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The hunting season, for white-tailed deer and grouse, in my area ended ½ hr after sunset yesterday (correction:grouse season is still open; it now closes at the end of December. But I have never hunted past Dec 15, which is when the season used to close.)

It was a rather uneventful day. I didn’t go hunting and hadn’t been for several days. For the second straight year I didn’t harvest a deer. I did have opportunities; more than last year. I saw at least 4 different bucks. Yearling bucks were the youngest and smallest; the other bucks were at least 2 ½ years old and the largest one might have been 3 ½.

I took a number of ruffed grouse and a few spruce grouse this autumn (plus some pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Alberta). I hunted with my dog Neva here and in Alberta, and a bit with Lil and our other dog, Dory (near home). Dory’s front legs have never worked properly so she’s had that handicap all her life. But Neva seems to have brought her joy and Dory now enjoys being able to hunt with us, even if it’s only for a very short time during an outing.

The moose hunt also ended, but my moose hunting this year was restricted to the week I flew into the wilds of Manitoba; zippo on that hunt. I did have a tag for moose hunting in Ontario, but I wasn’t interested in hunting a calf because I don’t believe in calf hunting (not like it’s being done in Ontario); and, I didn’t have an adult tag on my moose license – nor did any of my normal hunting buddies.

The highlight of my hunting season was in early September. Saw a magnificent bull elk on a misty morning. There is no licenced hunt for elk in Northwestern Ontario, but someday there might be. Elk were re-introduced in this area in 2000 and although there have been some setbacks, there are a few herds around that seem to be doing OK. There’s been some encouraging reports of late, so ‘fingers crossed’.

The last few days of the hunting season have been cold and windy; into the minus twenties in Celsius – ‘silly arses’ – degrees. Too cold for me to want to go hunting.

There were not a lot of deer around anyway; most days when I went hunting I didn’t see a single deer. But tracks and dropping and rubs and scrapes showed there were deer scattered about and twice we saw deer along the highway driving to our hunt spot, or coming home after the hunt was done.

I saw almost as much wolf sign as deer sign. Everywhere I went there were fresh wolf tracks. On a few occasions we could hear them howling, sometimes quite close by. On a hill my buddy Deryk and I have hunted for years, there was very little deer sign (none on the hill itself) but we counted at least a dozen piles of wolf crap. More than once we saw wolves.

When it gets cold and snow covers the ground, the ruffed grouse just seem to disappear. I hadn’t been shooting any lately, not just because it’s been cold, but more important, many places now convenient to hunt might be areas where trappers are working; some trap sets could easily be tripped by an inquisitive dog and that would be the end of that. We had been letting Neva hunt grouse on many of our almost daily walks on our property; I just hadn’t been trying to shoot them. I like seeing the grouse and if they stick around, we can continue to ‘hunt’ them all winter, or at least on some nice days when there a few birds out and about.

Now that deer and bird hunting is over, I think it might be time to hunt wolves and get ready to do some ice fishing.

Maybe combine the two.

And maybe dream of an elk hunt.

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rooster-1

I just returned from my almost annual bird hunt in Alberta. I say almost because some years I don’t do a bird hunt there if I’ve been drawn for a big game hunt (mule deer, antelope or elk). No big game tags this year, but that’s OK, as I really enjoy the bird hunt.

Bird numbers were up from previous years. Not as good as the best years I recall, but still pretty good. We didn’t have trouble finding pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse or Hungarian (gray) partridge and we managed to bag a number of each. It had been an excellent growing year  for crops and so, it seemed, for wildlife. If this winter isn’t too harsh and next spring and summer are again favourable, birds could be phenomenal. But that’s a big if; a lot can happen in a year, especially in the Palliser Triangle, Canada’s version of a desert (which is where the area we hunt is located).

Things started out well as I managed a double on roosters the first afternoon, hunting with my dog Neva. Neva is only 2 years old, so is still learning, but I was very, very happy with her performance this year. She (mostly) listens well to commands and absolutely loves to hunt, and goes all-out all the time. She’s a real joy to watch.

Michael’s two black labs (Colby and Niska) were also excellent performers. Dogs really make a difference and add a whole other (positive!) dimension to the hunt.

