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A short while ago I had a call from Sarah Frankcom, a Biology student at Carleton University in Ottawa (my old Alma Mater). She had an assignment and wanted to talk about moose, mostly with respect to the area north of Kenora, in the vicinity of Grassy Narrows. Part of the assignment, or project, was to produce a Podcast.

So here it is.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of media interviews and given numerous presentation to various groups, so I was reasonably well-prepared for this. However, in listening to the tape, there’s a lot more that could be said.

But it is what it is.

I hope you find it at least somewhat informative

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Uv7NMwF97imtqGq_LgXP7W2KygbA_1tp/view

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Here’s my latest column published in Ontario Out of Doors magazine. Title and post was the submitted article, not the edited version published.

I didn’t hunt with my Winchester .300 WSM this fall as I had no moose tag and didn’t head out west, where the long-distance shooting for big-bodied deer is ideal for a magnum. Instead, I hunted with my Winchester Model 70 in .280 Remington. One shot was all I took.

Magnum cartridges are simply big cartridges with more powder than ‘normal’. Bullets are often the same as used with regular brass. Hunters like magnums for their extra ‘knock-down, killing’ power. Short magnums have similar power to their standard magnum counterpart, but in a larger diameter, shorter cartridge.

Short magnum rifle rounds are fired in short action rifles specific to the caliber.  A short-action rifle has a shorter receiver and about a half-inch less of bolt travel compared to its long-action sibling.

Development

As far as I can tell, the first commercial short magnum was introduced in 1965; the .350 Remington Magnum.  It was based on a 2.5 inch, 7mm belted Remington Magnum case, shortened to 2.171 inches and necked up to .358 caliber. In 1966 Remington introduced the 6.5mm Remington Magnum. Both were designed to work through the .308 Winchester action. Neither saw much success.

Most credit the current crop of short magnums to benchrest competition shooters in the 1970’s. Benchrest shooters tend to be experimenters, are often gunsmiths, typically use custom-made rifles and handload their ammunition. They discovered that if you necked down a M43 Russian military case to either .224 or 6mm, gave the shoulder a sharp 300 of angle, outstanding accuracy, with little loss of velocity, could be achieved.

They found a short, fat case – shortfat – gave improved accuracy because powder burnt more uniformly, which improved charge consistency.

Even so, new short, fat, magnum cartridges, did not show up until 1997, when the 7.82 Lazzeroni Patriot was introduced by the Lazzeroni Arms Company – known for their long range hunting rifles and high speed cartridges. Winchester (the U.S. Repeating Arms Co.) followed suit, producing the WSM (Winchester Short Magnum) line, starting with the .300 WSM. Remington trailed with their version, the ‘Short Action Ultra Mag’ (SAUM).

A few years later, Winchester came up with a family of small cartridges called the super-short magnums (WSSM).

All WSMs, WSSMs and SAUMs are non-belted cartridges.

Pros and Cons of Short Mags

The weight-saving of a short mag rifle compared to the long mag version is a definite plus for many hunters, myself included. A short mag rifle can weigh at least a quarter-pound less, which is a significant and tangible benefit when hunting in rugged terrain, or whenever you need to walk and tote guns and gear long distances. 

Some claim rifles with a short action are faster to reload – on a bolt-action, one might save a couple of tenths of a second to eject a shot shell and reload a fresh round, which doesn’t sound like much and really isn’t. Still, in a hunting situation, every second – or tenth of a second – counts.

The time-saving may not be as critical as the overall shorter action. The longer the bolt throw, the greater the chance of catching clothing or debris, or simply not drawing the bolt back far enough to eject the spent shell before trying to seat another. In other words, a short action rifle should see a lesser chance of jamming.

However, short mags can and do jam. Many attribute short mag jamming problems to having a case diameter larger than the rim, which means the face of the bolt has only a small amount of overlap with the rim of the case, so grip isn’t as good as it could be. When coupled with the sharp shoulder and a rush to reload, jams can occur. 

But no firearm is immune to jamming.

Short mags ballistics are equal, or slightly better, than their regular magnum counterparts. But there are fewer choices in terms of bullets and cartridges and overall, less availability.  Most short mag ammunition seems to be premium quality, which is good, but expensive. Expect to pay top dollar for short mag ammo.

Short mags use about 10% less powder than a regular mag. Coupled with the powder burning characteristics the end result is less – some say more pleasant – recoil. However, being magnums, recoil is still substantial.

Are short mags, like their predecessor the shortfats, noted for great accuracy? Indeed, they are inherently accurate; but today, all premium store bought ammunition, regardless of caliber, can provide outstanding, precision shooting.

I don’t reload but friends and acquaintances who do say there are no issues with short magnums. I’ve shot their short mag reloads without incident.

My hunting partner Deryk calls my .300 WSM the ‘fattie’ because of the shell shape. In some rifles this means less magazine carrying capacity.  Along with the theoretical increased probability of a jam in a panicky situation, short magnum rifles are generally not recommended when hunting dangerous game. They are well-suited for deer, moose, elk and black bear as well as African plains game.

The ‘knock-down, killing power’ of a magnum may not always be an advantage. In some typical Ontario hunting situations, magnums, including short mags, can actually be disadvantageous.

When hunting is done at close quarters, high velocity loads (a magnum!) can whistle through an animal without expanding, especially if large muscle mass or bone isn’t hit. I’ve had this happen twice with whitetails I’ve shot with my .300 WSM. One ran more than 300 m before bleeding out. That’s a lot of unnecessary and extra dragging to do.

No firearm or cartridge can do everything. But for many, a short magnum is a very fine firearm to have and use. I like mine, a lot.

