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Field reports: Wisconsin confirms first West Nile in grouse; biggest buck confirmed

Luke Brewster holds the antlers of what now is confirmed as the highest scoring hunter-killed whitetail buck of all time. Photo courtesy North American Whitetail magazine.

Wisconsin's first confirmed cases of West Nile virus in ruffed grouse were reported last week by the state Department of Natural Resources. The DNR said that West Nile was confirmed in three of 16 grouse blood samples tested so far.

The agency is testing both sickly-looking grouse turned into wildlife officials and grouse blood samples submitted by hunter volunteers from birds shot in the field this past season. The DNR said the results are still preliminary because another 238 grouse samples remain to be tested.

Wildlife researchers are concerned West Nile virus may be one factor leading to an unusually rapid and steep decline in grouse numbers in recent years. Hundreds of samples from grouse shot in Wisconsin, Minnesota and MIchigan are being tested to see how prevalent the disease is in the popular game bird.

Michigan already had five positive West Nile hits in 2018 and officials in Pennsylvania say West Nile may already is a big enough factor there to spur grouse population declines, especially in areas where the bird is already stressed by poor habitat conditions. After the Pennsylvania study showed problems, wildlife managers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan began to wonder if the recent sharp downturn in grouse numbers in the Midwest may be related to the virus, leading to the region-wide testing effort this fall. Minnesota grouse drumming was down 29 percent in 2018 from 2017.

Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader for the Minnesota DNR, said her agency has not yet received results from Minnesota grouse tested for West Nile. She expects the first results by March.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board last fall moved to chop a month off the state's grouse hunting season because of concerns over a declining population and the potential impact of West Nile virus on the bird — even though Wisconsin DNR biologists say it's too soon to say West Nile is an issue for the state's overall grouse population. Ruffed grouse populations generally rise and fall over a roughly 10-year cycle, so declines are not unexpected, the DNR notes, although "the 2017 decline occurred before the cycle would typically'' go down.

In addition to the West Nile detected, researchers found native Eastern Equine Encephalitis in five of the birds, including two of those that also had West Nile.

West Nile had been detected in other birds in Wisconsin and Minnesota since the early 2000s and is believed to have caused a reduction in some crow and blue jay populations.

Ice anglers battling slush

For the past few weeks there's been one word echoing across much of the region's ice fishing community: Slush.

Thinner than usual ice coupled with heavy snow in some areas, plus some melting temperatures in others, have created a problem of water on top of the ice. When that water mixes with snow it becomes a messy, boot-sucking, snowmobile stucking problem.

Slush was reported across Northeastern Minnesota, with several conservation officers reporting it was limiting angler access to fishing spots, especially anglers trying to get larger ice houses on or off the lakes.

The problem was especially bad from Duluth north and east — St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties — where the most snow has fallen since Christmas. But slush reports have come out of the Grand Rapids area, too.

If there's some good news to come along with this weekend's subzero cold snap it's that it should help freeze and firm up some of that slush and make lake access easier.

Fly fishing film festival(s)

Got the sub-zero blues? Maybe a touch of cabin fever? How about a dose of warm weather, running water and rising trout?

The first of two fly fishing film festivals coming to Duluth this winter is set for Jan. 27 at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth. The event — F3T, Fly Fishing Film Tour — is sponsored by the Gitche Gumee chapter of Trout Unlimited and Arrowhead Fly Fishers with help from Bent Paddle Brewing, Great Lakes Fly Shop, Superior Fly Angler and Marine General.

The event will benefit local and regional conservation work in streams. Everyone who attends will have chances at lots of great door prizes, plus raffles for great fly fishing gear!

Doors open at 3 p.m. with movies starting at 4 p.m. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 at the door. Contact Carl Haensel at carlhaensel@hotmail.com or (218) 525-2381.

Another fly fishing film festival — IF4, the International Fly Fishing Film Festival — is set for March 22 at Zeitgeist Zinema 2 theater in Duluth.

Largest-ever whitetail buck confirmed

After the 60-day mandatory drying time passed, a massive buck shot by Luke Brewster in Illinois in November has been confirmed as the largest archery non-typical of all-time, as well as the largest hunter-killed whitetail of all-time at, 320 ⅝ inches.

The buck's score, announced by northamericanwhitetail.com, topped by more than 20 inches Mike Beatty's 294-inch Pope & Young non-typical archery world record, taken in 2000 in Ohio. The Brewster buck will be featured in an upcoming edition of the magazine. Two other higher scoring bucks have been found dead.

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