Inside the Outdoors: Crystal ball looks favorable for firearms deer hunters
When I was growing up it was a common sight in the neighborhood to see "the wash" hung out to dry on a "clothesline" — a once-common backyard fixture that is all but an artifact today. It was only after I had moved away from home that mom got a clothes dryer, so that she didn't have to wait for a rain-free day or hang her clothes to dry in the basement.
I was reminded of the clothesline ritual over the past week, seeing a number of orange garments hanging outdoors. They were not pinned to clotheslines, but draped over fences, hung from the backs of lawn chairs, or suspended in other creative ways to catch the air currents, and flutter flag-like in the breeze. These sightings were not a sign that clothes dryers in the neighborhood are awaiting visits from the Maytag repair man. They were a sign of the approach of firearms deer season. The purpose of the practice is to cleanse the garments of scent that could alarm a deer when a Judas-like breeze might push the essence of man to a whitetail's nostrils.
I'm not a whitetail expert, so I hesitate to weigh-in on the merits of the practice. A human will always smell like a human. But if hanging hunting clothes in the open air can dilute the many domestic odors that garments can acquire from being stored indoors, then where's the harm in taking that precaution? Of course, there are masking scents hunters buy in hopes that they will overpower an alarming scent, or even prove alluring to a deer; think "doe in heat." But at the end of the day, the most effective precaution is to be downwind of where you most expect deer to be.
With reasonable preparation and whitetail savvy, Minnesota deer hunters are expected to do well during the firearms portion of the season that begins Saturday November 4th. Several mild winters in a row have led to an upward bump in the statewide deer population, although like so many things it is a matter if average, not a uniform change from border to border. Reports of does with twin fawns this past spring were said to be more common, this "twinning" being an indicator of good doe health and condition.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) notes that most parts of the state are at, or above, its targets for whitetail abundance. Prior to the arrival of significant snow in the northern third of the state, predictions were that the state's roughly half-million deer hunters could harvest roughly 200,000 deer, a success rate that would be about 40 percent.
It's not yet clear whether the early deep snow, 10 inches and more having fallen in some areas of northern Minnesota, will significantly affect deer hunter success. Hunter mobility and deer movements can certainly be affected by snowfall. The forecast for this week leading up to the deer opener is not for what could be called melting temperatures. Time will tell.
More liberal regulations for this season include more antlerless permits, which will allow more hunters to harvest a doe or an immature buck. Last year Minnesota hunters harvested roughly 173,000 deer. The record whitetail harvest was 290,000 in 2003.
While there is some sentiment that 2016's hunter success rate of just over 30 percent should be higher, many of today's deer hunters don't remember the early 1970's — many were not even born — when deer numbers were extremely low. I clearly recall 1971, when my high school hunting buddies and I faced a closed deer season. Other seasons were as short as two days. It was in 1972 that the state went to a permit system in which hunters were required to choose a specific hunting area, and select specific dates. This year most parts of the state have either a nine or sixteen-day season, with a special 16-day late season muzzleloader deer hunt. Deer hunters who imagine "good old days" in the past would do well to reflect on that.
Expectations for a significant increase in whitetail harvest this season over last year is the good news. The bad news is that the Minnesota DNR finds it necessary to expand its mandatory testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD), the incurable brain-destroying disease that affects deer and elk. It is similar to mad cow disease, and in Minnesota is most associated with captive deer farms, but has been found in several wild deer in Southeast Minnesota.
Within the past year CWD has also been found on captive deer farms in Crow Wing County in North Central Minnesota and Meeker County in West Central Minnesota. Because of fears of contact and spread of the disease to wild deer outside these farms' fenced enclosures, deer hunters in those areas will be required to register their deer at official DNR stations, where technicians will take tissue samples to determine whether they have contracted CWD. During opening weekend, hunters who harvest deer in 8 permit areas in North Central Minnesota, and 6 permit areas in West Central Minnesota, must stop at one of the official checkpoints and have their deer tested.
The disease is rampant in wild deer in Wisconsin, but only within the past several years has it been found in a handful of wild deer in Southeast Minnesota. These have all been within close proximity to captive deer herds, whose stock is commonly sold to ranches in other states for paid-for trophy shooting. Such captive — some would say canned — "hunts" are not permitted in Minnesota.
One of the better-informed and more influential deer hunters in the state, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) Executive Director Craig Engwall, was recently quoted as calling CWD "the biggest threat to deer and deer hunting in North America." Many believe that the Minnesota DNR, not the State Board of Animal Health — which regulates cattle — should be the agency with jurisdiction and regulatory authority over such captive animal farms. Currently it is not.
One ominous note was sounded in a recent Canadian study that found several monkeys fed CWD-infected deer tissue contracted CWD. Even though there is no proof that CWD can be transmitted to humans, its similarity to another disease has prompted the federal Centers for Disease Control to recommend that hunters avoid eating meat from animals that test positive for CWD. Voluntary testing (not the DNR's free, mandatory testing in the above-described monitoring areas) can be done by the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and costs $35, with results generally available within two weeks. The DNR's deer hunting regulations booklet describes the process, and its web site has a video that shows how a hunter can remove a deer's lymph nodes for testing.
On a lighter, final note: if you're tired of blaze orange hunting apparel, and want to stand out in a crowd or make a fashion statement, blaze pink has been newly approved for Minnesota deer hunters this fall! (Good luck!)