Friday, December 29, 2017

Sub Zero Snowshoe Outing

It was around -20 F when I rolled out of bed this morning and It's been sub zero for for the past few days. I hadn't done anything outdoors since I was on my holiday break and I wanted to head out into the woods to hunt some snowshoe hares and scout for coyote sign.

The other day I was visiting my grandmother who is in her mid 80's. She lives alone and still does all her own chores around the farm house. Just before I had stopped by her house, she was trying to start a space heater in the barn after getting her horse in and feeding the chickens. She hauls out two 5 gallon buckets of water every evening for the horse. She did all that in -18 temperatures last night. So today, on my jaunt I decided to wear my late grandfather's Ojibwe style snowshoes that I had inherited in honor of the tough and tenacious resilience of that generation.

Where I live, we average around 200 inches of snow a year and if you want to get around on foot in the winter woods you need snowshoes. I own multiple pairs. In early winter I prefer these smaller Ojibwe shoes because they give me adequate float plus they are easy to snake through brush and other obstacles that aren't burred under 3 feet of snow as of yet.

Subzero weather is nothing to take lightly. If you are not properly prepared to go out in it, you can literally loose life and limb if you end up in an accident or neglect properly dressing for the conditions. I consider temperatures in the -30 F range and colder to be in the danger zone of operation. Personally I can function fine in -20 and above with little change in my gear and clothing set up if I'm going to be mobile. Being sedentary is another matter. Today is a day of mobility.

 For foot wear I wore my modified mukluks. Ultra light in weight, they offer up a package of foot warming efficiency that pound for pound cant be beat. For my legs I had a set of grid fleece compression bottoms under a pair of fleece lined soft shell pants. On my upper body I wore a merino wool/polyester mix top. this lightweight layer wicks sweat well plus it has superb insulation properties. Over that I wore a Stormy Kromer Woolover which is a wool blend pullover that had lots of loft. This is a great breathable layer that can trap lots of heat. Over that I wore an Under Armor Storm hooded sweatshirt which has a brushed, fleece lining and has a water repellent finish. This was a gift I was field testing and I used it as an outer layer much like an anorak. For gloves I used a combination a fur "chopper" mitt and a well insulated finger glove that was a also a gift I was testing out. I wear the glove on my shooting hand and the chopper on my support hand. For my head I wore a leather and rabbit fur bomber hat. The warmest hat I have ever worn. This hat is too warm to wear when you are moving unless it's around -20 F or colder.

I Started out slowly and tried to judge how fast I could move without over heating. I did not want to get too sweated up in these temperatures. Once I figured out what my pace should be, I headed off across a marshy field to get to the wood line on the other side.

This time of year at my latitude, we always have a low winter sun

Almost immediately I came across some fresh coyote sign. There was one that loped around the edge of the wood line some time in the last 8 hours or so, I estimated.

After navigating through the tangle of tag alders I started meandering around in hopes of seeing a snowshoe hare hunkered down in some cover. There was more snow on the trees than I had anticipated and this makes for poor rabbit hunting conditions due to the lack of visibility.

Coyote sign was quite abundant throughout these woods. In the near future I will set up near here to see if I can call in some of these crafty predators.

I also encountered some sign that showed a porcupine has been in the area. It had started to girdle some trees.

I took my time milling about and keeping a watchful eye out for any hares, but I seen nothing. The rabbit sign was mediocre and seemed to be concentrated in only a few pockets. Along with almost all the other game animals the rabbit and hare populations had crashed hard over the past 4 years. They too are just starting to come back in numbers now. I have a theory that they were wiped out by a virus or some other disease.

Everything that I enjoy hunting has died off in my region. It makes me sad to see areas that were once flush with game are now almost devoid of any sign of  animal life. Thankfully, many of these species are starting to now make a comeback. The oddest part is that all of them died off at the same time, for about the same span of time. Apparently a combination of many "perfect storms" took place and contributed to this multi species, mini near extinction event. Needless to say, hunting has been hard for the past 5 years. Coyotes seem to be the only animals that remained unaffected and I attribute this to the fact that they are highly adaptable survivors.

