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.

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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.

May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

spring-7

Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

When I began to write this, on April 8, 2019, the temperature outside was hovering just above the freezing mark and it had just begun a rain/snow mix. Snow still carpeted the ground, although there were bare patches under some of the conifers and on some south facing slopes. The ponds and lakes were still ice-locked, except where there’s current.

Now, three days later, not much has changed, except it’s clear and cold (-60 C this morning), rather than overcast with snow and rain.

Two geese showed up on the pond on April 5th and hung out most of the day, before leaving, but they have since returned, at least once. Last year, geese arrived on the pond the same date. I suspect these early arrivals are to do with claiming the pond as their own in an effort to build a nest and raise some young, something that has been a failure on this pond two years running. Maybe this year will be different and both geese and ducks can successfully hatch and rear some progeny.

The wolves whittled the deer down again this winter, but there are still a few around. The deer population, overall, is a shadow of what it was about 10 years ago and seems to still be on a downward trajectory. As I’ve said before, I don’t think deer herds here will recover until the next spruce budworm epidemic is well underway, something that as far as I know, hasn’t even started yet. Interestingly, I did see a deer chewing on some lichens the other day, but like deer, lichen abundance is minimal.

A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation to the Canadian Institute of Forestry, Lake of the Woods Chapter, on Moose Emphasis Areas, or MEAs. Basically, MEAs are large patches of forest – e.g., 5-10 thousand hectares – where the forest managers try to coordinate the creation and maintenance of good to excellent moose habitat when carrying out forest operations, namely harvesting, renewal and maintenance of wood fibre. Dr. Vince Crichton – Doc Moose – gave a presentation on moose and moose management in general, and there were two other presentations by District Biologists as to how MEAs were actually being implemented in approved forest management plans.

I think there was a general consensus that good moose habitat is a key component of managing moose, but other factors, including predation, disease and human harvest, are also important. Unfortunately, all factors, not just moose habitat, are difficult to control.

For example, starting with moose habitat, successful planning and implementing MEAs require a skillful planning team. But that alone is not enough, as public input needs to be accommodated. In many areas, the benefits of MEAs might not be realized without restrictions on road access (you need roads to practice forestry, but roads also provide access to human hunters and other predators).Meaningful restrictions on road access can be difficult if not impossible, because the public simply won’t accept them.

And good habitat, even with road restrictions, might not be enough. Sometimes, predators can suppress prey (e.g., moose) populations – which in some circumstances might warrant predator control. But these days, any talk of predator control seems to be met with a great deal of derision. Governments everywhere – certainly here in Ontario – have pretty much tossed the option of predator control aside.

There’s not much that can be done about disease, but at least there have been, in this part of the country, harsher, more snowy winters of late, which has reduced (a) deer populations, which in turn has reduced the incidence of brain worm, a major moose killer, and (b) moose tick abundance. Moose ticks thrive when winters are short, but take a hit from early and late snow cover (moose die-offs from severe moose tick infestations are fairly common in some areas). Fewer deer also mean fewer wolves, so again, that’s a good thing. Bears are another story.

Human harvest can be controlled to some degree, but again, there are issues that probably should be addressed, but can’t, or aren’t. These include:

(a) there is little control over harvest by Aboriginals and Métis, who do not require licences to hunt and are generally not subject to road use restrictions. Some Aboriginal and Métis groups and communities have voluntarily agreed to moose harvest limits, but there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

(b) despite reductions in the number of adult tags available to licenced hunters in many Wildlife Management Units (e.g., in WMU 6 there was a single bull tag issued last year – to me – and I didn’t fill it), there is still an unrestricted, two week hunt for calf moose. That means anyone with a moose licence can hunt and harvest (one) calf moose in any WMU during the ‘open’ calf season.

(c) there seems to be a mis-guided desire to have a bull:cow ratio close to 50:50. Doc Moose presented evidence that bulls can be substantially fewer in number than cows and still ‘get the job done’. It seems patently ridiculous to lower the number of bull tags and increase the number of cow tags, especially in WMUs where moose are declining and below population targets.

