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When it comes to the recently completed Ohio muzzleloader deer hunting season, Mike Tonkovich probably should have quit while he was ahead, as in before Christmas.
Before the holidays, Tonkovich forecast a muzzleloader bag of as many as 25,000 deer - if there was a little snow on the ground.
Then, just a couple of days before the four-day season the state's lead deer biologist backed off, given that a weather pattern had produced as much as 30 inches of snow in the northeast snow belt and a forecast called for brutal cold.
At that point, he said, "I was looking for 15,000," which would have been well below the 20,659 deer taken in 2009, when the season still was held between Christmas and New Year's.
However, the preliminary count of checked deer completed on Tuesday showed a kill of 24,078, second only to the season record of 24,765 in 2004.
"I can't believe it," said Tonkovich. "I'm done predicting."
The snow just before opening day - up to fives inches or more in the hilly big-woods deer country of the southeast - apparently must have helped hunters. "That's got to be it," said Tonkovich.
And hunters must have ignored, or at least endured, last weekend's brutally cold temperatures, which dipped below zero by Sunday morning in many areas. The woods were so frozen that morning that small saplings gave off a brittle, metallic ring when bumped or brushed in passing.
Plenty of hunters also must have taken days off to hunt Monday and Tuesday as well, when temperatures moderated and deer were much more active.
The snow certainly helped show just how many deer remained in various areas, even after nearly three months of archery hunting, and youth, general, and bonus-weekend shotgun seasons. The Ohio Division of Wildlife estimated that up to 210,000 hunters might have participated in the season.
Signs of deer pawing up snow, looking for browse, were everywhere. Tonkovich noted the acorn, or mast, crop was among the poorest in years in the southern portions of the state, and that may contribute to widespread foraging now.
Counties reporting the highest number of deer checked during the muzzleloader season included Tuscarawas 1,345; Harrison 1,025; Guernsey 1,000; Washington 937; Athens 816; Belmont 735; Coshocton 692; Licking 679; Meigs 645, and Jefferson 616.
A total of 251,826 deer have been killed so far this season when combining the gun seasons, early and statewide muzzleloader seasons, and the first nine weeks of the archery season.
Hunters took a record 252,017 deer during last year's hunting seasons, but that is certain to be exceeded by the final archery count after Feb. 7.
Tonkovich said a final tally of 260,000 is entirely possible. County-by-county-kill totals, with 2009 comparisons, are available on-line at ohiodnr.com.
In related news, Toledo hunter Dean Thompson weighs in with "something strange on our recent muzzleloader trip to Morgan County." How about a ruffed grouse that wouldn't take no for an answer?
Thompson was hunting with his 13-year-old grandson, Bradley, and his son, Eric. Father and son were in a treestand together, and they had to share it with a wayward ruffed grouse for two days.
Wayward indeed, maybe even addle-brained from the deep cold. A grouse is normally extremely wary, and usually explodes in flight many yards ahead of any intruder.
But this one, Thompson said, was "sitting on their heads, shoulders, gun barrels, hands, etcetera. It acted like it owned the county. It even followed them out of the tree and to the ATV. The next day it was there again, this time even more aggressive. It picked a hole in my son's hat!
They actually had to finally drive it away.
"I had a similar situation during the shotgun season about a quarter-mile away. I guess it could be the same bird. It wasn't quite so friendly with me. I questioned a couple of farmers in the area, and they didn't know of anyone raising them."
Thompson figures, probably correctly, that such offbeat behavior is not going to keep the gamebird from becoming a predator's dinner sometime soon.
Once the grouse-pestering passed, grandson Bradley was able to settle down and shoot his first muzzleloader deer, a doe, Thompson adds.
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