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Saturday, December 22, 2012

New Year’s resolutions for hunters

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, December 22, 2012.)

If you’re a hunter, and if you’re the kind of person who makes New Year’s resolutions, now is a good time to think about that. So here are a few to consider:
Ten is not a magic number.  
Maybe only one or two of these ideas appeal to you.

  1. Hunt less. Yes, I said less. Why hunt less? Maybe because you have other fish to fry. (Or is the right metaphor “venison to grill”?) Lots of things can, and maybe should, take time away from your hunting.
  1. Hunt more. I actually hunted less in the last two years than in earlier years, so this is the direction I’m likely to go.
  1. Hunt smarter, not harder. I’ve done my share of hunting hard in places where I wasn’t smart to be hunting. Are you hunting turkeys where it’s convenient, but turkeys are scarce? Are you hunting deer in the same places and with the same methods you used when both deer and hunters were more plentiful? More scouting will raise the odds of filling your tag earlier in the season.
  1. Break out of your usual pattern. Resolve to hunt with a different method. If you’re a treestand hunter, maybe you should try still hunting. If you’re a rifle hunter, try bowhunting. Or, get a flintlock for the late season and see the woods and wildlife from a different perspective.
  1. Hunt new places. Maybe it’s time to get deeper into the woods or see some new scenery. Maybe it’s time to try hunting some state game lands. Maybe you should knock on more landowners’ doors or join a club.
  1. Hunt new game. Another rut to break out of is hunting the same game. Why not take up turkey hunting? Renew your interest in small game. Try waterfowl. Maybe you should put a black bear on your bucket list. The opportunities are many, and if you try hunting something new you might find out what you’ve been missing.
  1. Be a safer hunter. If you hunt from a treestand, maybe you should think more about safety. Treestands don’t last forever – is yours showing signs of wear? Are you taking unnecessary risks? Are you using all the safety equipment you should be using, and are you using it properly? Safety is worth recommitting to, for yourself and for your loved ones.
  1. Take a kid. You probably know a kid who ought to be hunting. Why not take him? Don’t feel like you’re sacrificing too much – lots of kids are scheduled up and you might get them out for only a couple of half days. That’s not too much to sacrifice – especially when fall deer, spring turkeys and summer woodchucks are all great ways to introduce a kid to hunting. (And it doesn’t have to be a boy.)
  1. Drop some weight. Has your energy and commitment to hunting been diminished by the fact that you carry around an extra 10 or 20 pounds? If you lose it, you can go farther, last longer, and come home less tired. Work on convincing yourself that it will be worth it.
  1. Snap better pictures. Something most hunters should resolve to do is to get better field photos of the game they harvest. Most hunters settle for quick snapshots that don’t preserve the memory well. While I love those old-timey pictures from days gone by, most of them weren’t very good. The number one secret to good photographs is lots of photographs, and with today’s digital cameras, you can take lots of pictures from various angles and poses at no cost. When I write big buck stories for national magazines, the hunter almost always regrets not having better photographs.
Ten is not a magic number. Maybe only one or two of these ideas appeal to you. Maybe none do. There are many more you can think about. Start using trail cameras. Practice shooting more. Keep a written journal of your hunts. Try hunting another state.

And if you’re a hunter who is thinking about joining the ranks of former hunters, it might take just one of these ideas to renew your enthusiasm. Make a resolution, aim to keep it, and see what happens.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Where Do They Go?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, December 8, 2012.)

That’s not a new question. Hunters have been asking it since long before the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s herd reduction policy reduced the deer population. I heard that question many times when I was young, when we had lots of deer. Though it was 40 years ago, I can still hear my uncle complaining, “We’ve hunted all week and have hardly seen anything since Monday.”

When humans invade their space, 
deer head for places where we don’t go.

Back then no one had ever heard the words “antler restrictions” or “herd reduction.” Spike bucks were common, they were legal targets, and most hunters would shoot them. And the doe population was high. Hunters would see 30, 40, maybe 50 deer a day – thought we had no way of knowing how many we were seeing two or three times, as they pinballed from hunter to hunter on opening day.

Then, a few days into the first week of buck season, the deer would seem to disappear. Hunters had a hard time finding them, and it had little to do with the deer being shot at. It had everything to do with a million people roaming the woods.

I’d bet that if an army of orange-suited hunters entered the woods on opening day even without rifles, deer would become scarce by Wednesday, even though none of them would have been killed by the army of unarmed nimrods.

Regardless of whether the deer population is high or low, several factors turn to the advantage of the deer after opening day.

First, deer aren’t stupid. When we humans invade their space, they head for places where we don’t go. They do that whether we’re carrying guns or not. Deer head for security cover where they know they’re safe.

Security cover might be only an acre or two in size, or it might be a hundred-acre clearcut. It’s a place where hunters don’t go or tend to avoid. It’s a place where deer don’t need to travel far for food and water. It’s a place where deer can capitalize on their defenses – they’ll smell predators coming (including hunters) and can see them without being seen.

Second, deer become almost completely nocturnal. They quickly learn that hunters leave the woods at night, and that’s when they’re free to move.

Here’s where a little biological knowledge comes into play. Deer are ruminants, meaning they have a four-chambered stomach. The first chamber is small, and fills up quickly, so deer feed about four times in each 24-hour period. In winter, they need to feed only once during daylight; the rest of their feeding can be done during darkness. If a deer can do its mid-day feeding within the security cover, a hunter has almost no chance of seeing it.

Third, the Pennsylvania rifle season comes after the rut. Bucks, for the most part, have stopped cruising for does, and are hunkering down trying to replenish the resources they used up during the chase so they can survive winter. They’ve stopped taking risks. And does are conserving energy that will need to be put into the fetus.

The disappearing act deer pull as the rifle season winds down and winter takes hold only means they have made the dramatic transition to winter survival mode. That’s why you may not find them where you found them on opening day.

For the late rifle season and winter muzzleloader and archery seasons, it will pay to learn where deer sanctuaries are. But never enter them. Also, if you see deer feeding at mid-day, their sanctuary area won’t be far away.

Find well used trails into and out of them. Set up two or three stands to along those trails. Take advantage of wind direction for early morning and late afternoon ambushes. If the deer are moving at those twilight times, you have a chance to take one.

Add a little luck to the equation and you won’t be asking, “Where do they go?”