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Rod, Gun & Game: Marsh ice thickens, deer are herding

HERDING DEER —Despite the extended cold, WNY whitetail tail deer appear healthy and many have survived the 2014 cold exposure. The deer have started to herd on sunny days, part of usual post-winter activities, and are often noted by motorists during the evening drive home. Photo courtesy of Joe Forma.
With warming thoughts of spring and with tapping sugar maple trees right around the corner, Western New York is still in one of the chilliest winter seasons on record, as the icy grip from Mother Nature continues this year.

Our whitetail deer seem to have survived the exposures pretty well, and have started to herd up, part of their usual winter activities. Small-group and large-group deer herds are a fairly common visual experience for drivers heading home from work on a sunny March day. While the bucks have shed their antlers over the last two months and all deer look like doe right now (female deer), the larger animals are generally females that will be giving birth to fawns in a few months.

Look for deer to herd southerly facing hillsides when the sun is high and in some locations, you may note as many as 50 to 60 deer in isolated fields with abundant nearby food. Check the north side of Route 20A near the Erie and Wyoming county line as you drive eastward to generally view some annually large deer herds there at this time of year.

From my perspective, no matter where I drive in our wonderful Western New York outdoors, there does appear to be signs of good deer population survival this year, despite the unusual cold. The biologists will tell us more soon. It has been so cold this year, the weather has provided one of the safest New York ice-fishing seasons in a few decades.

On Monday, my grandson had a half-day of school and we decided to dust off the ice-fishing gear and our brand new H-M Auger, a 6-inch hand-driven model, as we headed for the Buffalo Small Boat Harbor. As we crossed southward across the Route 5 Skyway, we could look out into Lake Erie and for the first time in many years, there was no open water, no sign of ice-breakup and no other signs of life except the abominable domain of the virtually endless frozen lake surface.

As we descended from the Skyway peak, we exited onto Buffalo Outer Harbor Road. There was no other traffic, but we did note more deer tracks in the fresh snow than we had ever seen there before. It seems deer in this part of Erie County are not hunted and even with the cold, are herding in record survival numbers.

The seven-degree temperature and 10-mile per hour wind from the southwest added to the festivity of the sunny, but chilly day, though we did not get cold to start. The ice is 21 inches thick! Digging four holes over 10 minutes, neither of us was feeling any chill. In fact, with our wicking Under-Armor and several thin layers above that keep-me-warm outdoor clothing, I was sweating a bit.

We quickly put up our Clam 5600 ice hut and staked the corners down so that we would prevent the wind from making us slide across the ice and appear to be winter trolling – not funny. It happens out there. In the five minutes we took to set up the hut over our holes, the ice on my forehead froze in place and my glasses had steamed up with icy frost from the inside. .

Since I did not want to appear to be afraid of the weather or cold with my grandson on this outing, I opted to simply ask, “How are you doing with the cold air?” Quickly, he responded with a giant smile, “Nope, I’m fine, it’s just like skiing, but I’m bringing a face mask next time!” The 12-year old kid was tough. I forgot he was an expert skier and was well-trained on how to dress for that from his dad, an expert skier, as well.

So I just toughed it out a bit and made sure that our propane-powered Mr. Heater got started as soon as we zipped up the outer doors of the 5-by-6-foot sized ice hut. We depressed the start on the heater, opened up the small vent “breather” located at two corners of the hut to assure we had enough fresh air with the heater going, and it didn’t take long to warm up. In fact, we removed our head gear, outer jackets and gloves and the inside temperature probably reached a comfy 40 to 45 degrees.

Rigging up our simple little, lightweight fishing rods, all set up with two-pound and four-pound test monofilament to provide some level of stealth for the crystal clear water under the Lake Erie ice this year, we added a green-black color Mamooska jig tipped with a live mousee grub and dropped the tiny hook and bait down to bottom in the 10-foot deep water.

With the ice-hut windows flipped closed to prevent too much outside light from entering, the sun really lit up the area under the ice. It was like looking at a giant high-definition picture of the lake bottom. There were dormant weeds visible and with some excitement, my grandson added, “Hey look! There’s fish down there!” Just lightly jigging his rig, it only took a few seconds before he had hooked up with our first fish, a seven-inch perch. In the next few minutes, as I was trying to rig up, I think the kid landed an assortment of panfish and perch.

As the frozen sweat was dissipating from my forehead, my gloves were steaming next to the heater. We decided to get out the Aqua-Vu underwater camera we had acquired over the winter and see if a clear fish-eye view of the depths would enhance our fishing success. I added a two-ounce alligator clip weight to the keel of the camera lens and dropped the camera probe toward bottom.

Opening the cover of the device turns it on and there they were. The color screen showed that there must have been 50 fish nearby. There were sunfish, yellow perch, ruud [an invasive species], smelt [another invasive species] and lake trout and steelhead now and then, and perhaps the most exciting species to be found in the Buffalo Small Boat Harbor during winter, the Great Northern Pike. We watched at least four different Northern Pike swim by over our three-hour fishing day. The big fish were not interested in our humble offerings, but we vowed to bring live sucker chubs and tip-ups for our next outing.

As we drove home, I asked my grandson if he had learned anything new during the trip. “Working with the color underwater camera was a ton of fun,” he said. “We really learned a lot from studying the fish with that camera.” I added, “What did you discover?” He answered that he saw the fish strike at our red bobber stops that we placed directly ahead of our jig heads [for attraction] before they would inhale the grub.

Next time, we may forego the grubs and put the red bobber stops on the jig hook. He added, “It was just fun to watch the fish swim around and then eventually come to our baits. Of course, it was also a little frustrating to see the other bigger fish swim by and not be the least interested in our baits.”

Yep, that’s the downside of knowing too much about what is actually down there when you go fishing. It’s no different during summer when anglers are fishing hard for walleye, are marking them on their graphs, but the fish just won’t bite. Here, we had color visual confirmation of fish numbers and species, and their level of disinterest.

There were only two other ice-hut anglers fishing and they both enjoyed a similar experience to our outing. We caught about 30 fish in the short time, not big fish, but we had succeeded in bringing quite a few to the hook and any day that you fish, you call that a successful day. We also caught a 14-inch mudpuppy, a salamander-like critter that also resides in the winter lake. We released all the fish and mudpuppy too.

My grandson added, “So when we get home, can we go downstairs and dig out the braided line and pike hooks?” You know, there are certain golden moments in your life when everything seems like it has great purpose and you are glad to simply be alive. Tights lines out there everyone!

Outdoor Calendar:

- March 6-9: WNY Sport and Travel Outdoor Show, Erie County Fairgrounds Agri-center Building Complex, free parking.

- March 7: Indoor Winter 3D Archery, West Falls Conservation, 55 Bridge St., Friday fun shoot, 7 p.m., small fee per week, all archers welcome, call Mike Cummings at 337-0126.

- March 9: WNY Winter 3D League Shoot, Collins Conservation, Conger Rd., open to public, 7 a.m.-2 p.m., call Mike Matala at 337-0126.

- March 9/10: Niagara Frontier Gun Show, Knights of Columbus Hall, 2735 Union Rd., Cheektowaga, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., visit online at nfgshows.com.

- March 15: Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Annual Banquet and Awards Dinner, Father Justin Hall, Cheektowaga, call 941-6159.

- March 22: WNY Safari Club International (SCI) Annual Banquet, Michael’s, Southwestern Blvd., Hamburg, call 570-8275.

- March 22: Friends of the NRA, Annual Banquet, Salvatore’s Gardens, 6461 Transit Rd., Depew, 5 p.m. start, call 866-7656.


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