With relaxed earn-a-buck regulations in place and more than enough prime whitetail habitat available, Wisconsin deer hunters could be poised for their best season in recent years. (November 2009)
If a non-hunter asked a dozen deer hunters why they hunt, they might be surprised to learn it's far more than for the rare shot at a trophy buck.
Venison steaks, stew meat, sausage and jerky are among the mouth-watering reasons that hundreds of thousands of members of the camo and blaze orange gang hit the forests and fields of Wisconsin each fall.
Of course, what true hunter doesn't occasionally dream of the chance encounter with a buck so large in body and rack that it takes his or her breath away and sends the heart into hammer time?
While visions of giants may be dancing in the heads of many again this season, the truth is, there are plenty of hunters who will consider the hunt a success if they can simply put some fresh venison on the table.
Even with a herd significantly smaller than it was a decade ago, Wisconsin is still poised to produce its 16th-straight 300,000-plus total deer kill this fall, something that happened for the first time ever in 1985. It's also very possible that Badger State hunters will top 400,000 for the 11th time in the past 12 years.
The chronic wasting disease fear factor season of 2002 was the only blip since 1998. The unknowns of the disease sparked a 100,000-plus drop in combined gun and bow deer license sales. Even with that, the 317,888 firearm kills and 54,133 bow kills taken that year were higher than any season totals before 1990.
All of Wisconsin's top 10 deer kills have taken place since 1995, eight in the past decade alone.
HUNTERS GANG UP
Like most Green Bay Packers fans, Wisconsin deer hunters are a passionate bunch. So it really wasn't that much of a surprise when thousands of them vociferously bent the ears of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers and state legislators earlier this year, asking for a break from earn-a-buck and October antlerless gun deer seasons.
They got some of what they wished for, but certainly not everything. Outside of the CWD zones, there will be no earn-a-buck in place this fall. But there will still be herd control hunts with unlimited antlerless tags available and a mid-October season for does and fawns.
All those tags certainly won't be used. They never are. But it's possible, without the threat of earn-a-buck, that more hunters will let does walk this fall. In fact, a number of hunters have organized across the state and are encouraging others -- if they're not seeing a lot of does in their hunt areas -- to pass up antlerless deer to let herds rebuild.
Keith Warnke, the WDNR's big-game specialist, said there are units in the northern forest and northeast where deer populations are substantially below goal. However, he said most of the state is either near goal or above goal, with plenty of opportunity for hunters to score this fall.
"Get out and scout," Warnke said. "Make your own assessment. Then, make adjustments if you need to. That's the key."
As always, Warnke said weather would play a big role in the state's biggest harvest period, opening weekend of the traditional nine-day gun deer season in November.
"Too warm, too cold, too windy, too rainy -- or just right," Warnke said. "Weather greatly impacts the kind of season hunters have."
Yet to be determined is what impact a tough winter had two years ago, or how many fawns will be around from this year's crop.
"You might see fewer yearling bucks this season, but bottom line, there's a lot of good hunting opportunity," Warnke said. "Without earn-a-buck, we can anticipate a decline in the antlerless kill. And it's safe to expect that the buck kill could increase in units that are no longer under earn-a-buck regulations."
Some hunters argue that the harvest totals have soared since the mid-1990s simply because more antlerless deer have been shot, but that's not entirely true. The buck kill -- the true barometer of a herd's health -- was solid throughout the period until last year's big drop to 103,845 by gun and 34,662 by bow. The firearms buck number was the lowest in 25 years, while the archery buck kill had only been smaller twice in the past 12 seasons.
Wisconsin's record gun buck kill of 171,891 was set in 1995. Hunters came close in 2000 with 171,753. That's the year state hunters set a national-record combined bow and gun deer harvest of more than 615,000 whitetails.
Five half-million-plus kills this decade, including three in four years between 2004 and 2007, reduced the herd in many areas.
TOP UNITS, COUNTIES
Deer are where you find them, and they can be just about anywhere -- dense forests, marshes and thickets, grassy fields, overgrown orchards and agricultural wood lots, sparse suburban cover or urban refuges. Gaining access can be a problem, but with millions of acres of public land and millions more enrolled in programs that allow limited access by the public, there's no excuse not to have a spot or three lined up this fall if you do your homework.
Presuming you don't own your own land and don't lease or hunt on someone else's private property, you still have a few options. The latest copy of a county plat book in the area you're considering is a good place to start.
But if you're looking for new territory this season, and the sky's the limit on where you'll travel to hunt, consider factors such as deer density and hunter density per square mile of deer range. The latest estimates -- and sometimes long-term averages -- are available on the WDNR Web site, located at http://www.dnr.state.wi.us.
There's a tradeoff, though. Picking an area with low hunter density may be tempting, but if just seeing deer is higher on your wish list, you may want to choose an area with heavier hunt pressure. Often, that means two things. First, there are more deer available, luring more hunters afield, and second, the competition for venison is intense, causing some hunters to move about more in search of a whitetail. Use their antsy behavior to your advantage by sitting tight in thick escape cover far off the beaten path. Again, scouting is key.