I proceeded to an area where I always encounter rabbits and found that I wasn't the only one who knew this spot would yield a chance for a kill. I noticed an area that was all tracked up and seen signs that a struggle had recently took place. I love reading sign in the snow. It's surface becomes a semi permanent reminder of what events took place. The observant passerby can often read the tales of exciting happenstances that have unfolded upon it's white crystalline pages. This story was that of a lucky coyote who had some how snatched a hare. You could see that the wild dog had shook it's prey because tufts of rabbit fur were lying on some low hanging branches.

Signs of the struggle

Fur lying on branch


I roamed around some areas of great "rabbitat" as I call them but seen no game. The heavy snow cover on the trees made it nearly impossible to see anything that may have been jumped by my presence. My only hope was seeing a hare that would choose to play it's hand at trusting in it's camouflage by sitting still in hopes that I would pass it by.

The kill site was an interesting find but I figured the small game had been harassed enough in this section of woods so I started off back across the open marsh to scout out another wooded area on the opposite side. I've had good success there in the past.

The hooded Under Armor top was working well for me. It proved to be warm, breathable and quiet. I know it's not intended to be an outer layer in frigid conditions like this, but it fulfills the roll of anorak nicely for my use of it. It's a superb gift.

Now off across the marshy opening...


As I reached the opposite wooded edge, I noticed I had about one hand of sun left in the sky before I should start the trek back home. The temperature was dropping and I could feel difference, for now I could move more rapidly without over heating.

Buck sign from this past fall.

A large critter had passed through here...Possibly a wolf? It was hard to tell in the deep snow but the creature's post hole left a sizable imprint at the bottom. The track is about 2 feet down from the surface.

I roamed all over that wooded and encountered much deer sign (probably why a wolf was there), flushed some grouse but couldn't get a shot from a still bird, and there was also plenty of the ubiquitous coyote sign as well.

There were a number of rabbits runs and I did jump this hare but I never seen it. I tracked into an almost impenetrable tag alder tangle and I gave up the chase for another day. The sun was now fading fast and it was getting to be time to start heading out.

Once again I struck out on taking any game but there was plenty of sign that should be indicative of some good coyote hunting. Sooner or later the cards will be once again in my favor.

It was just great to be out in the midst of this frozen world. Many people choose to stay indoors when winter hits and and very few venture out when weather like these sub zero temperatures descend, but I'm not the kind of person who lets weather keep me from enjoying the great outdoors. With proper clothing and knowing one's limits you can safely enjoy time in a realm few people are willing to experience.

I hope you have a safe, prosperous and happy New Year! 

Thanks for taking the time to look.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

My Largest Brook Trout to Date (One for the books)

Earlier in late November I was mulling over what tasks or chores I had to complete before the year ends. It was then I remembered that I had yet to submit my entry for a 2017 Michigan Master Angler Award for a large brook trout I had caught earlier this past spring.

I submitted my paper work, attached a couple of photos and sent off my entry. A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail stating my entry was accepted and my recognition patch was included! I ranked number 16 in the state this year among those catches that were submitted, and I've been recorded into the state's record books.

Not a bad way to cap off the year in my book!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Deer Hunt Wisconsin (Rifle Hunt Part 2)

After a slow few days in Michigan, I headed off to hunt the first few days of the Wisconsin firearms deer season.

The morning of November 18th found me sitting in ambush watching a deer trail on some private land I had access to. I had a short, uneventful post and was to meet up with my wife's uncle who wanted to do a small drive on his property. I met up with him at around mid morning and we formulated a game plan that would have him making a walk through a patch of woods in hopes that he would drive some deer my way. I set up along a field edge where the deer would hopefully pass by as they crossed the gap to enter the next wooded lot. The push yielded no action. We reset and did another drive through a different area of his land and that action also didn't push any deer.

We took short break at midday and then planned another push on the property where I had hunted earlier that morning. I offered to make the push this time but my wife's uncle said he hated staying put while posting and he'd rather walk. "Fine by me", I thought.

I settled into my ambush spot and waited patiently as he made his walk. I heard no gunshots from his way and about an hour later he appeared out of the woods. No deer action was observed again.

Later that afternoon I spent the evening hunt watching another deer trail that no deer ended up traveling down. Things were looking slow for the start of the Wisconsin season, too.

