Art Lander’s Outdoors: January’s unseasonably cold weather created hunting and fishing opportunities

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The calendar says we have turned the corner on Winter as today is day 50 of the 89-day season.

But the big question is, “How much longer will the cold weather last?”

Temperatures in January were below normal across Kentucky. When there was a snow cover, wind chills dipped below zero on several mornings.

The National Weather Service (NWS) reported that it was the coldest January 1-7 on record at Lexington and Frankfort, and the fourth coldest in Louisville.

On February 2, America’s most most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of cold winter weather

On February 2, America’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, delivered his annual prediction on Gobbler’s Knob, a hill just outside of Punxsutawney, Pa., a small town 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Just after sunrise, Phil was roused from his lair to the cheers of thousands of onlookers and saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of cold winter weather.

Groundhog Day, which dates back to the 1880s, originated with the German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

Outdoor enthusiasts watch the weather religiously, especially in the late Fall, and over the Winter into early Spring, because forecasts provide clues on the best times to be outside hunting, fishing, or performing wildlife management chores on hunting property, such as seasonal mowing, plowing, disking, or planting crops for wildlife.

As I write this, there’s a coating of ice on the grass and trees. The first official day of Spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

Geese Rode Arctic Air Southward

January’s severe cold brought more Canada geese into Kentucky than usual.

“It was really cold up north, and we had the best push of Canada geese into Kentucky in the last decade,” said John Brunjes, migratory bird program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFWR). “They were here in huge numbers, both migratory Canada geese and temperate-nesting Canada geese (from states to our north).”

January’s severe cold brought the best push of migratory Canada geese into Kentucky in the last decade

Brunjes said about 15 percent of the Canada geese killed in Central Kentucky by hunters in January are typically migratory birds from the southern James Bay and Mississippi Valley populations, that nest in Ontario and Manitoba provinces, in Canada.

Today, there are an estimated 1.8 million temperate-nesting Canada geese, the so-called resident geese, in the Mississippi Flyway, with a bulk of the population in Michigan and Minnesota.

These local geese are actually a subspecies. The Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) was thought to be extinct in North America. In 1962 a small flock of these birds was discovered wintering in Rochester, MN, by Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Leg band returns show that Kentucky hunters take more geese banded locally, in Kentucky, than any other state, followed by birds banded in Indiana and Ohio. During prolonged cold snaps in the Great Lakes states, many local birds in the region migrate southward, in search of open water, into Kentucky.

Since the mid-1990s, when Kentucky’s resident goose population was first surveyed, the number of birds here doubled from 15,000 to 31,000 by 2013.

“Our spring count in 2017 estimated a population of 36,693 temperate-nesting Canada geese (in Kentucky), down from a record 44,000 in 2016,” said Brunjes.

Canada goose season in most of Kentucky continues through February 15, 2018. “It’s been a good goose season,” said Brunjes. “There’s still a lot of people hunting.”

Snow Geese Moving Eastward

The US population of snow geese is estimated to be about 20 million, with most of the birds in the central states. About 20,000 birds stopover in Kentucky while migrating southward. In recent years the birds migration path has shifted eastward.

Wildlife watchers and hunters may also have noticed more snow geese in Central Kentucky than normal.

Less rice production in the South has changed the wintering destinations for snow geese somewhat. In the past, Louisiana was their usual wintering grounds, but now they are massing in Texas and Arkansas, and their migrations are bringing them farther east.

“The last two years we’ve seen numbers of snow geese here never experienced before,” said Brunjes. “Typically there are more snow geese from Henderson westward, but snow geese wander. They don’t follow the duck flyways. You never know where they are going to show up.”

Brunjes said the US population of snow geese is estimated to be about 20 million, with most of the birds in the central states. Annually about 20,000 birds stopover in Kentucky while migrating southward.

Thick Ice Creates Fishing Opportunities

Die-hard anglers had an opportunity for some ice fishing in Kentucky farm ponds and small lakes in January.

Ice is safe to walk on, and fish through, when it’s at least four inches thick.

To determine if ice is a safe thickness, use a cordless drill and a 5/8-inch wood auger bit, to drill a hole. Then measure with a ruler or tape measure. If the ice is a safe thickness, use a shovel, ice chisel or ice auger to expand the hole.

But with cold water temperatures and ice comes with the threat of winter fish kills.

Prolonged periods of frozen ponds covered with snow can rob the plant life in a pond of vital sunlight, derail the process of photosynthesis, and halt the production of life-sustaining oxygen, causing fish to suffocate.

Also, prolonged periods of colder-than-normal water temperatures can cause fish to exhaust their fat reserves. Small fish are most vulnerable to this cold stress. Large-scale die-offs are usually associated with shad, and other forage fish, in reservoirs.

Luckily, a quick warmup mid-month prevented an outbreak of winter fish kills.

January Deer Harvest Declines

Late season bow hunters usually concentrate their hunting during the warmest part of the day, but this season the January deer harvest was much lower than average. The severe cold is no doubt the reason fewer hunters were afield.

Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator for KDFWR, reported that January’s harvest was 1,968 deer, 23 percent below the five-year average.

For the season, bow hunters bagged 19,141 deer, the fourth highest archery harvest on record.

Archery season for deer closed January 15, 2018.

Other deer season highlights reported by Jenkins in an e-mail were:

• Overall, the 2017-18 statewide deer harvest was 136,013, the fifth highest harvest on record. Crittenden County lead the state in deer harvest, followed by Hardin, Pendleton, Christian, and Owen counties.

• Modern gun season ended at 99,872 harvested deer, which is the fifth highest on record.

During periods of extreme cold and snow deer don’t move around much, but a thaw or the advance of a front, usually puts deer on their feet in search of food.

In winter deer herd up, traveling in small groups, usually segregated in family groups, or by sex.

When temperatures moderate, late winter is a good time to scout your deer hunting area. Trails, antler rubs and scrapes in the dirt made by bucks pre-rut are still visible.

You might even find a shed antler or two. Don’t spend the winter inside, pick your days, and get outdoors.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors column.

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