The deer I harvested this year. Not with a magnum!

harvest-3

 

The column I submitted, which was edited and published in the 2020 Ontario Out of Doors Hunting Annual. As usual, this is the unedited version – except I noticed in reading the mag column I had the directions of deer movement into northwestern Ontario opposite of what it should have been (east vs west) I fixed that here. The other difference is the editor added ‘Coues Deer’ to my mention of the Key Deer that Canadian snowbirds might be familiar with. I don’t know how many Arizona snowbirds are familiar with the Coues Deer, but maybe they are.

Anyway, the deer season here opens on Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, which is next weekend.

Deer numbers are WAY WAY down from a few years back, and there are not a lot of big bucks around, let alone deer period.

But, I’m optimistic I’ll see at least a few. Probably. Hopefully . . .

At any rate, here’s the column.

I have captions for these photos, but I have no idea how you can see them!!! Before WordPress changed their format, the caption was visible simply by moving your cursor on the photo. Now, that doesn’t work. The captions are ‘lost’ . . .

However, if you click on the photos, I’ve provided captions in the ‘comments’ section. That was the only way I could figure out how to do it.

In recent years, many of us have read and heard a lot about the ‘Algonquin Wolf’, ‘Non-migratory, Forest Dwelling Woodland Caribou’ and other animals that some think are unique species, sub-species or ecotypes. However, when it comes to the White-tailed Deer, most assume all whitetails are the same, except, perhaps, for the diminutive Key Deer of Florida, familiar to many Canadian snowbirds. But for most, a whitetail is a whitetail, no matter where it’s found.

And, maybe, that’s true. As I’ve written before, in the world of taxonomy, there are lumpers and there are splitters. Lumpers tend to view species with often quite different physiological, biochemical and behavioral differences – like the white-tailed deer – as ‘plastic’, characteristics which enable it to survive and thrive in a wide ranging set of environmental conditions. But wherever they are and whatever the differences, they’re first and foremost a White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Splitters put greater emphasis on differences and identify groups with unique sets of characteristics as sub-species, ecotypes or simply populations. In general, many believe sub-species are new species ‘in the making’.

At any rate, most biologists agree with the concept of sub-species even if they argue amongst themselves what is and isn’t one. To that end, it’s generally acknowledged that “no less than 30 sub-species [of White-tailed Deer] are recognized in North and Central America”.

Ontario is home to two of these sub-species. In most of the province, the deer people are familiar with is the Northern Woodland Whitetail (O.v. borealis). However, along a thin strip of northwestern Ontario, adjacent to the Manitoba border – in the Kenora and Fort Frances areas – the sub-species is believed to be the Dakota Whitetail (O.v. dakotensis). This is also the sub-species of the Canadian prairies and the northern plains of the USA.

The Dakota deer was first observed and scientifically described in 1856 in – no surprise – North Dakota.  Dakota deer are renowned for their massive body size and huge antlers. The current Boone & Crockett world-record typical whitetail – taken by Milo Hansen in Saskatchewan – was a Dakota deer. Of particular interest to Ontarians are the top two B&C non-typical Ontario deer – both came from that strip of northwestern Ontario said to be the home of the Dakota whitetail.

When I first moved to Kenora as the District Wildlife Biologist for what was then the MNR, there was much talk in town as well as the office about ‘mule deer’. Mule deer were invariably monster bucks with racks so much bigger than ‘normal’ deer that they had to be mule deer, because, ‘as everyone knew’ mule deer were much bigger than whitetails.  Since then, over many years, I’ve examined untold dozens of deer from northwestern Ontario – bucks, big and small, young and old and none were mule deer. But some were definitely gigantic. And that goes for both antlers and body size.

Many of these brutes had racks of great mass that were often unusually craggy and adorned with multiple tines of all shapes and sizes.

It’s not unusual for bucks 4 ½ years old and older from the Kenora and Fort Frances areas to field dress out at 220 plus pounds. My biggest bodied buck – a 10 + year old Methuselah – weighed a hefty 260 pounds field dressed. To do a shoulder mount, the taxidermist had to use the form from an elk.

Behavioral differences in sub-species are often documented. As I wrote in a recent column, deer in the northwest gave wildlife officials headaches for years when it came to policies regarding deer yard management, because deer there don’t ‘yard’ like they do in the rest of the province. Of particular interest is that even in areas where they do congregate, they seldom hole up in cedar swamps.

Another characteristic of the Dakota whitetail is a coat that is lighter in colour than other sub-species.

While there is little doubt that there are subtle differences between deer in the extreme northwest as compared to the rest of the province – and elsewhere – do these differences warrant sub-species classification?

Some of the difficulties with answering this question lie with changes that have happened in the years since most of these deer sub-species were initially identified and described.

For one, deer, like many North American game species, were greatly reduced in numbers during the carnage that occurred after Europeans began to colonize the continent and up until modern game laws began to be implemented in the early 1900’s.

In many areas, deer were virtually wiped-out, so one solution was to trap, transport and translocate deer from areas of abundance to areas where they were scarce or gone. Not much attention was paid to which sub-species was being moved where, so there was a considerable mixing of gene pools.

In addition, habitat alterations have occurred on a massive scale and continue to this day. Deer often have been able to take advantage of those habitat changes and so the range and distribution of deer – everywhere – has been affected. Deer are thought to have been absent from all of northwestern Ontario prior to the very late 1800’s.

Did Dakota deer expand east into Ontario and the Northern Woodland deer expand west? There is no ‘gap’ in the range distribution between the two sub-species. 

Regardless of the sub-species, the White-tailed Deer is not only a challenge to hunt – they’re a challenge to study.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.