Maybe it’s the aroma of bacon and coffee mingled with woodsmoke, or the damp smell of a Northwoods swamp mingled with the musky stench of a buck’s tarsal glands.
Perhaps it’s the sight of freshly-fallen snow, brightening an otherwise bleak landscape, or the brightness of blaze orange in the cabs of pickups or posed in front of the gray-brown of the season’s harvest hanging from a meat pole.
It could be the feel of a damp November wind, a spit of cold precipitation in your face and the feel of the cold steel and smooth, polished wood of the rifle in your hands.
It’s certainly the quiet expectation, likely mixed with a slight coffee buzz, as you sit in the predawn darkness anticipating the first light of opening day – you hear truck doors slamming, or the yip of a coyote, or those first few distant shots that are just a bit too early. Maybe a twig snaps downwind and you wonder if now your moment.
Of course, it’s all of that and more. It’s deer season.
For many, it’s the state’s greatest tradition. Of course, in addition to being a chance to hunt deer and to celebrate, it’s part of the Northwoods’ lifeblood.
In addition to the approximately 10 percent of Wisconsin residents that will hunt, thousands more participate by providing food, hotels and other services, making deer hunting an important part of the economy.
Kim Baltus, executive director of the Minocqua Area Chamber of Commerce, said, locally, things are looking good for deer season.
“The word got out about the snowfall [Nov. 12] and we got a lot of calls from the central and southern parts of the state wondering if that snow is sticking,” she said. “So, I think a lot of people are looking forward to coming up to the Northwoods for deer hunting this week.”
A number of local businesses stand to benefit from this influx, according to Baltus.
“We know there is certainly an impact in our restaurants, and particularly in our grocery stores,” she said.
“A lot of people have set up deer camps at their cabins and cottages. I’m sure that has some impact on our lodging, but I do know that there’s a lot of private cottages and homes that will be full of deer hunters this weekend.”
There is evidence that prospective visitors are getting excited about the upcoming hunt.
“A lot of people call for long-range forecasts, too ... they can often get that information on their computers at home, but they’ll call us and say, ‘What’s the forecast for the weekend look like?’ because they want it to be cold, they’d love a little snow. But they’re coming anyway,” Baltus said.
“It’s a real strong family tradition, I think, in Wisconsin for those deer hunting families.”
Though the opening weekend will probably be the busiest, a number of those coming in are planning a more extended stay.
“We’ve had a fair number of calls from people also saying they’re going to be up here for the deer hunting season and they want to know where they can go for Thanksgiving dinner – what restaurants are open,” Baltus said.
She indicated that things may be looking up a little, economy-wise.
“I don’t remember as many calls last year for the same kind of thing. I think people are feeling a little bit better this year – maybe in a little bit better position to ... invest a little bit more in the season.”
While area businesses are hoping to put some cash in their tills, area hunters will be hoping to put some venison in their freezers.
Recently-retired fishing guide, current outdoor columnist and renowned area outdoorsman Buckshot Anderson has been a part of the Anderson/Jorgensen Deer Camp for many years, as his regular readers know. Anderson said he’ll be taking to a stand near his house opening day.
“I’ve got about a 10-minute walk down to my stand on the property here – down in the ‘little hell-hole in the swamp’ as we call it,” Anderson said. “I’ll be sitting there waiting for something to come in when people start pushing them around. That’s something I’ve been doing now ... since ‘03, when I built that stand out in the swamp.
“Other than that ... I’m just happy to be out there again at my age and still be able to do it.”
Anderson indicated his expectations for harvesting deer aren’t real high. He hasn’t seen much around.
“We’ve had one little – well, he was a six-pointer, he’s only got one horn already, he was probably fighting with a bigger guy – that’s come into our little food we stick out here by the house. And driving the road up – Dead Man’s Gulch where I live is all gravel – I see maybe a little sign. Although, there’s been quite a few bow hunters in there, so maybe they’ve got them pushed back into the swamp, where they’re kind of hunkered down for the time being.
“The deer population right around here is really low – I think we’ve got more coyotes and wolves than deer.”