Well before sun up the next day, I was out the door and heading to watch a trail that I had noticed the evening before. This trail looked heavily traveled by deer and I figured it might give the best odds of seeing a deer if I hid along, watching the pathway. The morning was cold and the air registered in at a crisp 13 degrees. I was layered up and had the right clothing system in place. For five hours I sat as still as I could, trying to mimic the life of an icicle. A fresh, light snow started falling and I watched as some of the most perfectly formed snow flakes I had ever seen, landed on my rifle. The blued steel  barrel and receiver made a great back drop as it showcased the white, crystal flakes.

Late in the morning the sun broke through the monochrome gray sky. It was the first time I had seen it's presence in over a week. It's rays filtered through the tree tops and it highlighted the snow as it fell. Each flake glistening like flecks of gold in the morning light. This view alone was worth enduring the cold for. I sat and took it all in. Even though it was only in the teens, I could feel the warmth of the sun on my body as it's rays slowly were absorbed by my clothing. The warmth didn't last. The clouds closed back in and made their gluttony known as they enveloped sun. As the gray darkness set back in, a raven passed overhead and let out a few guttural caws as if it acknowledged that it had helped steal the light away.

Around noon I packed up and headed out. Almost 7 hours of sitting in 15 degree temperatures was enough for me. It was then that I noticed I was not the only hunter in the area that morning . A bobcat had cut my tracks. Out of curiosity I followed it's trail for a little bit and seen where it began making a stalk, as it's belly began to drag in the newly fallen snow. I'm guessing it was making a sneak on a red squirrel, seeing that there were squirrel tracks all about. I wished the wild cat luck and hoped it had a more successful morning than I.

Later that evening I returned to hunt a hillside that over looked a thick stand if mixed hardwoods that had multiple deer trails crossing it. An old tree stand from days gone by still haunts the hill top.

Again no luck. Snow still clung to everything making for poor visibility. Drives and pushes were coming to be a fool's errand with these conditions. Along with a good hiding spot tucked in some balsams, this hill side offered a decent vantage point and a few good shooting lanes that stretched out to about 70 yards. It's hard to tell scale in the photo below but that's vantage point from the hill looking down and the cross hairs are in a spot about 60 yards away.

The following morning I hunted the hill top again and noticed there was flurry of snowshoe hare activity and the bobcat had made it's way through the area, presumably to hunt the hares.

Snowshoe Hare

Bob Cat

The following couple of days found myself posting in various spots and making small drives on two different properties. On the 3rd day, after a few fruitless drivers and posts, I found myself getting into my chosen ambush spot later than I anticipated and I paid the price by jumping a doe and a yearling that were already passing the very spot I had planned to hunt. I was able to scope them and confirm that neither were a buck. I seen nothing else and vowed to return to this spot the next day.

When I returned to this spot the next day, I was deject to find that a wolf  had crossed my old tracks and had passed through the area. It had been through some time after I had left the evening before.

I set up there anyway and seen no deer. My rifle season was turning into a bust I knew there were bucks here and seen sign of there presence from this fall. But I was struggling just to see a deer this year.

Tree rubbed by a buck's antlers
I hunted for a week straight in two different states, on three different properties and had only seen 5 deer, and none were bucks. My first week hunting was over. I hunted in a Michigan again for a couple of evenings but seen no deer at my stand there either.

 The following weekend I headed back to hunt Wisconsin in a last ditch effort to see if I could rattle up a buck on the last evening of their regular firearms deer season.

I hid myself at the base of a spruce and did my best to imitate the actions of two bucks engaged in combat. I have had success with this technique before and I was hoping I could pull out a miracle with it this time around. This area was thick and offered a lot cover so I was hoping there could be a buck lurking near by that would sneak or rush in to investigate what all the commotion was all about.

I rattled out a handful fight sequences throughout the afternoon and into the evening but, alas, it was not to be. Nothing showed up. It was a desperate attempt to make something happen out of nothing and when doing such an aggressive hunting maneuver you will either have a close encounter with a buck or see nothing at all...It's a feast or famine deal.

As I watched the moon rise over the tree tops I knew my season was over and I vowed I would do better next year. That's why they call this hunting, and not shooting. I packed up my gear and started the hike back out to the road. In this game, success is never guaranteed...but that's why I like it.