(d) there is also evidence that shows younger bulls are less effective breeders than older bulls, yet in Ontario, there are no restrictions on what kind of bull a hunter can harvest with a bull tag. Cows are less responsive to the clumsier wooing of young bulls as compared to mature bulls and young bulls have both lower sperm counts and lower sperm quality, making conception less likely. In addition, in many WMUs, there has been a tendency to have an early bow season, to allow hunters to call in a bull to the close range a bow hunter requires. As such, bulls are harvested before or during the peak of the rut. Fewer old bulls and harvesting bulls immediately before or during the rut might still let all the cows be bred – at least in those WMUs with a reasonable moose population –  but breeding might not be concentrated during the prime estrus, around the end of September. As a result, calving can be spread out over a longer period the following spring, making it easier for predators that specialize in taking young calves (i.e., wolves and large bears), thus reducing recruitment.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to moose management is cultural. In Ontario, moose management is not the pressing issue it used to be for the government, replaced with concerns such as the plight of species at risk and a desire to deal with climate change hysteria. The perceived indifference to moose by the government is exacerbated by the fact that many hunters have little faith in government actions or policies, resulting in a ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude. So poaching and a general disregard for rules have, in my opinion, increased (and I’m far from alone in believing that).

While I’m not completely convinced things can’t be turned around, I’m not in the habit of looking at things through rose-coloured glasses, either. The problems are huge and not easily addressed.

MAFA2

Still, outside of moose (and deer) world, life is not all bad.  Spring is in the air, or at least it should be over the coming weeks. I do look forward to the return of the migratory birds and seeing the return of the colour green.

Plus many a BBQ, with a cold beverage in hand, are looming in my future. And that’s a very good thing.

 

 

Last fall, I went mule deer hunting in south-eastern Alberta, perhaps for the last time. As an explanation as to why this hunt might have been my last mule deer hunt there, I offer the following story:

I first applied for a mule deer tag in Alberta as a Canadian resident, which requires a resident guide (or as Alberta calls it, a hunter host), in 1998. I was finally drawn in 2002.

I was successful on that first hunt, as I have been each and every time I’ve been drawn. Generally, it takes three or four years of applying to get a tag. Although I apply in the same pool as resident Albertans, I have only been able to apply for an antlered mulie, which is A-okay by me. Over the years, I’ve taken some nice bucks.

The same year I was initially drawn for a tag, Alberta documented its first cast of chronic wasting disease (CWD), in a farmed elk.

From then, the infection rate grew quickly, and bad news it was, as one of the areas where the disease took hold was the area I was hunting (we stayed, and have continued to stay, at a ranch north of Medicine Hat. We’ve become good friends with the rancher family).

In an attempt to stop the disease, the Alberta Fish & Game did a cull in the area we hunt in 2006.

Since then, things have gotten much worse on the CWD front.

The first thing we noticed, after the cull, was that there were a lot fewer mule deer on the ranch.

A few years later, the deer numbers increased somewhat, but there was a new wrinkle – it became mandatory for hunters to drop off the heads of harvested deer to be tested for CWD. Then I couldn’t transport a deer back to Ontario unless it was de-boned and the skull cap and antlers cleaned.

Although CWD has not – yet – been known to infect humans, health agencies recommend animals known to be infected to not be consumed. So there was a waiting period after harvesting and butchering the deer before it was possible to enjoy eating it.

Still, our deer were, for a few years, always negative for CWD. That changed in, I think it was 2013, when Rob’s buck tested positive. Since then, Rob has had two more bucks test +ve and there have been others in our hunting party who have taken mulies that have come back as CWD +ve. Not good.

And it’s only getting worse. Check out this link for the history – and see the spread – of CWD in Alberta from the date of discovery to date https://www.alberta.ca/chronic-wasting-disease-history-in-alberta.aspx .

For a number of reasons, including the CWD issue, I hadn’t applied for a mule deer tag the last couple of years, even though I had enough priority points to draw one. But in 2018 Glenn and I decided I might as well apply and if drawn, do the hunt, as things were “unlikely to get better, and you never know – maybe the ‘hunter host’ system will change with a new government”. It’s possible that for a non-resident Canadian – like me – hunting mule deer with friends using the hunter host system might not be an option in the future.