But that was as good as it got. The rest of the week I managed a bird here and a bird there; no more doubles, although the opportunities did present themselves. Obviously, I need to do more shooting . . .  I did get my limit of pheasants again on the last day (2 per day; roosters only).

One of the best things for me is the fact all the birds in the area we hunt are wild birds. No ‘put and take’, or daily stocking, which is done in many places, even in Alberta. In Ontario, my home province, there are virtually no wild pheasants anymore, although such birds were plentiful just a couple of decades ago. Pheasants in Ontario are another example and tale of incompetent wildlife management, as well as runaway industrial farming and urbanization.

Where we hunt in Alberta, the pheasants are closely associated with river bottoms. Get up on the high, dry, short grass prairie and they’re just not there. I think that’s a good thing, though, as it minimizes the competition with sharpies, which, unlike the pheasants and the huns, are native birds.

The sharpies are really doing well in ‘our’ hunt area. The mixture of grain fields, short grass prairie, coulees filled with shrubs and the occasional abandoned homestead seems to be providing them with ideal habitat conditions. It isn’t unusual to see flocks with several dozens birds; usually they flush well out of shotgun range, so it’s a real treat to be able to down a few.

Huns are generally better eating than sharptails, which can be quite strong; pheasants are always good-tasting. I find huns even harder to hit than sharptails, as they usually flush simultaneously, often just on the edge of shotgun range and it can be hard to get a bead on a single bird. There’s always a tendency to flock shoot and that’s never a good idea.

We had been hoping to get in some waterfowling, but the geese we saw weren’t stopping to feed on the local fields. The corn fields had been harvested so cleanly I had a hard time finding left-behind cobs. Geese go where the food is; same goes for ducks.

One thing I’ve noticed both here in Ontario and on the prairies, is that the number of swans (both trumpeters and whistlers) seem to be steadily on the increase. Thirty years ago, I seldom saw a swan; now they are a common sight. I suspect that over the next few years there will be more and more opportunities to hunt swans.

For me, now that I’ve unpacked, it’s time to get serious about whitetails. Unfortunately, there are not a lot around. Big bucks are really scarce.

But, you never know. Just need to stay optimistic, which isn’t always easy for me.

 

 

 

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Seeing as the wolves were continuing to visit our house almost daily, making it impossible to let the dogs out for even a minute without close supervision, we decided it was time to do something to ease the tension.

It was time to do a wolf hunt.

So we went out on the pond in front of the house and froze some bait into the ice, including a moose foot, a deer hide and some marten carcasses.

The next morning, the moose foot was gone as were several of the marten carcasses. The night had been mild, and the moose foot and a few of the marten didn’t have a chance to freeze solidly into the ice before the wolves scarfed them up. But the deer hide was still there, as were some of the marten.

I decided to keep a close eye out and by late afternoon that same day I had made sure not to venture outside for a couple of hours, had kept the noise level in the house low and hadn’t turned on any lights. Around 4:30 pm, I got up off the couch, and looked out on the pond.

Two wolves, tugging at the deer hide.

It took a couple of minutes to get everything organized and to sneak out on the deck. I took aim at the largest wolf and shot. I could tell I hit it, but didn’t wait around to see if it would fall over. Instead I quickly racked in another round and shot again. With the second shot, the wolf went down instantly, for good. The other one ran off to the right – it was safe, as I had only one wolf tag.

The one I shot was a big male timber wolf, over 7 feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, and my brother-in-law, to whom I gave it (he’s a trapper), estimated it to be over 100 pounds. It had a bit of mange under the armpits and some wear between it’s shoulders, but  otherwise the fur was reasonably good. We didn’t see any ticks, or any evidence of injuries. The colour was typical gray.

There were wolf tracks on the pond and in the field in the days that followed, but nothing now for a couple of days. Perhaps the other was trying to figure out what happened to it’s mate, or partner. I’m hoping this event has made it and the other wolves in the neighborhood more wary of our house, as in it’s not a safe place to hang out.

Eight deer did show up the other morning, more than I’d seen all year. I’m sure it was my imagination, but they seemed relaxed and happy.

As I have said before, I  like wolves, but I don’t like it when they start to be too brazen. And I love my dogs. A few people I know have been out walking their dogs and had a wolf attack their pet. Several more simply ‘lost’ their dog during the night. I do not want to have that happen to us.