Also low in numbers are hunters in Anderson’s group this year.
“There’s only going to be four of us, instead of the usual six, going out. So, it’ll be less congestion in the woods I guess, but, other than that we’re going to miss the two guys that aren’t here. They’ve been part of the group for quite a while.”
Anderson said he has two stands on his property and this year he has a back-up if action is slow.
“One is usually used by one of the guys that is not going to show, so if I don’t see anything from mine in a couple of days I’ll probably move over to that one ... not that I’m looking forward to getting one quick, I mean, that’d kind of waste the season to just [fill] the one tag and then be done already.”
Anderson said he is not worried too much about getting venison for the freezer.
“I’ve got a couple nice packages of it yet, so we’re not going to be starving to death if I don’t get one.”
Anderson recently got a new knee and said he is looking forward to being more mobile in the woods this year than he was last year, when he needed assistance with the deer he shot.
“I killed a doe opening day, and I was hurting last year with my knee – that was before I had my knee surgery. I had trouble walking. In fact, I couldn’t even drag the dang thing out of the swamp. I had to call on the cell phone to get ... help to drag it out.
“That’s when I decided to get the knee replaced, so this year that won’t be a problem. I didn’t hunt much last year after that. This year I’m doing ... better, so I’ll be able to spend some time out there if I have to.”
Kurt’s Island Sports
Christy and Kurt Justice of Kurt’s Island Sports Shop in Minocqua said that license sales probably won’t compare favorably to last year’s. There are fewer opportunities in the Northwoods, they say.
“I do know that there are some units that are buck-only this year, that had doe tags last year,” Christy Justice said.
“In general I don’t think there’s going to be as many because of the buck-only units.”
She said some of the usual products are selling well, though.
“People are loading up on the scent killer, scents, gutting gloves and trail tacks just to prepare for the season.”
Kurt Justice said the weekend prior to the opener was a poor one for most bow hunters he had heard from. The weather was warm and windy and Sunday brought steady rain. But the report isn’t all bad.
“I’ve talked to several people that said the bucks are in the rut right now,” he said. “I think what the gun hunters will get this year – because we have an early opener – is the tail-end of the rut, which is good. It’s something the gun hunters don’t always get to partake in.”
Justice thinks some of the typical rut tactics might work early in the gun season.
“Especially the first day, before the deer realize what’s going on, scents, calls, the can calls and the rattling. That type of thing should work,” he said.
Though Justice thinks participation in some of the area will be down with the lack of antlerless tags, he noted that the situation is not all bad.
“I’m sure it’s a tough pill to swallow for some people wanting to hang some venison,” he said. “We’ve seen what happens. Two years ago they cut back [on antlerless tags] – last year we saw a lot of one-and-one-half-year-old bucks brought in.
“With a lot fewer antlerless tags, you see a lot fewer antlerless deer – which includes button-bucks – getting shot, and we saw that increase of bucks brought in last year. I think that’s why.”
As far as hunting goes, Justice said he will be otherwise engaged when opening morning rolls around, but said he almost arranged to be on stand. Justice is a fishing guide and has work. Well, at least he’ll be outdoors.
“I’ve not been able to hunt very many opening days, because we’re a registration station. Now we have a new employee that doesn’t deer hunt, and my wife doesn’t deer hunt, and I was going to have the opener. For the first time in years I was going to get a chance to go out – and one of my clients booked. I’m supposed to be muskie fishing that morning ... you gotta do what you gotta do. After that I think I’ll get out Saturday evening ... and Sunday.”
Justice said those that work for him get out deer hunting.
“All my employees like to deer hunt ... I can’t tell them, ‘No,’ but I’ll tell them, ‘As soon as you bag your deer, get in here so I can get out,’ and I usually never see hide nor hair of them until deer season’s over. I always tell them, ‘I better start hiring better hunters.’”
We polled people on Facebook about their plans for the gun hunt. The following is the question and some of the responses received:
Question: What are some of your traditions/plans for the gun deer hunt?
Alex Young: Lots of limburger cheese and onion on crackers w/a dark beer or two every night, a longstanding deer season tradition passed down the generations.
