For a lot of us in northern Ontario, December 15 is the end of the hunting season. Sure, there’s wolves, varmints and hare that can still be hunted, and even ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and ptarmigan that can be taken in many areas, but over much of the north, the open season for deer and moose ends 1/2 hour after sunset on December 15. That’s it.
For a long time, December 15 was also the last day of the grouse and ptarmigan season, but a few years ago the season was extended to Dec 31st in a number of Wildlife Management Units (WMU’s) to provide ‘additional hunting opportunities’. I don’t know how many opportunities have actually been provided (no one is counting) but I suspect it’s not many. There’s not a lot of grouse to be seen once it gets cold and snowy. Probably the best way to hunt ruffies and spruce grouse late in the season is to spot them when they’re budding in birch, aspen or willow at dawn and dusk, but those birds are potted on a very opportunistic basis – maybe that’s the kind of opportunity managers had in mind when the season was extended.
As far as sharp-tailed grouse are concerned, they aren’t too common and most hunters seldom see them at any time. Ptarmigan are even rarer – I’ve lived in northern Ontario my whole life and have put on hundreds of thousands of kilometers walking, driving and flying across itt and I’ve never ever seen a single ptarmigan. But, in the WMU I reside in, as well as most of the ones adjacent to it, I can hunt ptarmigan from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31. I have that opportunity.
Anyway, I’m no longer in hunt mode.
The 2014 fall hunt was good. Every hunting season is good, even those years when hunting itself wasn’t great. I wound up with a few ruffed grouse, a lone duck and from my Alberta hunt some pheasants, sharp-tails and huns. Neither Lil or I had an adult moose tag so the end result was I didn’t hunt moose at all. The deer hunt was tough but on Dec. 2nd I shot a nine pointer. It wasn’t Mr. Big, but I’m happy I got one. He’ll be tasty.
The big take-away for me this season is how common and widespread baiting has become for deer. I’m not a big fan of deer baiting; for one, sitting over a bait pail is just not my idea of a deer hunt. But that’s just personal preference. There’s no doubt it works, and it’s a relatively easy hunt.
Baiting, however, might be increasing predation rates. Wherever I saw a bait pile (mostly alfalfa bales), I saw two things: lots of deer tracks and trails, and a lot of wolf tracks. Wolves aren’t stupid, so you can be assured that they’ll find out wherever deer are concentrating and proceed to chow down on the available venison.
The other concern I have with baiting is the danger of deer dying from their dietary change. There is little to no alfalfa in the forest environment and deer who become addicted to these alfalfa bales risk getting rumenitis. That’s what can happen as a result of inadequate microbial adaptation in the gut. They might eat a lot of alfalfa, but if they can’t digest it properly, death is often the result. I’ve heard of one death already. Concentrating deer at bait piles also increases the risk of disease and parasite transmission among the deer themselves.
At any rate, in this area, a number of deer were taken over bait this year. It might even have been how most of the deer were harvested.
Not all jurisdictions allow deer baiting (Manitoba doesn’t). Looking at other species, hunters can generally bait for bear (although in some jurisdictions types of baits are regulated and sometimes only scents are allowed) and in many (most?) areas baiting waterfowl isn’t allowed. I don’t know of anyone who baits for moose, but I’m sure it’s been tried. It’s funny how inconsistent wildlife management principles can be.
I suspect the deer hunt will be tough again next year. Deer numbers were down noticeably, and everyone I’ve spoken to says the same. Buddies of mine in eastern Ontario didn’t see a single deer at their hunt camp this year. The harvest was down considerably in Manitoba (early indications were it was down about 50%), and I heard the hunt was tougher in much of the mid-west US.
Even if this winter is mild in my neck of the woods, there are a lot of wolves around, and they’ll be catching and eating whatever they can (even where there aren’t any left-over bait piles). With any luck, this will be the last year of high wolf numbers, which might then let deer numbers start to re-build. But we’re talking several years before there’s likely to be a noticeable improvement in numbers.
The moose situation is even more dire. There are simply none to be found across vast swaths of landscape. There are still some WMU’s with healthy moose populations, but in others they’re right now about as common as Sasquatch.
So the hunt is a wrap. Time to start hunting for Christmas presents.