I will buy another wolf tag for 2016. For the rest of 2015, the wolves are safe – at least from me.

yardbuck-1

Now that the freezer is full of moose, there’s little to no pressure on me to harvest a deer. So I haven’t, and likely won’t. But I enjoy the hunt, so have been out quite a bit.

I haven’t been seeing a lot. The last few years have been hard on the regional deer population; hard winters, lots of wolves and lots of hunting pressure. Plus there’s little logging going on anymore, so the quality and quantity of deer habitat is rapidly declining. When all those factors are combined, I would estimate they’ve resulted in ‘our’ deer herd being reduced at least 80% from what it was 7-8 years ago. That’s a big reduction.

And it shows in terms of what I’ve been seeing. Back in the glory years, I’d see on average 5-10 deer every day I spent in the field. This year, most days I haven’t seen any deer at all. I have seen some, but only one buck, the one in the photo. A nice buck for sure, but certainly not a monster. I suspect it’s a 3 1/2 year old. I let him walk, as I have with the does and fawns I’ve seen.

It’s been a strange rut, based on my personal observations as well as what my hunting friends and acquaintances are telling me. Except in the city, where deer are still relatively numerous, there’s little sign of bucks chasing does. Maybe it has something to do with the weather, as it’s been unusually mild. Years ago, most of the ponds and smaller lakes were frozen by the middle of November, and there was almost always at least a few inches of snow on the ground.  Nothing is frozen as yet, and it’s raining today – although snow is predicted later this week.

My friend Deryk thinks deer numbers are just so low that the usual frenzy of the deer rut just isn’t apparent. There are deer rubs and scrapes, but in many areas nothing that would get a big buck hunter too excited.

Then there are the wolves. I had cut the antlers off the moose head, leaving the head in the driveway to be hauled away later. Well, that night, when Lil let the dogs out, all hell broke loose. Dory started going apoplectic and ran down the hill barking her head off (Neva was also barking her face off, but she was tied up. Dory is crippled, and seldom strays more than a few meters from the deck, so usually she doesn’t get tied up). Lil managed to catch up to Dory, grabbing her by the tail before she disappeared into the darkness down the road.

The next day, it was apparent it was wolves that caused the dogs to go off. There was the moose head, dragged down the driveway, but abandoned no more than 8 meters from the basement door, which is where they must have been when Lil opened the main door on the back deck to let the dogs out.

Later that night the wolves were back, howling away around our house, with one of them no more than a couple of hundred meters distant. They howled off and on for hours, still at it by noon the following day.

I wonder if the white wolf we saw earlier was one of the howlers and part of the pack that tried to run off with the moose head. Probably.

Needless to say, the deer made themselves scarce, and vanished from our property to parts unknown. They have yet to return.

At the end of the day, I think the rut has yet to get into full swing. The next full moon is near the end of the month, and coupled with cooler weather, will, I think, change deer behaviour and trigger the rutting frenzy usually associated with our local white-tails.

I guess we’ll see.

BTW, I took this photo when it was almost dark, shooting with the ISO cranked up to 16,000! In RAW format and a Bit depth of 14. Modern photography equipment is awesome.

moose-2

Moose season, when firearms can be used, opened on Saturday, October 10. Lil and I had set up camp the day before and proceeded to hunt daily from Saturday through to the following Friday. October 10 is on the late side of when the season opens (for years now the season has opened on the Saturday closest to October 8, meaning it can open as early as Oct. 5, or as late as Oct. 11. The earlier it opens, the better the chance of getting in on the tail end on the rut, which means it’s possible to call a bull in.

That is how moose managers planned it – let hunters occasionally have the opportunity to hunt moose during the tail-end of the rut, when they’re susceptible to being lured in by a call. Even so, most of the cows will have been bred, and the moose that do respond to the call near the end of the rut are young bulls, who often don’t get a chance to breed because they can’t compete against more mature bulls. To further help in the management of the moose herd, the number of adult validation tags for adult moose are limited.