Anyway, I applied, got drawn and did the hunt with Glenn. On the last day of the season, Dec. 1, I harvested a nice mature mulie buck.

A couple of days later, on the way home, we dropped off the head for CWD testing in Jenner. I took some of the choice cuts home to Ontario, put them in a freezer bag, labelled them, froze them and . . . waited for the results of the CWD tests.

As I already said, CWD is not known – as yet – to infect humans, but the World Health Organization and Fish & Game agencies caution against consuming an animal known to have CWD. CWD – so far specific to members of the Cervidae (deer) family, has been documented in the following species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and reindeer. CWD is one of a group of fatal diseases referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The group includes bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE (“mad cow disease”), which can be passed on to humans. In humans, this BSE is called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Basically, if you get variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, your brain is eaten away and you eventually die.

While waiting for the results of the CWD test on my deer, an article appeared in Deer and Deer Hunting magazine (https://www.deeranddeerhunting.com/deer-scouting/deer-behavior/controversial-research-bacteria-not-prions-cause-cwd (a magazine I have written for) on CWD, reporting on a researcher (a Dr. Bastian) who thinks CWD may actually be the result of an infectious ‘super-bacteria’. It’s interesting – and offers new hope in terms of dealing with the disease in the future – but so far, no one has replicated Dr. Bastian’s research, so he’s out alone in the field with respect to his theory. I believe part of the ‘problem’ is that there are relatively few people doing basic research on CWD, so not many are even trying to replicate his results.

At any rate, I was still waiting when Rob forwarded me another article https://mountainjournal.org/story-482 that bluntly suggests CWD is bound to, at some point, infect humans. The paper also says that it’s really impossible to sterilize your hunting utensils if you’ve cleaned a CWD infected animal and that prions – the infective agent – are almost indestructible and could infect whatever your now contaminated utensils come in contact with. They (prions) have been found to be taken up by vegetation and can get picked up and spread around by vehicles. There’s a lot of very scary stuff in this article.

So here I am at home wondering if I’m going to have to throw out my hunting knife and meat saw. I have no idea what to do with the skull cap and antlers of my buck if it’s CWD+ve – seems to me it would be shedding prions wherever I put it –  and because I usually do the final cleaning by sanding off any remaining bits of dried flesh – all I can envisage is inhaling airborne CWD prions. All these thoughts tend to sicken me . . .

Then, On March 11, I get an email and a magic call from Alberta Environment and Parks . .  .my deer tested negative! I can eat the deer, keep my hunting knives and saws and clean and mount the antlers!

Great news indeed!

But I really don’t think I want to go through that kind of an ordeal again.

As CWD continues to spread, there’s a lot of thinking us big game hunters are going to have to do. Although a number of writers and others are working to try and minimize the dangers of CWD, I’m skeptical. This is a huge issue, possible a huge health issue, that could see lives lost.

Oh, and one more thing. If a deer gets CWD, that deer always dies, usually within 2-3 years. There are worries it will, eventually, decimate infected herds. Alarming population declines have already been documented in some CWD endemic areas in the USA.

CWD. It’s a bad thing.

A couple of postings back (https://wildlifeperspectives.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/its-piling-up/), I wrote that the snow was beginning to pile up. After that post, it really piled up!

In Kenora, February has so far been the snowiest month of the 2018-19 winter, with a whopping 70.8 cm of the white stuff hitting the ground. Kenora’s normal snowfall for February is 18.6 cm, which means the snowfall for the month was 381% higher than normal.

Obviously, that’s unusual. Up until the end of January, it looked like it was going to be a relatively good winter for the local deer herd, with only about a 30% chance the winter would wind-up being classified as ‘severe’ (based on winter severity indices predictions used by provincial deer managers).

Of course, the only way it could become ‘severe’, was if it snowed a lot and the snow stayed on the ground. Well it did, and so far it has. If you had bet on the odds, you’d have lost.

The last day Kenora had that was above the freezing mark was January 4, when the temperature climbed to a miserly high of 10 C. No melting at all after that and none predicted until March 11, when the temperature is predicted to hit a high of zero.

