other in decades, there wasn’t much time to reminisce. We had a lot of gear to pack into the plane. With a bit of hustling we were soon good to go and by early afternoon were airborne.

Hustling, again, we unpacked in time to head out for an evening of fishing.

While we were putting away our gear in Cabin 2, Darryl was recounting his previous experiences on Metionga.

‘We did one show up top with Bobber Annie; caught 50 fish in less than 2 hours! Down below, 1/4 mile from the cabin, I did 3 shows with Dan Gapen [ed. note: a Minnesota  Fishing Hall of Famer] with the same number of walleye – during the 2nd we also caught 5 northerns from 44 up to 49 inches – they were actually grabbing our hooked walleye on the way up right into the net…it was outrageous, but true…’

And they weren’t little walleye they were catching, either. Cronzy said most were over 20 inches.

That year, he’d been fishing in mid-June, it was now well into the third week of July. I wondered if the time difference would matter.

Apparently, it did.

The summer of 2018 was a hot one. The water was over 200 C, and after an hour with only a couple of small fish, we realized the fish simply weren’t there, or they weren’t biting.

But we weren’t fazed. Some of the other guests that we’d briefly talked to had told us fishing had been great – in the lake proper – the river hadn’t been producing.

With daylight slowly fading, we moved, trying spots out in the main lake, still close to our cabin. Using jigs adorned with a live or plastic worm, started catching walleyes and soon had enough for supper.

While fishing and back at camp, Darryl entertained us with more stories. One, about a short-lived radio show called “Fish, or Porn?”, really broke me up.

Later

The next morning I fished alone while John and Darryl struck out on their own.

By noon, I had boated 30 walleye, mostly from the edges of humps in 13-17 feet of water. A couple of the largest came from a boulder field. The fish were biting on my go-to walleye rig – a painted ¼ oz round-head jig adorned with a 3” plastic grub.

After lunch, camp hand Ted Lachapelle dropped by. Ted offered to take me up the lake to try some ‘hot spots’ he’d found in the past and I jumped at the chance.

We headed north in Ted’s boat to the most westerly basin of the lake. Ken pointed out a few big, sandy beaches where woodland caribou had recently been seen. He also described a number of his fishing high-points over the past years, including the time he was by himself when he boated and released a 52 inch northern!

We tried a few spots with some luck, and then hit the jackpot off a point with a couple of offshore humps. For over an hour it was fish after fish – nice, plump, dark yellow Metionga Lake walleye.

Darryl and John had also had a great day. Back at camp and cleaning walleyes, they told me about a spot, again, off a hump where the fish were thick.  The fish had been deep, around 30 feet, in contrast to the 12-20 foot range Ken and I had fished.

John and I tried Little Metionga Lake on our 3rd day and had a hot bite on a large mid-lake reef in mostly less than 10 feet of water.  Darryl had stayed on Metionga and had similarly ‘hammered’ them.

On the last day we were rained out, but had a great time in camp with food and drink and tall tales.

Darryl had told us Metionga was a ‘bucket list’ lake for walleye.

He wasn’t kidding.

Lake Descriptions and Fishing Facts

Metionga covers 5,013 acres (2030 ha). It’s very remote and part of a waterway provincial park called Brightsand River, about 100 km (60 miles) northeast of Ignace. The Brightsand is immediately south of the wilderness of Wabakimi Provincial Park, the 2nd largest in Ontario.

There’s no road access to Metionga. Ignace Outposts has three cabins at the south end of the lake; Rusty Myers Flying Services has another cabin to the north.

Metionga is a walleye factory. It has the most fantastic structure of any lake I’ve ever fished. It has deep holes, boulder fields, sandy points, weedy bays and a myriad of underwater humps and bumps that seem to all be plastered with walleye. And there’s always some fish in the currents of the Brightsand River.

Three other lakes, also teeming with walleye and pike – with cached boats and motors – are accessible by short portages.  There’s also whitefish, but they’re seldom caught by anglers.

Tales of big pike abound, but we simply didn’t try hard. I caught a couple of small fish right off the dock on a Skid-Stick and Ken saw a huge northern take a swipe at a walleye one afternoon, but that was it. Mostly, we were on a walleye quest.

Although not an absolute requirement – because fish are everywhere – a fish-finder really enhances the experience on Metionga. A GPS will help navigate through some wicked rock-strewn areas, like the 2 km narrows you need to snake through to get to the main basin on Little Metionga, and to mark hidden reefs and humps you can leave and come back to.

I’d also recommend an electric trolling motor; the 4 strokes worked well, but there were times I would have liked a little electric.