Starting next year, the season opener is going to be delayed by a week, so for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be next to impossible for gun hunters to call in amorous bulls. Archers are still going to be able to hunt the rut. I don’t like the rule changes, but it is what it is (see my previous posts on changes to the way moose are going to be managed in Ontario).

So this was the last chance to get in on at least having a chance to call in a bull, and we gave it a good go.

Nothing.

A lot of sign from a week or two earlier , when the rut was on, but it was obvious the rut had ended at least a few days before the season opened. And as often happens immediately following the rut, the moose were laying low. It didn’t help that it was hot and humid with a big hatch of black-flies and mosquitoes. We hunted hard, but I didn’t see or hear a thing. Lil actually saw one late one evening; it ran across the road close to our RV but it was late and she didn’t get a good look at it. Seeing it go into heavy conifer cover, there was little we could do to roust it out.

Following the week of moose hunting, I went bird hunting in Alberta. Managed to bag a few pheasants and sharptails, and young Neva performed admirably. But on the last day of the hunt, she got tangled up with a porcupine. That wasn’t much fun for anyone. Luckily I was hunting with Michael, who was a great help in the field in the pulling out of a couple of hundred quills from Neva’s face, nose, lips, mouth, tongue and throat. Ten days later, quills are still poking out on various parts of her face.

Back in Ontario, Lil and I decided to give the moose another go (the season stays open until December 15, but deep snow and cold can make late season hunting totally miserable).

On Wednesday, Oct. 28, we hunted half the day in a light rain.

Nothing. Very little fresh sign.

Friday, Oct. 30, we tried again. Conditions were good; damp, but no rain, a light breeze, temperature just above freezing.

Almost immediately we came across fresh sign. Lil and I split up and the further from the road I went, the more moose sign there was. Mostly fresh browsing on willow and red-osier dogwood. The area was logged more than 10 years ago, and has regenerated into ideal moose pasture. That’s both good and ‘bad’. Good because there is lots for moose to feed on; bad because there is so much feed the moose can be anywhere, and it’s also so thick that one can only hunt by walking trails, or calling, when calls work . . . .

At one point I heard our dogs Neva and Dory (which we left in the truck) barking furiously, and I thought they must have seen a moose, or maybe the Canada lynx we had seen there on an earlier hunt. Turned out it was a moose they saw.

Seeing there was nothing I could do about the dogs – who eventually stopped their barking – I stayed on the hunt. About a mile in I heard a noise to my left and knew immediately it was a moose feeding. It was hard to see much, as the bush in this area is a thick, twiggy nightmare. But I spotted movement, and there it was, a young bull less than 40 m distant.

So I got a moose. Lil had also seen one, but it was further back in the thick slaplings and she couldn’t make it out well enough to ID if it was a bull (our tag was for a bull), although she did hear what sounded like twigs on antlers. Shortly after she lost sight of the moose, the dogs started to bark.

It was many days of hard hunting but in the end great success, with a young and hopefully very tasty moose to fill the freezer. We are especially grateful as the tag we had was one of only 6 bull tags issued this year for the management unit in which we were hunting.

Now all I have to do is find myself a deer.

moosedog-1

One of the main reasons I eventually became a hunting dog owner was to ensure I’d maximize my chances of finding downed and wounded game. Particularly, in my case, ducks. Not being able to retrieve ducks I’d knocked down just made me ill, and I vowed it was either stop duck hunting, or get a dog. I got a dog.

These days I don’t hunt ducks much; I spend more time in pursuit of upland game birds like grouse, pheasants and partridge, and of course I still hunt deer and other big game, with a passion.

My dogs are Wachtelhundes, a German breed that are, like many of the German hunting dogs, used for tracking, trailing, flushing and retrieving just about anything one wants to train them to do.

My friend Gary, who has run a hunting lodge not far from where I live, depends on his Wachtelhundes for ducks and upland birds, but also to find big game, including bears and wolves, his guests come to hunt. Gary instructs his guests not to try and chase down any game that runs-off’ after they shoot; rather, they are instructed to wait until Gary’s return and he’ll track down the animal with his dog. Almost all his hunters hunt from high stands, a practice they are very familiar with as most of his guests come from Europe, where this is the common hunting methodology used.