Until next year!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

I Finally Seen A Ghost.

The other day I had a half day at work and left to pick up some groceries while I was in town. During my return drive through town I spotted something on top of the snow bank along my lane. It looked like  some trash, maybe a few crumpled up news papers blowing in the wind. As I got closer, and to my amazement the "trash" turned out to be a snowy owl! I was stunned! I slowed to a stop and just looked at the bird that was now just feet from my car. It looked backed at me and opened it's mouth. It must have just plopped down on to the snowbank because it's wing were still partially out and laying in the snow, and not tucked in like they do when  bird is perched.

I looked in my mirror and noticed other traffic coming, so I hurried down the road and turned around in a church parking lot. I hoped I could drive back, park my vehicle and maybe snap a photo of this magnificent creature. As I pulled back onto the road and started back towards the bird I noticed it had just took off and was now flying right at my car in seemingly slow motion! I slowed down and the bird gracefully swooped right by my driver's side window and it pulled up to land on a street light. I could see it's fluffy, feather laden talons extend their grasp for it's landing. I sped by and turned around again. This time on my way back the owl was atop the telephone pole and was being harassed by some crows, who seemed to take half-harted pleasure in dive bombing the regal bird. The owl seemed oblivious to their actions. I watched it one last time as it sat on it's high perch while surveying all.

Photo by Missy Mandel/Cornell Lab of Ornithology website

Ever since I was a child I had wanted to see a snowy owl and I finally got to cross this one off my bucket list. I have now seen every species of owl that is known to inhabit my area. With most  of these encounters being very close range affairs.

I didn't get my photo, but a local, amateur photographer snapped some nice photos of one of the great birds near Lake Superior the week prior before we got our second wave of snow.

Photo by local photographer, Gary Jackson taken at Lake Superior

Photo by local photographer, Gary Jackson taken at Lake Superior

Apparently due to a large owl population boom in the arctic this year there is a large influx of snowy owls that are migrating into my region of the upper Great Lakes. This mass movement of owl is called an irruption.

I didn't get my photo, but I'll have a memory that will last a lifetime.

Here are a few links so some stories and info about this event and these magnificent creatures.

Project Snow Storm tracks snowy owls This is a great interactive site.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Deer Hunt Michigan (Rifle Hunt Part 1)

Awake... 4:30 AM. The hunt begins.

   Opening day of the Michigan 2017 firearms deer season found myself entering the woods at well before sunrise on a cold, and damp mid November morning. There was still snow on the ground, but it was starting to melt. As I walked into my stand I noticed some fresh grouse tracks on the snow and I flushed the bird in just a few steps after seeing them. It must have just come off of it's roost, or perhaps it had insomnia. I had never flushed a grouse so early in the morning before and thought it odd that bird was walking about well before daybreak.

November 15th

 I noticed some fresh deer tracks, that by appearance seemed to have been made only a few hours prior. That was a good sign.

  I reached my treestand, made the climb into position and loaded my rifle once I was situated. The temperature was at 32 degrees, but the air was damp. As the the sky lightened, I had a visit by a couple more grouse. One bird darted along on foot and sped away through the woods soon after it made it's self known. Behind it, a male appeared and started to do a full on mating display with it's neck ruffs exposed and tail fanned out like a miniature turkey. The female was long gone but this male seemed to think she was still near by. It started a half-harted drumming sequence but gave up. Then, still in full display, it rapidly zigged and zagged in his off season mating ritual. I also found this behavior odd seeing that they mate in the early spring. At least it was a curious source of entertainment for the time being.

  As the morning wore on a low fog settled into the skeletal branches of the forest canopy. A light, freezing mist soon followed. For almost 5 hours I sat, as still as I could in these conditions, just waiting to see the movement of a deer against the snow covered backdrop. Nothing came. My vigil was only to bear witness to a handful of grey squirrels as they milled about the forest floor seeking to add to their winter food stores. When in a ground blind I normally sit from sunrise to sunset, but when perched in a treestand I can only tolerate around 5 hours or so of sitting motionless in near freezing temperatures. I headed out for some lunch at around 11:00 A.M. and got a chill on the walk out.