Charlie Pauke: Liver Fest ... new to me ... but enjoyable!
Jim Ashbrenner: Traditions: Head to Newood on Thursday night to camp with my 3 favorite hunters. Hang out and freshen up scrapes and food piles and have a few “Newood Old Fashions” on Friday afternoon. Read latest copy of “Field and Stream” and listen to the Tomahawk radio station until sleep overwhelms me about 8 p.m. Friday night. First deer of the weekend gets heart and inside loins removed for immediate grilling and toasted with a bottle of Kessler’s.
Rick Veriha: I got a weird season ahead of me. Trying a new area down by Antigo. A large section of MFL land. Don’t know how many people hunt it, but I’ve scouted it and it looks promising. A lot of uncertainty till opening morning. Also hunting solo for the first time in MANY years. Not many traditions being carried out this year, but at least I will be able to log some woods time.
Ryan Hanson: Opening morning is always fueled by fried Spam sandwiches. The high fat content keeps you warm and the high salt content replenishes the electrolytes lost from the overdose of alcohol from the night before. It’s a little trick I learned from the diets of our native Alaskan brothers who live above the Arctic Circle. And a side note: Hawaiians eat more Spam per capita than any other state.
Ann Coakley: My Mom and I (and now my daughter Gracie) love opening day ... we spend the day together and muse at how our men have buck fever. We do a little shopping and have lunch together. Often with my aunties and/or cousins, who join in the musing. We’re glad for the girl time and glad they’re finally in the woods they’ve been talking about for months. We’re also glad when they bring home venison. All-in-all, we see opening day as a HOLIDAY!
Deer hunters: Share you success, failure, fun and funny deer hunting stories on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/lakelandtimes. You can also share stories by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictures with complete information are more than welcome. Please include your phone number with any emails.
Woodruff DNR wildlife biologist Michele Woodford noted the rutting activity and had a reminder for those hunting certain deer management units.
“Just a reminder that the units up in our area are going to be bucks-only again, so there won’t be any over-the-counter antlerless tags,” Woodford said.
DMUs 29B, 34, 35 and 36, which cover most of Vilas County, are among the bucks-only units this year. In units 31, 37 and 38, which cover most of Oneida County, hunters can take does if they possess the proper tags.
Woodford said the deer have been active recently.
“It seems like the deer are definitely moving right now,” she said. “With ... the rut, it’s been pretty exciting. It seems like I’ve been seeing more bucks than antlerless deer just the last couple of days, driving around.”
Woodford expects the whitetail population to be in decent shape, overall.
“I would assume [since] we have had mild winters we ... should be seeing some decent harvests going on.”
There has been some good forage this fall. While it’s good news for deer, hunters in some areas might see fewer deer if they’re not right by prime food sources.
“It seems like we had a really nice acorn drop,” Woodford said. “The hunters that I know, that have been doing some bow hunting, it seems like they weren’t seeing much movement because of the acorn availability. So, deer could be holding tight a little bit more than if there had not been as many acorns.”
But the earlier opener might be an advantage for hopeful hunters, Woodford said.
“The rut seems to be a lot closer to the gun season this year, so that might help.”
Woodford said she will be aging deer that hunters bring in opening weekend. She hunts, but hadn’t had the time to scout much and might not make out opening morning.
“Later in the season – definitely later in the season I’ll go. I’m just not sure where yet,” she said.
The outlook from the DNR
The DNR expects hundreds of thousands of deer gun season licenses to be sold, with about 10 percent of Wisconsin residents being licensed deer hunters.
In a DNR news release, Kevin Wallenfang, big game ecologist, said this year’s deer hunting should feel like it once did with the elimination of October herd-control hunts.
“It’s a tradition that many hunters and businesses look forward to all year long. It will also have more of a traditional feel to it this year due to the elimination of most early season gun hunts,” he said.
“Add to that the fact that deer populations across the north have increased in many units thanks to a very mild winter and reduced antlerless permits, and hunters could be in for a very satisfying year.”
