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Ken Perrotte’s Outdoors Column: Tiny gnat is big trouble for white-tails

An outbreak of hemorrhagic disease has been afflicting Virginia’s white-tailed deer population.

Mary Marshall, who lives in Stafford County near Aquia Creek, wrote this week to report that several deer were found dead recently. The deer apparentlysuccumbed after being bitten and infected by small, biting flies in the genus Culicoides. The names of the tiny pests vary regionally, but they are often called biting midges, sand gnats, sand flies, no-see-ums and punkies.

Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said calls about deer killed by HD have been common in Amherst, Bedford, Botetourt, Henry, Franklin and Patrick counties, with some individual properties reporting more than 30 dead deer.

Wildlife biologist Mike Dye, who manages terrestrial species in and around Culpeper, said he has heard of impacted areas in Culpeper and Caroline counties.

“This is the time of year when we start getting more reports. Bowhunters are in the woods and they start finding deer,” Dye said. “[The outbreak] doesn’t seem to be extremely widespread, but it is probably a little above average.”

Cooler weather, especially a couple good of frosts, often ends the outbreak.

Hemorrhagic disease is one of Mother Nature’s variables that really perturbs landowners and hunters who work some sort of quality deer management agenda, trying to get a balanced deer herd with a good proportion of mature bucks. Finding those deer dead from a near-microscopic biting gnat must be extremely frustrating.

The Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study at the University of Georgia has researched this disease, which reportedly occurs every year in some portions of the southeastern U.S Infected deer can develop a multitude of symptoms. Some die within a few days; some struggle through it and a few survive. Loss of appetite and resulting emaciation, lesions, and lameness from peeling of hoof walls can be symptoms. Survivors are sometimes later identified by their damaged hooves. Dead deer are often found near water, where they seek respite from high fever.

According to the Georgia study, mortality during outbreaks is usually well below 25 percent of the population, but can exceed 50 percent.

The actual impact on population will not be easily determined. Before anyone starts blaming the disease for not seeing loads of deer over the last couple of weeks, consider that the woods are raining down a bumper crop of acorns. Many deer are likely holed up close to their favored oak trees.

Finally, the virus does not infect humans, according to the experts, but handling or eating a deer with obvious infections or lesions or abscesses related to disease isn’t the wisest thing to do. Hunters and landowners finding sick or dead deer should report it to the VDGIF.

JOHN BYRNE

I received word last month that a man well-known in Shenandoah Valley turkey hunting lore passed away. John H. Byrne Jr. of Homeplace Farms in Lowry died in early September at age 87.

Byrne began hunting turkeys out in the scenic mountains near Bedford as a boy. He learned how to make wing-bone turkey calls from his maternal grandfather.

Wing-bone calls are tricky to use compared with today’s standard friction and mouth diaphragm calls.

I visited his farm nearly a decade ago and he and his wife, Sue, were the epitome of hospitable hosts. Byrne believed each call should be made using the wing bones from a single turkey. He showed me several calls and outlined his theory that calls made his way would sound like a bird of the same sex and age as the bird from which the bones were derived.

He used no finishes on the bones, believing it would impair the tonal quality.

Beyond his calls, though, Mr. Byrne was proudest of his Appalachian turkey dogs, which he created through selective breeding. He routinely participated in autumn hunts where the turkey dogs would run and all hunters would use wing-bone calls. I was invited a couple of years ago to join one of those hunts but, regrettably, other commitments kept me from attending.

A set of four wing-bone calls that he made and signed are among my most treasured hunting artifacts—although I’m basically a pot and peg turkey caller and not nearly confident that I can fool many birds, especially with something as challenging as wing-bone calls.

Rest in peace, Mr. Byrne, and thanks for the stories you shared, the calls you crafted and the traditions you preserved.

TOP 50 ‘FISH OFF’

Larry Wollersheim of Louisa and Preston Cox of Fredericksburg won the “Top 50 Fish-off” that recently wrapped up High Point Marina’s 2012 bass tournament season.

Carlos Wood at High Point reported that 83 teams fished the Lake Anna events this season. The top 50 teams qualified for the finale.

Wollersheim and Cox weighed 16 pounds, 4 ounces of bass to capture the honors, their fifth consecutive

season championship.

Fredericksburg’s Phil Wilcox and P.J. Cox finished second; Martin Villa and Jeff Gibson of Charlottesville were third; and Trey Perrin and Alvin Carroll of Louisa were fourth.

Ken Perrotte can be reached at The Free Lance–Star, 616 Amelia Street, Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, by fax at 373-8455 or email at outdoors@freelancestar.com.

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