By Shawn Perich
My hunting partner summed up my 2013 deer season in three words. “You got wolfed,” he said.
Wolfed, indeed. On opening day we were blessed with fresh snow on the North Shore. But there were precious few deer tracks in the place I’d scouted prior to the season. All I saw was an occasional buck track, which eventually led me to realize the only deer wandering through that patch of woods was one lonely buck. Walking out in late afternoon, I happened upon a group of deer hanging out in a balsam thicket on a steep hillside. At least I knew where to start hunting the next morning.
At the top of the ridge, I hit my own tracks from walking in that morning and followed them toward the truck. Soon I came upon three smallish wolf tracks, perhaps pups, crossing my morning trail. I saw where they hesitated to sniff at my tracks before crossing them. Then I came upon a set of very large wolf tracks. The big one stepped in my tracks for 50 yards or so. Then it left a pile of poop in one of my boot prints and went on its way. This was not a coincidence.
Looking at what the wolf left, my only thought was, “Have we met before?”
My hunting partner, Alan Lutkevich of Duluth, also found a bunch of deer late in the day. And he saw what the big wolf thought of me. Even though we knew the wolves were around, we decided to go back to the same place in the next morning.
So we did. When I got to the hillside where I intended to hunt, I found the very fresh tracks of four wolves–three small, one big—were ahead of me. How fresh? The temperature was in the 20’s, but I saw where the wolves had stepped in a puddle. Their tracks on the crusted snow were still wet. Neither Al nor I found a fresh deer track that morning.
As the season wore on we hunted hard, as we always do, with remarkably little action. We found plenty of deer sign, but saw nary a white tail, much less the creature that precedes it. Mostly the deer seemed to be somewhere else.
Al hunted alone on the final Friday, while I went to work to meet a deadline. He showed up at my office in the early afternoon, hoping to enlist my help in hauling out a hefty eight-pointer. I agreed to do so when my work was done. I walked into the woods at 3:15 p.m., met Al at the deer an hour later and hauled it to the truck by 5:30. Thankfully, the drag was all downhill.
Saturday morning began with the temperature near zero and the wind shrieking through the trees. We decided to forgo hunting and cut up Al’s deer. That left me with one day, the final Sunday, to fill my tag. We started hunting Sunday morning in a place where we’ve been lucky in the past. It was overcast with a whisper of breeze–excellent hunting conditions. The weatherman said the snow would begin around 9 a.m.
Ravens are a constant presence in the northern deer woods. You hear their squawks and chortles as they fly by on a never-ending search for carrion. Sometimes you get startled by their whooshing wing beats as they pass overhead. Occasionally you’ll find a flock of the raucous black birds gathered at a gut pile or a wolf kill.
This morning the ravens were especially active, flying back and forth, croaking and carrying on. I saw them land in nearby trees and then fly off again. Often, this means they are stashing bits of offal they’ve carried away from a kill. If it was early in the deer season, I’d assume they were feasting on a gut pile. But on the last day of the hunt, it was far less likely. Maybe the wolves were around.
It started snowing at the predicted time. The ground was white within an hour. By 11 a.m. I’d heard a deer snort in alarm, but saw no tracks in the new snow. Touching in with Al, I learned all he’d seen was a wolf. We decided to go somewhere else.
When we met, Al said he’d crossed the tracks left by several wolves as he was walking out. The snow had been on the ground less than two hours. The wolf he’d encountered earlier in the morning had unwittingly approached within 25 feet of him. When they eventually made eye contact, Al said, “Hello.” The wolf simply turned and trotted away.
After lunch, we headed for another favorite place. Here, at a higher elevation from Lake Superior, there was an extra inch or two of snow. We walked in a half mile from where we parked and split up. I intended to spend the afternoon sneaking along the flanks of a mountain-like ridge. When I reached my planned starting point, I found the familiar tracks of four hunters who arrived ahead of me–three small prints and one big one.
I followed the wolves down one side of the ridge and then crossed back over the top, hoping to get away from the hunting pack. While I did happen upon a couple of deer tracks, the first I’d seen all day, the animals that made them were now somewhere else. My deer season was over.
In retrospect, I’m not disappointed by my lack of hunting success. Last April, we received over four feet of snow, which lingered like a stubborn glacier. You don’t have to be a wildlife biologist to know a hard winter means fewer deer in the woods the following November. As for the wolves, there didn’t seem to be any more or less of them in our hunting areas than in the past. If anything, the wolves were hunting harder because deer numbers are down.
Anyone who is blaming the DNR or wolves for poor hunting in northern Minnesota this year is either too inexperienced to make the connection between winter severity and whitetail abundance or simply narrow-minded. They also may be unaware that fewer deer is exactly what hunters asked for when the DNR set population goals about five years ago. At the time, deer abundance was at record highs, leading to high harvests and lots of deer-related problems such as depredation and vehicle accidents. The northern forest had more deer than many folks were willing to tolerate. It is probably not a coincidence that this was when the moose population began to decline.
I also noticed most of my friends who tagged a buck this year spent more time in the woods than I did. One reason we have a 16-day season in northeastern Minnesota is because it originated in the early 70s, when the northern deer population was at rock bottom. Throughout most of the 1970s and 80s, bucks-only hunting with precious few doe permits was the rule. The 16-day season, which replaced a nine-day, any-deer season, was intended to give hunters more time to bag a buck. I’m not suggesting that deer numbers have dropped to 1970s levels, but simply pointing out that until the recent years of record deer abundance, no one expected northern deer hunting to be easy.
Old Man Winter willing, deer numbers will increase over the next two or three years. Population fluctuations are part of a natural cycle. Over the long haul, the years of good or great hunting outnumber the years when deer are few. You might say hunters need a lean year once in a while, just so they appreciate the good times when they return.