Here’s my un-edited copy of my last column in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. Enjoy!

On a recent trip to Africa, the first full-day of hunting was a wash-out for my buddy Brian and I. The reason? The scope on our rented, bolt-action .30-06 Savage had loosened during the morning sight-in and was way off when Brian tried to take first a gemsbok and later, a zebra. Fortunately, neither animal was wounded – clear misses – and we solved the problem the next morning.

As a rule, I don’t borrow or lend firearms. I learned that from dad, who’d had horrible experiences lending and borrowing firearms.

While Dad’s advice has stood me well, there are a lot of good reasons to borrow, or lend, a firearm.

For one, travelling with a firearm is generally a hassle. Airlines tend to discourage travelling with firearms through bothersome and cumbersome regulations and often substantive, tacked on expenses. And, when I have taken one on an airline (to date, always within Canada), I’ve noted most ticket handlers have little to no experience with the firearm rigmarole, which is both frustrating and time consuming. Because of these omnipresent stumbling blocks, I highly recommend anyone taking a firearm on a flight to be at check-in early. In addition, phone the airline you are flying with well in advance to enquire about their firearm policies and let them know you will be bringing one.

Crossing the border into the USA, or any other country, is even more problematic. Every country has their own system and as a rule, they are not user-friendly. Again, check what you’re going to be up against well in advance of a planned trip.

To avoid the trouble, extra attention, paperwork and other regulations when travelling with a firearm, I’ve found it makes a lot of sense to borrow, or rent, when I get to my destination. I’d like to use my own firearms, but often, it’s just not worth the headaches.

However, borrowing is not without matters of its own.

For example, the last time I went to the US turkey hunting, I planned on borrowing a firearm from my friend Randy. That turned out to be a bit of a schmozzle.

First, it took a lot of phoning around to see if it was even legal for me to borrow a firearm. Michigan DNR didn’t know (not even the Director); eventually, someone from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said I could.

At the border, I got a thorough interrogation when I informed them the purpose of my trip was a turkey hunt – and no, I didn’t have a firearm. “What are you going to do? Beat them with a stick?” asked the Customs agent.

The most common issues with borrowing and renting firearms are to do with safety, handling and condition of the firearm. One way to minimize problems is to request, well before leaving on the hunt, to have at least a couple of firearms to choose from.

Before using a borrowed gun, check for signs of mis-use. Avoid firearms with a cracked stock, loose, or missing parts, a safety that doesn’t work, or any other obvious fault. Check the action and ensure it’s smooth. Check the bore of the barrel for obstructions. Cycle a few rounds through it without firing.

Once you’re satisfied a firearm is safe, you need to do some shooting.

During the shoot, wear clothes you intend to hunt in. Does the gun feel comfortable? Is it too long or too heavy?  Test fire from a bench – with the same cartridges you intend to hunt with – to sight-in as well as getting a feel for what the trigger-pull is like.

Assess recoil by trying some shots while standing or kneeling.

After each shot and especially at the end of shooting, check to ensure nothing has loosened (like scope mounts!).

Still, despite everything you do, problems can arise.

On the last day of my African hunt, I shot a red hartebeest that didn’t go down immediately. But the action jammed and it took both me and my (required) Professional Hunter guide, to eject the spent shell. I don’t know whether it was the result of a fouled chamber, or improperly re-sized re-loads. Fortunately, the shot had been good and the hartebeest was down.

Despite the many potential negatives, there are positives from borrowing firearms. It can be a chance to try out a make, model, calibre or gauge, or a load new to you.

One firearm I rented in Namibia, a bolt-action Remington 700 in .30-06, was fitted with a  Trijicon 2.5-12.5 X 42 scope, a scope I was unfamiliar with, but would now consider for use here in Ontario. On my Michigan turkey hunt, Randy lent me his Thompson Center Encore with 12 gauge barrel and T/C Turkey choke. The scope was a Truglo red dot; ammo was ACTIV brand Penetrator nickel plated turkey load, 2 ¾”, #4 shot, 1 ¾ oz. It was all new to me – but it worked great and I bagged a nice tom with a single shot at 25 m.

Also in Namibia, Brian and I had the opportunity to hunt with firearms fitted with suppressors, commonly called silencers. What a hoot! Firing a .30-06 that was no louder than a .22 short and with similar recoil was amazing. The suppressors did add considerable weight, but given we were using shooting sticks (held by the PH), that wasn’t an issue.

In summary, there are pros and cons to using borrowed firearms.  Use due diligence and chances are the experience will be an enjoyable one.