I haven’t used my dogs for tracking downed moose or deer I’ve shot at because, with one notable exception, every big game animal I’ve shot has pretty much dropped dead in its tracks. A few went a short distance, but were easily retrieved. The one exception was a large buck I shot and hit, but was unable to retrieve. I didn’t use my dog – Brill –  to help find it because I had never trained her to do blood tracking, and because there was not a lot of blood, I figured, in a distraught frame of mind, the dog would never find the deer. I still think about that deer, and know I made at least one big mistake by not letting the dog have a chance to track it. She had a much better nose than mine, and to think I could be a better tracker than her was plain stupidity on my part. I also believe it was a mistake not to have trained her to do blood trailing in the first place. It may not have been necessary for her, but it would have been good training for me, at the least. Even though this event occurred several years ago, it still bothers me.

And it should. Making every possible effort to retrieve wounded game should be a priority for all hunters. Striving to make as clean a kill as possible should be the top priority, but mistakes can and do happen. It’s hunting – conditions to dispatch quarry are usually something much less than perfect.

Not long ago I heard from a former colleague of mine about an organization that’s dedicated to using leashed dogs trained specifically to track down wounded big game. They call themselves the Big Game Blood Trackers [Ontario] (BGBTO) and they’re having an introductory seminar and field workshop in the Peterborough area of Ontario (a couple of hours east of Toronto) this July (Saturday July 18 & Sunday July 19),  at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) Hunting & Fishing Heritage Centre. It’s a good place to hold this type of event.

They’ve lined up a number of knowledgeable speakers from the USA and Canada on topics such as the history of using leashed dogs in Europe and North America to track wounded game, how to select a good tracking dog (it doesn’t rely any any particular breed) and practical dog training, with a number of in-the-field examples of dogs at work.

If it was closer, I’d be attending. Too bad it’s a two day drive for me. But if you are interested, and within range, I’d strongly recommend one should at the least think about attending and registering for what promises to be an enlightening and entertaining weekend. A lunch and evening BBQ is part of the package, so it sounds like a good time. Hunters have had a long and successful relationship with dogs, and I’m thinking this is the kind of event that should help that tradition continue.

For more information or to register, check out their website at www.biggamesearchon.com, or contact Laurel at  705 277-9183;  manverspack@nexicom.net.

coyote-1

It seems northwestern Ontario is not the only place where canids are thriving. I’ve never seen as many coyotes in Alberta as I did this year. They were everywhere.

On the last day of the hunt, Neva took off chasing . . . something . . . and no amount of calling or whistling got her off whatever she was tracking. I even had an e-collar on her, but something must have been amiss because even that didn’t deter her. So when she disappeared over the horizon, I didn’t know what to do. So I waited . . . for about a half hour. Then, I thought I saw her, loping towards me. But it wasn’t her, it was a coyote. Which kept coming towards me. I figured she was being chased – hopefully by Neva – and sure enough, about 2 minutes after the coyote ran by there came Neva, hot on the coyote’s trail.

That was the end of her hunt for the day.

Coyotes (Canis latrans) out west tend to be smaller than their more eastern cousins, but apparently there is some evidence that their size is on the increase, possibly in response to growing populations of elk and moose. There is also a growing population of gray or timber wolves (Canis lupus) in the west.

Wolves and coyotes are incredibly plastic, and there is a lot of variation with respect to size and colour and behaviour. Some biologists have succeeded in having another species of wolf recognized (the eastern wolf, Canis lycaon ), but I don’t think it warrants being a stand alone species. It interbreeds with the gray wolf and their ranges overlap (naturally), which Bio 101 would suggest they be recognized as a sub-species, at best. Or maybe that nebulous ‘ecotype’, another way to be a splitter. In the forested east, large coyotes – or small wolves – are often referred to as ‘brush wolves’.

At any rate, wolves and coyotes are thriving over large swaths of North America. If you like wolves, that’s a good thing.

I like wolves (and coyotes), but I also think there can be too many of them. But that’s largely because I’m a hunter, and right now where I live there are lots of wolves, hardly any moose, and a low and rapidly dwindling deer population.

And not many coyotes, either ( a few, though). And that has nothing to do with human persecution or a lack of suitable coyote habitat. Apparently, timber wolves tend to lay a licking on coyotes. I suspect they have been doing just that.