  After a mid day pause I returned to the stand and noticed no sign that any deer had made an appearance in the area I walked through since that morning. It was now in the mid 30's and the mist had turned to a light rain. The only thing of interest that happened that afternoon was the sighting of a small bird of prey. A cooper's hawk perhaps. It perched in a tree top near me and it surely must have noticed the gray squirrels that scampered out of sight upon it's arrival. I watched as one red squirrel was caught in the open while perched on an exposed branch. It froze solid and stayed that way until the hawk flew off, seemingly uninterested. As the temperature dropped the rain turned to into large, heavy snowflakes that quickly got to work to replenish what had been depleted by the rains from earlier in the day. As the flakes piled up, silence and darkness enveloped the woods. I headed out as quietly as I could wondering what the next day would bring.

November 16th

 I was up again at O'dark thirty getting ready to head into the woods. About 5" inches of snow fell that night and it was plastered to all the trees. Though it makes a pristine, picture book image, the snow on the trees does nothing to aid in hunting conditions. The snow acts much like thick foliage and shortens the distance of viability in the forest making it harder to see game at any distance. The air still felt damp but with the fresh snowfall and temperatures at a crisp 24 degrees, the mood of the forest felt different. I noticed on walk into my stand that deer had already moved through since the snow had stopped falling some time in that night. There were a number of fresh tracks on the game trails and others that just meandered aimlessly through the woods.

  After I was back up in my stand my mind started to wander to exactly one year ago that day to when I sat in this same spot and shot a decent sized 4 point buck. The weather was much warmer then and the buck appeared out of nowhere cruising on a side trail that ran past the stand. Two fast shots on the move took my winter meat for that year. I was hoping recreate that event today.

Last year's Buck
  After I was done reminiscing, I anxiously awaited for daybreak and what it might bring. The answer was nothing. Nothing moved that morning after sun up. The deer had moved after the snow storm had broke the night prior and there was new activity in the woods. I headed out before noon and returned again for the evening hunt. With the snow on the trees, any deer that would come by would only give me only seconds to prepare for a shot and the new fallen snow would also mask any noise they might make walking making it impossible to anticipate their approach from a distance.

  Shortly before the light started to fade as day turned into evening, I thought I could faintly hear the sound of foot steps approaching in the snow. I stayed still and strained to listen. I heard them again and knew an animal was approaching me from behind. It paused. I remained motionless listening to my heart start to pound with anticipation. Still nothing. I waited...It waited. Then with a long, sharp nasally blow the jig was up.

  When deer smell danger or something foreign to them they often "blow" making a loud noise caused by the rapid expulsion of air through their nostrils. This serves two purposes. The first being that it clears all the current scent particles out of the deer's olfactory receptors so it can perceive only the new scents it's now trying to take. This can make a more clear "picture" for the deer to decipher what it's actually smelling or trying to smell. This helps the animal to determine what danger might be near. The second purpose is to send out an audible alert so other deer in the area that might be upwind know something is up and they should be on alert.

  The deer continued to blow about 10 times and then it thundered off into the unknown. I'm guessing it was a crafty old doe. Usually a buck won't repeatedly blow when it smells danger. It will either blow once and explode out of sight or it won't blow at all and just slink away with out it's presence ever being reveled.

  Dejected by being busted, I climbed out of my tree and packed up my gear for the walk out into the darkness.

November 17th.

  The conditions were identical to the prior day. Snow was still on all the trees and the temperatures remained in the mid 20's. I sat through the day with the only activity being the squirrels, chickadees and tiny creepers that amuse me by scooting themselves up trees while looking for a meal.

  Close to dusk I suddenly seen a deer materialize off to my side. It was a large doe. It quickly slipped behind some trees and I slowly started to move to face it's direction. Following the doe was a yearling and as I looked past the young deer, I seen another set of legs approaching through the branches. I was hoping it was a buck on the trail of the two other deer. I slowly started to get into a shooting position. I needed to make smooth but deliberate movements. If the third deer was a buck I would only have a couple of seconds to acquire a shot if the deer followed the same path as the other two. Just as I was setting up for a possible shot and before the third deer came into the opening, the doe that was the first in line popped out from behind the trees it passed. It must have caught my movement as I was reading for a shot on the third deer and it spooked. It ran off taking the third, mystery deer with it. All I could see were it's legs vacating the area.