Right now, the snow depth around my house in poplar stands (which is the kind of forest where snow stations are located to assess winter severity) is 60 cm or more; 50 cm is the threshold that most agree puts deer are in trouble. Fifty cm is about the height of a deer leg, which means more than 50 cm and deer are plowing snow with their chest, which is what I’ve been seeing.

There’s also a rule of thumb that says if you have 50 cm on the ground for 50 days, a lot of deer will perish and does that do survive, will have many stillborn fawns.

How long snow cover lingers will be critical for the deer. The weather forecasters are predicting a big change in weather patterns sometime after the middle of March – much milder temperatures – but if it keeps snowing, and it doesn’t have to snow a lot, there could easily still be snow on the ground into late April.

The deer I see around our house are staying under conifer cover when they can because the snow is not near as deep there. But, there’s not much food under the conifers, either.

In the City of Kenora, the deer are running around on the railway, cleared streets and sidewalks, looking for food, especially handouts. They’ve pretty much eaten all the available browse and what’s left is mostly inaccessible because of the deep snow. It’s illegal to feed deer within city limits – according to the bylaws – but lots of people are ignoring those laws and there is next to nothing being done by way of enforcement. I guess that’s good for the deer; if it weren’t for handouts, the city deer would more than likely be starving.

Deer are adaptable animals. Interestingly, I think these urban deer – a relatively new phenomenon in northwestern Ontario (although Sioux Narrows, about 100 km south of Kenora, has had an ‘urban’ deer population for many decades), will probably be what lets the deer herd recover in future years – at a much faster rate than otherwise would be expected. That’s if the near future sees a series of low-snow winters.

History would suggest there will be those less severe, low snow winters and that deer herds will recover.

On the other hand, deer were mostly absent from northwestern Ontario in the 1800’s. Since there’s no predicting the future – although everyone likes to do that – all we can really do is wait and see how the future actually unfolds.

One thing I can predict with near certainty is that the 2019 deer hunting season in the Kenora area will be rather unspectacular, at best.

I remain hopeful it won’t be a complete washout.

Left to Right, top: Black-faced Impala, Rocky Mtn Elk; White-tailed Deer; Dr. Vince Crichton and the Tom Degare Buck (#2 Ontario non-typical from NW Ontario, taken in 1945); Middle: Pronghorn Antelope with one sheath removed; elk antler, showing pedicle which protrudes somewhat like a flat horn; Kudu; Sable (top); White-tailed Deer in velvet; Moose, chewing on velvet

First, as an aside, I have noticed that some of the buck white-tailed deer in the City of Kenora still have their antlers. Normally, deer drop their antlers in December in this part of the world, but the good conditions in the city (snow-cleared roads and walkways and handouts from people) have delayed shedding. Also, since my last post, it has snowed quite a bit more here in northwestern Ontario. Looks like another hard winter as far as the deer are concerned. I will continue to post updates as the winter progresses.

The following is an article I recently had published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. This is the unedited version, with bonus photos!

Antlers fascinate hunters and have since time immemorial.  Antlers of huge stags have adorned the walls of medieval castles and European hunting lodges for centuries.

Antlers are commonly called racks. They can also be called bones, crowns and some call them horns. But horns and antlers are not the same.

According to the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, the evolution of antlers can be traced back about 40 million years.  They’ve been different from horns for a long time.

Today, antlers are found only on deer. There are many kinds of deer all around the world; all are in the family Cervidae. There are fallow deer, axis deer, a group of deer called the muntjacs and others.

Here in Ontario, there are four species of deer; the white-tailed deer, moose, elk and caribou. All are native, although elk were extirpated in the 1800s, and have been re-introduced. Like deer everywhere, all Ontario deer species grow antlers.

Over the centuries, humans have done a lot of introductions of deer to areas where they never existed. People tend to like deer – it helps that they taste good and can be trophies to hunters – and so as people moved around the world, they brought with them their favourite deer.

Antlers are grown – and shed – on an annual basis.  Unlike antlers, horns are permanent structures that aren’t shed, ever.

Horns occur in a large group of animals. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and forms. Typically, horns don’t show any branching. Its common that both males and females grow horns.

