Be COVID-safe this hunting week on Manitoulin Island

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MANITOULIN – Safety is and should be at the forefront of every hunter’s mind when they take to the bush, but this season adds a whole new dimension to the mix with pandemic restrictions and protocols to consider. While the provincial government is recommending everyone stay close to home while the COVID-19 virus is still very much a concern, for Manitoulin Islanders the annual hunting season remains a strong draw.

While deer hunting itself is traditionally a fairly solitary engagement, allowing quite nicely for physical distancing, there are a host of ancillary activities that can be problematic: The close quarters of most hunt camps combined with the homecoming tradition aspects of the hunt. For many families and groups of old friends the annual hunt is a time to reengage and catch up with each other, renewing the bonds of a lifetime—a difficult thing to forgo. 

Some regions of the province hard hit by pandemic restrictions will have a serious disrupting impact and travelling to places such as Manitoulin Island, where the virus has been largely absent, could have a devastating impact on Island communities.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) point out in their communications that the government is asking people to stay home as much as possible and advise every hunter to “take a hard look at their situation and determine if they can hunt within the public health guidelines.” As the OFAH suggests, “the government recommends that anyone who is in an at-risk group, who thinks they have COVID-19 symptoms, or who might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 should self-isolate. Hunting can wait until you are not putting yourself or the public at risk.”

That’s great advice, but Islanders can be forgiven for thinking that hanging out at the hunt camp with your bubble folk does little to heighten risk.

Should hunters decide to make their way to the hunt camp and tree stand this season, the OFAH has a number of things to consider before you go.

First on the list are licences and permits. It will be important to get these lined up well before hand, as the outlets that you normally depend on might not be as accessible as you are used to. If your traditional hunting area is some distance away it would be prudent to call ahead to avoid disappointment at the doorstep. A lot of the permits, licences and tags can be obtained through an online account.

Printing those licences before you pack your bags and head to your hunting grounds is highly advisable. 

Some things remain the same, especially when it comes to firearms. If you are gun hunting this fall, you are required to carry your possession and acquisition licence (PAL) with you. Make sure it is up to date and don’t leave renewal to the last minute. As the OFAH advises, “COVID-19 has led to lengthy delays in licence renewals, so if your PAL expires later this year, renew it as soon as possible (the online option is the quickest).”

While there is a six-month grace period for expired PALs, that only goes so far. There are strict restrictions during that time, advises the OFAH. They point out that the grace period only allows someone to legally store, but not use, their firearms until the PAL has been renewed.

Getting things ready for camp often involves following a checklist, but this season that inventory taking is of increased importance, so take a more careful and detailed inventory of equipment. You may find buying or replacing something is a lot more difficult these days.

The pandemic has led to many shortages, some of them quite surprising. The OFAH advises hunters to not count on being able to pick up ammo or archery items on the way.

So much of life isn’t “normal” this season and that includes butchers. So if you plan on using a particular butcher, call before the season to make sure they are still in operation and will accept wild game.

During the topsy-turvy world of the pandemic not all regions are as open or accessible as they have been in the past. You will want to confirm that where you are planning to hunt is still accessible. 

The website www.ofah.org/covid19closures can be accessed to get up-to-date information. The OFAH advises that if you are planning to hunt on public land, you should have a backup location sorted out just in case crowding at your first choice makes physical distancing not possible.

Keep an eye out for travel advisories if you normally hunt a good ways off-Island. Remember that physical distancing will make carpooling a challenge, especially with people outside your household, so keep that in mind as you plan your hunting trip logistics.

But the biggest challenge this hunting season is the hunt camp, given that it tends to involve being in very close quarters with other people, especially when it comes to sleeping quarters. Avoid the traditional buffet-style of meal and close contact activities such as card games. Try to plan out the hunt camp amenities so that maintaining space is easier. The OFAH suggests bringing an extra tent or renting a recreational vehicle. 

As previously mentioned, most hunting is fairly solitary by its very nature, but blinds, tree stands, watercraft and vehicles such as ATVs and side-by-sides will require extra precautions. Avoid sharing blinds and stands between hunts, especially if they are enclosed, and don’t be afraid to sanitize.

As the OFAH points out, “physical distancing may not be feasible when a big animal is on the ground. Especially for moose, hunters have to work as a team to get the animal quartered and out of the bush. When working closely together can’t be avoided, wearing a mask is a good idea.” In fact, wearing a mask in any of the close quarter situations is a great idea. If it feels silly, get over it. COVID-19 can be present with no symptoms, but just as deadly to those who are infected by an asymptomatic carrier. And a reminder: conservation officers will be looking for COVID-19 infractions and can lay fines accordingly.

OFAH biologist Keith Munro’s online information was invaluable when preparing this article and his suggestions, along with other useful information can be accessed at www.ofah.org.