  Some times you don't know what the right move should be. If you wait too long and be too still you may miss the only window of opportunity you might have at a shot due to not reacting in time. If you move too fast or too soon you could give your position away thus ending any chance before it ever presents it's self. These decisions all have to be made in a split second while under pressure. This was one of those scenarios that didn't have a clear answer. Either way I cut it, I was taking a risk by choosing either choice.

  With the deer now gone I was cursing myself for blowing another possible opportunity. I sat silently, hoping something else would show up before dark.

  About 45 minutes later and just before the light started to fade, another deer materialized out of nowhere into the opening I was watching. It was a large doe followed by a yearling button buck. I was trying to think if the yearling I had seen earlier was a button buck (yearling buck) but I could not recall, or didn't pay attention due to the presence of the third mystery deer. I had a feeling these were part of the same group that spooked out earlier but I could not be sure. I sat ready with anticipation. The two deer milled about browsing in the opening I was watching. A few minutes later I detected movement to the north and a third doe entered the mix. They all walked around browsing and they were extremely jumpy. Any little bit of snow that fell off of a branch with cause them to flinch and would stop and jump at the sight of any squirrel that would happen by. They were very paranoid. Just before darkness settled in I practiced moving slow to mimic the movements of taking a shot on one of the deer. I painstaking went through the motions of raising and aiming my rifle at one of the does. They were close. Only 16 yards away and the air was dead still. One sensed my movement and ran a few steps and stopped but I was able to acquire both deer in my scope and considered the practice run to be a success. The deer left and it was time for me to leave also.

   My first few days hunting in Michigan were now over. I left for the time being so I could hunt the opening first few days of the Wisconsin season, which happened to start the following day. If there was more deer activity at my Michigan stand I probably would have stayed on a little while longer. No Buck so far. We'll see where the next hunt leads.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Preparing for Firearms Deer Season.

And so begins the final prepping for my 2017 white tailed deer rifle season. Clothing is getting sorted, gear is being un-stowed and plans are being made.

    I was checking out the deer sign near my old, "Go-To" rifle hunting spot that I normally hunt near my family's camp, but the area has been devoid of deer life for the past three years. This fall I actually got 3 deer on camera, two does and one yearling. This is the first confirmed deer sightings I've out there in three years time. I figured there were at least 2 deer there because on my last scouting foray out there in mid October, I came across some tracks in the wet leaves and found a pile of deer droppings that were of the size a yearling would make. If there was a yearling around, an adult doe should be there too.

They do exist!

   My trail camera proved the evidence I had found to be true, and it contained many images of only these two deer

 My father and I have a few other hunting spots in the area and none of those spots yielded any sign of deer. Not a good sign for such a large area. The resident herd here had died out from a few extremely harsh winters that lingered long into spring and new deer were just starting to repopulate the area. Late spring is the most critical time of survival for the whitetails that live here in the upper Great Lakes region and the last few were bad. Adding to the effects of the harsh winters, the deer numbers have also plummeted due to mass predation by the growing wolf and coyote population. With the decided lack of deer, the wolves seemed to have died off or moved out as well. I have not see any wolf sign in this area for two years now. No deer means no wolves either.

  On the 28th of October we received a decent snow fall and thus was the start of our winter season. It's been on the ground ever since. I welcomed it's presence for it usually means good hunting.

October 28th snowfall

The day of the first snowfall had me wondering if the deer would be moving. Right after thinking that and as if on cue, I caught movement outside my living room window. I watched as two bucks made their way into my yard to feast off of my apple trees. Maybe I should just hunt by the house!

  That weekend I made another trip out by the camp and did not encounter a single deer track out in the snow. Things weren't looking good for success out there. Disappointed with the lack of deer activity, I then did an impromptu scout by an old bow stand in a different favorite hunting area that I've left alone all year. I was rewarded with the discovery of multiple deer trails that were being heavily used, along with some fresh buck sign in the form of a rub and a scrape that was tended earlier that day. All of the activity was only about 30 yards from my preexisting stand site. The buck was heading to the stand from the North and would be coming past on the trail to the East if it keeps that same route up. 

  I made my mind up and decided to hunt this location on opening day. I have a far better chance of success there than I would out by my family's camp.

Time soon will tell if this set up and decision will pay off.