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Water woes

10/18/2010

Record-breaking rainfall across the Midwest during the spring and early summer, 2010 created a false sense of security for deer hunters. Reliant on precipitation for antler development, natural browse and food plot growth, hunters had reason to believe 2010 would be a banner year.

Little did they know, the worst drought in 50 years was on their doorstep and about to wreak havoc on deer and the way they hunt them.

And since misery loves company, the Southeast, Southwest and Northeast are also in the grips of one of the worst droughts in recent history.

Though they can't make it rain, experts can at least explain why this is happening; predict when it will end, and offer advice on how to hunt around it.

"In October, we reclassified parts of the Ohio Valley as suffering from drought conditions seen only once in every 50 years," reported Brad Rippey, meteorologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The lack of precipitation, combined with record heat can both be blamed on El Nino, which is a warming of the sea-surface temperature in the tropical regions of the Pacific. It tends to result in warming of the overall global temperature.

El Ninos have happened before, but never like this.

January through September had a combined global land and sea surface temperature of 58.67 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 1.17 F above the 20th century average, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration release on Oct. 15.

That ties the year-to-date with 1998 as having the warmest first nine months of the year since the National Climatic Data Center started keeping records in 1880.

"The good news is that a strong La Nina is building and should bring cooler temperatures and above average precipitation for the Ohio Valley from October through December," Rippey said. "Unfortunately, that La Nina will worsen the drought conditions across the southern states."

Feeling it in the field

For deer and deer hunters, winter rain and snow will offer almost no relief.

"Deer can get all the moisture they need to survive from the vegetation they eat and as a byproduct of digestion in drought years," said Kip Adams, Wildlife Biologist for QDMA. "A lack or rainfall in the early summer months, however, is definitely linked to stunted antler development."

Though the Midwest had ample rain until July, other parts of the country have been abnormally dry all year.

"Additionally, natural browse like honeysuckle is not as readily available for deer this year, and food plots will not produce near the tonnage of food they normally would have," he said.

Count on the drought to change deer movement patterns as well.

Though deer get moisture from food, they still like to drink when possible. The record heat has intensified the need to drink freestanding water.

Free-flowing water sources are rare now, so deer should be easier than usual to find.

Dry weather has also sped up the grain harvest in the Midwest. Deer that would normally hide in a sea of standing corn until November, are finding themselves confined to woodlots and fencerows much earlier than usual.

As a result, they are much easier to see much earlier this year.

Perhaps the worst side effect of a dry, hot fall is the increased possibility of disease.

"Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease happens every year, but is always worse in a drought year," Adams said. "It used to be confined to the southern states, but in recent years, has been showing up in places like Michigan."

In fact, several Michigan counties recently confirmed cases of deer killed by EHD.

Midges that reproduce and thrive in hot, dry weather transmit EHD. One good frost generally kills the pests and stops the outbreak for the year.

"The good news about EHD this year is that the outbreak started relatively late. It therefore should be a short season," he added.

Plant smart

Though he regrets it, Mark Trudeau is getting used to advising deer hunters on how to cope with drought. He works for Whitetail Institute, one of America's biggest food plot seed production companies.

"The first thing I tell guys is to put the seed in the ground, regardless of the weather. It's gonna eventually rain. It's got to," he said.

At the same time, he advises them to plant smart.

"Most seeds are fine in the soil until the right amount of moisture falls to germinate them. Some seeds, however, handle dormancy better than other," Trudeau said.

"Hard seeds" such as brassica and clover are better suited to sit in the soil for long periods of time. "Soft seeds" such as rye and other cereal grains don't hold up as well.

According to Trudeau, soft seeds should be planted before a rain if possible.

But even when enough rain falls to properly germinate cereal grains, a subsequent return to drought conditions invariably kills them. This pattern has been the norm across most of the Midwest this year, leaving most cereal grain plots with dead, withered plants and nothing to start once the rain and La Nina finally arrives.

To guard against premature germination, Whitetail Institute inoculates their hard seeds so they will not germinate without enough moisture to sustain the plant. Other, less expensive bulk seeds are sold without the coating and will germinate with just exposure to morning dew.

"That is bad in a drought year since even new brassicas and clover plants can't get enough moisture to sustain them from dew alone and will quickly die," Trudeau said.

The good news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture believes the current drought has no bearing on weather patterns beyond this year, and that this is probably not part of a decade-long pattern.

Deer and deer hunters can only hope and pray they are right.