Wallenfang added that some northern units are still below goal, though, and hunters aren’t likely to see a lot of deer in some ares. But hunters can more easily find some of those areas that they might not have realized were open to hunters.
In addition to the abundant public land we enjoy in the Northwoods, Wisconsin has more than one million acres of private property through programs like Voluntary Public Access and the Managed Forest Law program.
A mapping tool can guide hunters to open private lands. To access the mapping tool visit the DNR website at dnr.wi.gov, and type “MFL open land” in the Search or Keywords field.
The DNR notes that hunter effort, weather, rut activity, hunting pressure, and stand site locations in addition to deer numbers, all play influential roles for hunters.
“Deer are not distributed evenly across the landscape and their movements vary greatly from one day to the next,” Wallenfang said. “Some hunters simply have access to better hunting and more deer.”
Those interested in more information on deer populations across the state can access the “2012 Wisconsin Fall Hunting Forecast” publication on the DNR website at http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/documents/forecast.pdf.
Wallenfang also advised that simply spending the time afield can lead to more success for hunters.
“There has been an increasing trend of hunters spending fewer days in the woods than in years past, often hunting just the opening weekend,” he said. “Although deer sightings can be fewer after opening weekend, there are still deer to be hunted and the later part of the season can be more relaxing than the high pressure of opening weekend.”
Wisconsin deer donation
Hunters can again donate deer to help feed the hungry through a partnership that over the past 11 years has stocked food pantries across the state with 3.6 million pounds of ground venison. And it’s easy.
Locally, TJ’s Butcher Block at Northwoods Foods accepts the venison donations.
Larry Stenz of TJ’s Butcher Block said deer must be tagged, registered and field dressed before it’s dropped off during business hours.
“From there we just take care of it,” he said. “The hunter – they just sign a form that says that they’re donating it to the food pantries.”
Stenz said donations have been good in the past, but that there have not been that many so far this year. He cites the slow economy and lower deer numbers as likely reasons donations have gone down.
Now, a hunter can keep some of the venison while donating the rest.
“New this year, with the state, with the deer donation, is, if somebody pays for the processing they can donate part of their deer to the food pantries,” Stenz said.
“If they donate the full deer, the state takes care of the processing fee. So, it’s no cost to hunters if they donate the whole deer. If they donate part of it, they still have to pay for the processing.”
The head and/or antlers can be removed.
TJ’s Butcher Block/Northwoods Foods is located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 51 and County Highway J in Minocqua. Their hours of operation are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m.-noon on Saturday. Stenz said hunters can make donations any time during those hours.
Stay safe out there
Last year, Wisconsin deer hunters closed the regular nine-day season with no fatalities among seven reported incidents statewide.
According to the DNR, the safest season was in 2004 when there were four incidents and two fatalities. The second safest was 2007 when there were six incidents and three were fatalities.
Specifics of the 2011 incidents:
• Three of the incidents occurred during deer drives.
• One incident involved two hunting parties.
• Three of the incidents were self-inflicted injuries.
• One incident and its victim involved a person who was not a licensed hunter, but was participating in a deer drive with a group.
• Four incidents involved rifles and three involved shotguns.
• Two of the incidents involved juvenile shooters.
• Five of the seven shooters in these incidents had completed the Hunter Safety certification course.
Hunting has definitely become safer. For instance, in 1900, 12 hunters were killed by firearms and there were far fewer hunters afield. In 1914, 24 were killed and 26 injured.
As late as 1970, 13 hunters were killed during deer season, but hunter education programs were under way by then – 1973 saw no deer season fatalities.
The year before hunter education courses began, 1966, the hunting incident rate was 44 injuries for every 100,000 hunters.
Currently, the DNR reports that Wisconsin has a fatality rate per 100,000 hunters of 0.28 percent when considering a 10-year period.
Hunters should always follow the four basic rules for firearm safety (TABK):
• Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
• Always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
• Be certain of your target and what is beyond it.
• Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
Keep vigilant out there, mind your firearm and know where people are. If you’re not 100 percent certain a shot is safe, then it’s not.
And may your attention to detail result in a safe season and a nice buck in the freezer.
Craig Turk may be reached at email@example.com