By far the most public land is in the northern third of the state. Yet, painting with a broad brush, that's also where deer numbers are lowest, overall. If your idea of a quality hunt is seeing few hunters and having a chance at an older age buck, the N
orthwoods may be the place for you.
That said, if you want numbers, Wisconsin's top gun kill counties last fall were Clark and Marathon, both at more than 11,000 kills, with Polk, Jackson and Waupaca at 9,000-plus and six more with more than 8,000 registrations: Buffalo, Columbia, Monroe, Shawano, Trempealeau and Vernon. Six others saw more than 7,000 deer tagged within its borders: Bayfield, Douglas, Dunn, Grant, Sauk and Taylor.
Unit-wise -- and so much depends on the unit's size and amount of land considered as deer range -- units 61 (14,353 kills), 59C (11,745) and 71 (9,405) were far and away the leaders in the 2008 gun harvest. Units 62B and 72 both had 8,000-plus kills, and units 58 and 59B tallied more than 7,000 each. Four units had 6,000-plus kills: 63A, 65B, 67A and 76A. Nine others saw more than 5,000 deer registered in all the firearms seasons. Those included units 15, 16, 22A, 54A, 55, 59D, 62A, 69 and 74B.
By region, the Southern Farmland was the most productive, with more than 105,000 whitetails tagged in all gun hunts combined. The next three spots were surprisingly close: Western Farmland, 76,702; Eastern Farmland, 75,114; and Northern Forest, 70,695. The Central Forest -- the state's smallest region -- had 24,454 gun deer tagged.
The top four regions all were well represented in the bow kill. The Southern Farmland led with 26,381, followed by Eastern Farmland (25,018), Western Farmland (20,606) and Northern Forest (20,543). Central Forest region hunters registered 6,716 with bow and arrow.
HUNTING PUBLIC LAND
Tim Lawhern, the WDNR's hunting safety administrator, said public land often gets a bum reputation from many hunters. The fact is, Lawhern said, more hunting accidents occur on private land.
Lawhern said the chances of being shot and killed by a hunter in North America are about the same as getting struck and killed by lightning. In other words, it's very, very rare. Lawhern recommends blaze orange head to toe in the gun hunts and avoiding conflict by trying to find your own spot free of nearby competition.
"There may be times when you get turned around and aren't sure if you're still on public property," Lawhern said. "There aren't always fences or signs designating boundaries. That's why it's important to scout in advance, make sure you understand the maps, and know the boundaries. If you get turned around, go back to where you know you have authority to hunt."
Pre-season practice, familiarity with your firearm and taking only the shots you know you can make will also ensure you have the best chance at a quick, clean kill.
"Take your time and you won't have to worry about wounded game running onto private property or another hunter finishing what you started," Lawhern said.
There are a number of schools of thought when it comes to scouting out a spot to sit on public land. Some hunters prefer only remote or overlooked parcels with hard-to-access stands. Others take their chances on prime properties that are well traveled, often having a backup stand or two in mind should they find other hunters in the immediate area come opening morning of the gun hunt or the prime two-week bow period of the pre-rut and rut.
Some hunters prefer to scout only on foot; others use topo maps or aerial imagery to get a head start. Once spots are narrowed, some hang scouting cameras to see what's out there. Others simply check for sign periodically in the weeks leading up to their planned ambush. If there are plenty of fresh tracks and droppings, it's often best to completely stay out of the area until you're ready to hunt. Whitetails can vacate areas with too much human intrusion or move through them only at night.
Once the hunt is on, try to move quietly and carefully through the woods when heading to and from your stand. Play the wind, and have alternate sites in mind if it's not in your favor. Taking the long way to your blind, stand or stump might not be convenient, but if you avoid spooking bedded or feeding deer in your area -- deer that otherwise might be tipped off if you take the easy way in -- your chances of seeing undisturbed whitetails just increased dramatically.
PRIVATE LAND POINTERS
Why does the grass always seem greener on the neighboring property? Is that why there are so many tree stands and ground blinds on the very perimeters of private land?
Taking a stand with a good view is always tempting, and often results in shot opportunities on opening day of the gun season. However, archers may find they'll get a better shot by positioning themselves in heavier cover along a well-used deer trail. And after the opening day flurry is over, many firearms hunters also head to the thick stuff to try to get their venison.
Getting along with neighbors -- a pre-season agreement to not shoot on each other's property, yet to have the ability to retrieve wounded game on each other's land, for example -- is a big plus. Try to nail down and iron out any disagreements long before the opener so you can more fully enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
"Deer hunting is what you make of it," Warnke said. "It can be a great family tradition. What we can't predict is what the hunting conditions are going to be, or whether or not there will be deer under any given stand or on any given property. That's where scouting comes in."
It never hurts to be a little lucky, either.