Mid-Summer Scouting

Every now and then, I get the notion to head north to my deer hunting/study area in mid-summer, mostly to see what I can learn about our deer and their current state of affairs with gray wolves. Scouting is never easy in mid-summer and I don’t ordinarily recommend it to deer hunters.  Aside from the usual array of blood-crazed insects and ticks to deal with, grasses and foliage of shrubs and trees are then at their peak of making it difficult to discern deer signs. In mid-summer I must depend wholly on seemingly sparse deer tracks and droppings to provide answers to any questions I have. Though tracks of wolves are rarely seen, their droppings (scats) are common in clear spots on logging and forestry trails where foliage does not interfere with squatting to empty their bowels (a requirement shared by my dog). Though at this time of the year tracks and droppings made by mature does accompanied by their fawns of the previous year (yearlings) and their newborns are not uncommon, tracks and droppings made by mature bucks are. This is because wolf country forest bucks with growing antlers covered with fragile and sensitive velvet (from May until about September 1st) are apparently reluctant to travel far (or fast) from their secluded summer hideaways except to drink water (usually located within 100 yards). Yet, long knowing where I’m almost certain to find their tracks and droppings—in or near previously known buck bedding areas, favorite graze areas, watering sites and damp soils of nearby trails—by the time my wire-haired pointer, Harvey, and I can no longer stand mosquitoes, deer flies, black flies, gnats and ticks, I’ve usually learned what I had hoped to learn in a large portion of my study area (it takes several trips to assess the entire area). Because my deer hunting partners and I hunt mature bucks only where wolves subsist on venison year around, determining where these bucks (age classes revealed by lengths of their tracks and droppings) are currently alive and active is always a top priority.

Keeping track of locations of mature does and their young is also important for a couple of reasons. First, while the first of the three two-week periods of breeding during the whitetail rut is in progress in November, the period during which we hunt deer, trophy-class bucks of each square mile will be spending almost all of their time in doe feeding and bedding areas in home ranges of adult does and their accompanying yearling does when in heat—each in heat only 24–26 hours snd generally on different days.

Second, as summer progresses, numbers of fawns normally drop off in my study area—revealed by waning numbers of identifying fawn-sized tracks and droppings accompanying identifying tracks and droppings of mature does. The pair of wolves that have denned in my study area for many years (packs don’t form until early November) have killed three or more of four of our fawns by November first every year since 1990. All summer long, their droppings contain much deer hair, fawn teeth (unworn and unstained) and fawn-sized dewclaws and hooves—a logical consequence of chronically low deer numbers wrought by long overabundant wolves in Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. In the early 1960s there were 22 deer per square mile in my study area. Losses atributable severe winters, wolf depredations of fawns in summer and mature whitetails in winter reduced the overall deer population to 11 per square-mile by 1990, the year I bagan hunting and studying whitetails there. Since then, we have taken fewer than one deer per two square miles annually—all bucks, about 75% of which were mature, non-breeding bucks. Only about one deer was taken by hunters per ten square miles in the surrounding region for several years, In 2017, there were only 5 deer per squre mile in our hunting area, about a third of it barren of deer. Thus, as you might imagime, I am ever anxious to finally discover an improvement in deer numbers, which is unlikely to happen as long as our long overabundant wolves remain over-protected.

Actually, thanks to Deet and a headnet for me and tick and insect potions for my dog, mid-summer scouting is often a pleasant outing. While Harvey is busy sniffing a myriad of interesting scents, often indulging in marking tree trunks with scents of his own and sometimes locking up on a point upon sighting a ruffed grouse, I revel at the occasional sight of deer in red summer coats, a blackish fisher bounding across the trail ahead and the excited croaking between pairs of ravens ponderously winging overhead—the sight of me likely reminding them the important season of increased opportunities to devour fatty deer entrails is drawing near. Fat is needed by ravens (and other birds) to survive Minnesota winters and they are quick to find it when available, likely keying on gunshots and human voices during hunting seasons and on our barking and howling wolfpack when excitedly pursuing a deer or moose. Meanwhile, I keep an eye peeled for potential mature-buck-effective stand sites that may be useful wherever I find fresh tracks and droppings made by mature unalarmed bucks during the coming hunting season, adding enormously to the value of my long trip north.

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