And a river runs through it …

The IOWA RIVER has many secrets, some of which it reveals easily and others it holds in deep pockets well hidden from sunshine and people. But it is no secret that winter in Iowa, and especially our recent spell of very cold air temperatures, has allowed ice to grow thicker on area lakes, ponds and the river itself. Some of the open channels seen in todays photo may be closed entirely by the time you read this. Consider river ice as very unstable, unsafe, and a potential lure to the unsuspecting person who walks toward an open water lead.

When an ice edge or shelf breaks off suddenly, there is no going back quickly enough. You are going to get wet fast. You may get swept away with the current and slip under a solid ice cover downstream of the hole you fell through. If this scenario happens, a human life has about two minutes of life left before hypothermia and/or lack of air takes a life. Do not let this happen to you or your friends. This is just a fact of life one must be aware of while you explore a county park or wildlife area on one of your winter hikes. I am saying that a hike along the river, or maybe on the river, is a good thing to plan for when a good winter day invites you to go outside. Be smart and be safe.

A minimum of four inches of clear ice is required for relative safety while fishing through the ice of a pond or lake. Recent extreme cold air has thickened the ice to well over 4 inches in many places. Test the ice closer to shore first, then gradually move out and check the ice again. Have a buddy along with you, ice picks around your neck, a life vest, a throwable floatation cushion, 50 feet of rope and lots of common sense before an ice fishing journey for tasty bluegills or crappies.

Bluegill like a small wax worm to eat. Put it on a number 8 hook, drop it to the lake bottom, then pull it back up twelve inches or so. Then wait for a nibble and set the hook. Northern Iowa lakes also have produced yellow perch and walleye through a hole cut in the surface ice. Anglers sometimes find the right bait to nab a bass, a northern or even a catfish. To find good maps of lake bottom contours and habitat holding fish, go to the map web site to make your own printable maps. The site is www.iowadnr.gov/maps/m/fishingatlas/ to view all possibilities.

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Many HUNTING SEASONS are drawing to a close on Jan. 10, the traditional end date for many huntable species. Iowa’s pheasant, the late muzzle loader and archery deer and fall turkey seasons end Jan. 10. Other critters still have time left for a winter tracking task when we get snow. Cottontail rabbit season goes through Feb. 28. Crow season begins Jan. 14 and runs to March 31. Trapping for beaver ends April 15. Goose seasons have many zone specific end dates in January. But for those who like the challenge of hunting “light geese”, i.e. snow geese primarily, there is a special conservation order season from Jan. 28 to April 15. Why? Because the snow goose population that grew to large proportions over that last several decades has been eating themselves out of house and home in the arctic tundra west and north of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. This overpopulation of snow geese has severely impacted in a negative way fragile tundra plants of the flat lands. Hunters are trying to take a small segment of these geese as they migrate northward from Texas rice fields. Huge flocks of white-front geese and snow geese make for spectacular viewing. And if a dedicated hunting outfitter can make a decoy set look real enough, some young geese may come in close. When the action gets going, one has to be ready.

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DEER season closes on Tuesday the 10th. At this point approximately 95,300 deer have been removed from the population by youth, early muzzle loaders hunters, archers and shotgunners. Doe deer taken number close to 42,800 and antlered deer at bit over 43, 410. Button bucks on the record came in at 8,642. And there were 466 shed antlered bucks killed primarily during the later hunt dates. The top ten counties with the most deer reported are Clayton 4,143, Allamakee 3,326, Jackson 2,576, Madison 2,417, Warren 4210, Van Buren 2,314, Winneshiek 2,208, Dubuque 2,093, Fayette 1,815 and Linn 1,784. These totals are not final. There will be slight increases showing up between now and next week at this time. But for the most part the numbers are in. Lots of good venison steaks, backstraps and other meat cuts await winter meal time all over Iowa.

Bucks that have already naturally dropped, or shed, their antlers number 466. That is about 0.4 percent of the 95,300 reported deer kills. What causes antlers to drop off? It is an entirely natural event for deer family species of white-tailed deer, mule deer, caribou, moose, and elk. The males of these species grow large headgear every year to impress other contenders for mating priority, and to aid in the female’s decision for mating. Early antler loss is very small compared to the vast majority of bucks that retain strong antlers into January.

Antler growth and the later loss of the antlers is largely controlled by hormones. It is also regulated by day length which biologists call photoperiod. Internally it is a complicated interaction of pituitary and pineal glands, testes and the subsequent mix of chemicals. Antler buds grow each spring from the base of the skull at the point called the pedicle. This is true bone growth, one of the fastest natural exterior accumulations of mineral components. Growth takes all summer and fall. Then decreasing day length and increasing testosterone shut down the growth. Soft velvety exterior blood vessel and tissue is discarded and rubbed off on tree branches, grasses or shrubs.

By late winter, days are very short, chemical levels are long past peak, and the pedicle bass cells called osteoclasts remove bone tissue by reabsorbing calcium between the antler base and the skull pedicle. When weak enough, an antler can just fall off from its won weight. Or it can get bumped by a tree branch and fall. A deer jumping over a fence can jar an antler loose. Good nutrition plays a part in males retaining antlers longer. But only up to a point in time when nature takes over to get rid of the unneeded head gear. Bucks in prime condition prior to the rut time frame skip lots of meals, living off their accumulated fat reserves as they run hard looking for mates.

A majority of white-tailed deer in Iowa will drop their antlers by late February.

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BIRD WATCHING at Grammer Grove Wildlife Area is a big deal for dedicated advocates of migrating feathered critters, especially raptors following the river valley southward on the annual journey to warmer climates and more food. Mark Proescholdt of Liscomb is one of the dedicated raptor watchers each fall at this Marshall County area. In his 27 years of record keeping, 2016 was his fifth highest year. A total of 3,221 raptors passed through and over Grammer Grove. Broad-winged Hawks always lead with big numbers and that tally was 1.049. Turkey Vultures were next at 681 followed by Bald Eagles at 652. The common red-tailed hawks were 312. Other species seen in the skies were Ospreys, Norhtern Harriers, Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, Red-shouldered hawks, Swainson’s hawks, Rough-legged hawks, Golden eagles, American Kestrels, Merlins and Peregrines.

Mark and his helper observers were Ken and Mary Ann Gregory, Diana Pesek, Eugene and Eloise Armstrong and others. They had a great time making an outdoor adventure into a real time fun experience. Good work and congratulations to all.

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Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.