Minnesotans are no strangers to the unpredictable. The example of unpredictability we probably cite most is the weather, and with it the oft-repeated Minnesota-ism “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes.” This is most famously attributed to Mark Twain, speaking of New England, where the weather is not so unlike ours.

For a good example of such unpredictability, one need look no farther than the weather this fall, which delivered some unwelcome surprises to those who hunt deer and waterfowl.

Seasonable weather for the general firearms deer hunting opener in early November usually means temperatures that range somewhere in the 30’s, perhaps breaking above the 40-degree mark, but with just as much probability of dipping down into the 20’s, or occasionally even the teens.

But what greeted deer hunters on this first weekend of November was temperatures that climbed into the upper 60’s—in some cases even nudging the 70 degree mark—all the way up to the Canadian border. Instead of hand warmers and portable heaters for deer stands, hunters found themselves working to keep cool, yet remain observant of the protocol of blaze orange for visibility and safety. More than a few who might normally wear an orange stocking cap were pawing through their pheasant or grouse hunting gear in search of an orange baseball cap!

Needless to say, there was no “tracking snow” for the first weekend of the firearms deer season. This is a wish-list item that many hunters hope for. Tracking, to some, implies poor shooting, a hunter-wounded animal that needs to be found and dispatched. But it’s not at all uncommon for a “dead-on-its-feet” whitetail to run 50 or 100 yards before expiring. The cover where whitetails are found—at least in much of northern Minnesota—is typically dense and brushy, and visibility can be poor. Thus the value of snow cover that is hoped for, but was nonexistent.

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Another consequence of the unpredictable, out-of-character weather on the first weekend of the general firearms deer season was legitimate concern for the quality of venison when deer are harvested under such warm conditions. When temperatures are in the 30’s, a deer can be hung for multiple days before it is butchered, and may actually be the better for it, especially if it’s an older deer. But when temperatures are high, there is much greater risk of bacterial growth and spoiled meat.

Further complicating things this year is the fact that fewer meat processors are butchering deer for hunters. Of those that are, some are reportedly requiring that hunters bring in only the front and rear quarters, not the entire carcass. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) and the restrictions on disposing of deer carcasses in Minnesota—particularly the spinal column and its potentially infected nerve tissue—is the reason behind this. With CWD a growing problem in some parts of Minnesota, and processor attitudes like this, it may behoove more hunters to acquire the know-how to butcher their own deer.

Waterfowl hunters this year experienced an unpredictability just the reverse of deer hunters. Shortly after mid-October came the cold breath of early winter, a month premature. Small ponds and larger shallow wetlands and “game lakes”—the kind that teem with wild rice and other favored duck foods—were chilled to the point of freezing by 10 days when temperatures in the north rose above freezing for mere hours each day, if at all. Some nights were down into the teens, and in some cases single digits.

When this happens, the feed that ducks depend upon is unavailable. They may still have the larger lakes where they loaf and find security, but that is not enough. Many of these birds departed for other stopover points farther south on their migratory route, where there has been no interruption in open water and availability of food.

As waterfowl biologists will tell you—and your own experience has likely shown you—despite those shallow lakes and wetlands becoming ice-free again with warming temperatures, the curtain has fallen as far as ducks go. Not totally, perhaps. Some field feeding ducks—mallards, chiefly—as well as Canada geese, are less dependent on the small wetlands. They may be around until their food supply dwindles and the larger lakes begin to freeze.

Rivers are migratory corridors of course, and there could be late-migrating ducks—like goldeneyes, buffleheads and mergansers—using them until late November. These are not the epicurean delights that mallards, wood ducks and wild rice-fed ringnecks are, but enough time in a crock pot with the right mix of spices and sauces can do wonders for them. And anyway, “palatable” is in the taste buds of the diner, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

These same biologists have pointed to a cyclical pattern in recent autumns, with earlier than normal freeze-up this year and the previous two, and several years of late freeze-ups before 2018. Why? No one really knows; as Minnesotans know only too well, these things are unpredictable.

Following the past week of summer-warm temperatures, forecasters are promising a return to seasonably-appropriate weather. That means temperatures that will have hunters and others wearing gloves and stocking caps, and maybe even spending a little time behind a snow shovel or snow blower. Just in time for the second weekend of the firearms deer season.

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