Sheep, goats, antelope, bison and domestic cattle, collectively known as Bovoids, all have horns.

Other groups of animals, like rhinos and giraffes, also grow horns.

Antlers are most commonly found only on males; with some exceptions (caribou females sometimes grow antlers).

During the growth phase, antlers are one of the fastest growing cellular structures in the animal kingdom.  New growth can often be seen on a daily basis.

Antlers grow from knobby protuberances on the skull called pedicles. Normally, there are two pedicles, one on each side of the head.

Growing antlers are covered in a skin covering called velvet, which is extremely sensitive. On moose and caribou, there can be vivid stripes of colour in the velvet, called ‘marbling’. In velvet, antlers are warm to the touch, as they are highly vascularized (full of blood vessels) and, if damaged, can bleed profusely.

The end of the antler growing period is a time of mineralizing and hardening of the spongy antler. Once the velvet is gone, what’s left is hardened antler made of bone.

In Ontario, all deer species begin to grow their antlers in late spring. By late August and into September, the velvet is shed. It falls off quickly, usually aided by thrashing trees and shrubs. Velvet is nutritious; I once watched a moose swing its head to catch dangling strips of velvet to eat. Antlers are shed sometime during the winter or into spring.

In general, healthy, mature male deer have the largest antlers.

Antlers are often described as palmated – think moose – or cervicorn, as found on elk, whitetails and caribou. Cervicorn antlers have an obvious main beam with points.

One of the largest racks ever was found on the extinct Irish elk, an animal that ranged across Eurasia. It was about 2.1 metres (6.9 ft) tall at the shoulders, a little bit taller than a big bull moose.

It had a spectacular rack. Some Irish elk had crowns measuring over 3.6 m (12 ft) from tip to tip that weighed up to 40 kg (88 lb).  The species went extinct less than 8,000 years ago, coincident with a die-off of many deer species, including a number of moose ancestors, some of which had racks that were more than 8 feet across. No moose today have a rack like that.

Climate change is thought to have been a major factor in this multi deer species die-off.

The moose, elk and caribou that roam parts of Ontario today might not have the massive bones of bygone deer, but deer racks today can be pretty darn impressive.

An Ontario moose can grow wide, palmated racks with a spread of over 4’ and weighing more than 40 lbs. The main beam of home-grown elk and caribou antlers can exceed 4’ with many long, sprouting points. Big buck white-tails, with antlers that look like a tree, occur across much of the southern half of the province.

Hunters generally classify deer antlers as ‘Typical’ or ‘Non-Typical’, also called ‘Atypical’.

Each deer species have antler characteristics that are unique. One characteristic of all typical antlers, regardless of the species, is the similarity of the right and left antler – they are virtual mirror images of one another.

Non-typical antlers usually remain paired, and can appear to be mirror images, but they have points that differ substantially from those of a typical with respect to number and placement on the main beam.

Very large non-typicals can be quite bizarre, with lots of points, bumps, burrs and great mass.

Many antlers are ‘in-between’, in that they are mostly typical but have one or more non-typical points.

Older animals tend to have bigger antlers than younger ones and also are more likely to be a non-typical. Very old animals commonly sport antlers that are substantially smaller than the antlers it had during its prime. Genetics, habitat quality and other factors, including weather and injuries, can influence antler growth.

For deer, antlers have a number of uses, notably impressing females and intimidating males during the rut. They can be formidable weapons during fights with rivals or when confronted by predators.

Like most hunters, I like deer antlers; all species, all shapes and all sizes.

Sidebar

Interestingly, pronghorn antelope, an animal restricted to the western plains of North America, have unique horns that, is some respects, are antler-like. It has permanent horns covered with a sheath that not only has a branch, but it’s shed on an annual basis. African antelope, animals like kudu, gemsbok and impala, don’t shed the sheath of their horns and their horns don’t have branches.

When a pronghorn sheds its sheath, very obvious, visible horns remain on the head.

giraffe-72

When antlers are shed, all that remains are short, flattened protuberances called pedicles.

Those flattened horns on these Giraffe look sort of like a pedicle to me.