The HARVEST numbers are in and all indications are that Wisconsin's deer hunters can expect another banner year in 2017. Here's a look at harvest results from 2016 and how things are shaping up for Badger State hunters this season.
What's not to like about Wisconsin deer hunting? Last year the combined hunter kill (gun, bow, crossbow, youth, muzzleloader and antlerless) totaled 310,374 whitetails. These are preliminary numbers for 2016 but these totals have held steady for over a decade, with a couple of banner years topping 400,000 deer in our state.
To put this in perspective, Wisconsin's deer hunters annually tag nearly 75,000 more whitetails than are taken in New York, and more than 10 times the harvest of deer in the entire six-state New England region. That amounts to a lot of deer, no matter how you look at it.
To discover the whys and wherefores of Wisconsin's wildly successful deer management program, we asked Kevin Wallenfang, the state's top big game ecologist, to answer the burning questions every Badger State hunter has in mind.
Question: Where are we headed as far as deer management in Wisconsin?
Answer: "Wisconsin continues to be a leading state in both trophies and quantity, and hunters from every state and 26 counties hunted here in 2016," Wallenfang said. "Wisconsin has led the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young records for many years and continues to provide more entries than any other state.
"We are also near the top in hunter numbers (600,000 gun and 250,000 archery-crossbow hunters), deer harvested (318,000-plus annually) and buck harvest (156,000) and many other categories.
"Plus," Wallenfang added, "There is plenty of public land open to hunting.
"Following two severe winters, we've had three of the mildest in history. That, combined with very conservative antlerless harvest in our northern counties, we are seeing an increase in deer numbers and overall harvests. Deer numbers are up in almost all areas. We expect 2017 to be an excellent year with increases in the total harvest and buck harvest."
Q: Why does Marathon County produce so many deer each year?
A: "I can only say that Marathon County has great deer habitat, both farmland and big woods, but it is also one ofthe largest counties in the state so don't look just at overall kill numbers," Wallenfang noted.
"If you want to draw attention to the real hotspot, Waupaca County produces more bucks (about 7 per square mile) in the U.S." Wallenfang said. "However, it's almost primarily private land with limited access. However, all counties within the state's farmland region produce excellent hunting and big deer.
Q: What was different or notable about last year's deer hunt — for example the weather, new regulations, hunter success, and so forth?
A: "We experienced a very wet and warm fall which dampened both hunter effort and deer movements. Despite that, our overall harvest increased from 2015. We also experienced extremely high winds during the opening weekend of the gun deer season which also influenced hunter and deer activity.
"We have had major changes in our deer hunting regulations during the past few years, including new tagging material and methods, newly defined Deer Management Units, and electronic deer registration. Hunters are still getting used to those changes. There will be no major changes going into 2017."
Q: What can hunters expect in 2017 as far as new regulations, bag limits, etc.?
A: "No major changes are in store for the coming season," Wallenfang said. "Bag limits, overall, remain the same, although antlerless permit availability will vary across the state."
Q: How is the deer population trending in the various regions of the state?
A: "Deer numbers are increasing in all regions of Wisconsin. Antlerless deer tags will be available in almost all counties with few exceptions, those being in the far northern counties, which were negatively impacted by the winter of 2012-13. Tags will be more abundant for private lands, but hunters will also have opportunity for antlerless deer on public lands in most counties.
"The best news for hunters is that Wisconsin has over 1 million acres of lands open for public hunting including large blocks of state, county, and federal lands."
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Which counties are the best?
According to biologist Wallenfang, the "best" counties for deer in Wisconsin depend on whether a hunter is looking for meat or for trophies. As noted, Marathon County is the perennial leader in deer harvests year in and year out, but more trophy-class bucks are taken in Waupaca County. Access, of course, makes all the difference, and therein lies the rub. Marathon County contains plenty of deer and land to hunt them, but Waupaca County has far less public land and gaining permission to hunt private property can be a challenge. However, hunters who are determined to put a tag on one of Wisconsin's legendary trophy whitetails will make the effort to go door to door in order to find the one landowner who is willing to grant permission to hunt.
Waupaca County is also a leader in antlerless kill, which may give enterprising hunters a foot in the door. Offer to thin out the doe population and maybe, just maybe, the landowner will give a "thumbs up" for a trophy hunt as well.
Waupaca County also produces good numbers of deer for crossbow hunters, as do Shawano and Marathon counties.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK!
As always, the key to deer-hunting success is pre-season scouting. As the numbers clearly show, Wisconsin is replete with whitetails in nearly every corner of the state, but hunters who go in blind are almost certain to be disappointed.
Finding a place to hunt in Wisconsin should not be a problem in most counties, but then the real work begins. It's in the hunter's best interest to visit several areas, study the available sign, and decide where he'll have the best chances of tagging a doe or, even better, a nice buck.
The most effective hunters put boots on the ground well before the season and then continue to monitor the subtle changes in habitat quality, deer behavior, and movement. As crops are harvested and leaves begin to fall, deer naturally will move away from open areas in order to avoid being seen by eager hunters. As the season progresses, deer become increasingly difficult to find, plus they start moving more during hours of darkness while lying low in thick cover during the day. It's certainly wise to pattern the habits of the target deer herd but keep in mind that those patterns will change as the season wears on, the rut comes and goes and deer shift into survival mode as winter approaches.
For a detailed summary of Wisconsin's 2016 deer harvest, county deer totals and other information pertaining to deer hunting in the Badger State, log onto dnr.wi.gov.
WHY MARATHON COUNTY?
For the past number of years, Wisconsin's centrally located Marathon County typically has led the state in deer harvests in total harvest, total gun harvest, total archery harvest, and total Youth Hunt harvest. What does Marathon County have that few other Badger State counties have?
For starters, the county has a total area of 1,576 square miles, of which 1,545 square miles is land and 31 square miles is water. It is the largest county in Wisconsin by land area and fourth-largest by total area.
Additionally, Marathon County contains the perfect mix of farmland, forest, fields and wetland habitat to support a deer herd, and with plenty of public access to areas where those deer are most plentiful.
The focal point for public hunting in Marathon County is the Mead National Wildlife Refuge. That area encompasses different ecosystems including grasslands, conifer bogs, hardwood forests, wetlands, ponds (reservoirs), upland habitat and agricultural fields. Forest, wetlands, and grasslands comprise 13,000 acres, 14,000 acres, and 6,000 acres respectively. All are good places to find wary whitetails.
For more information on Wisconsin's deer hunting seasons, regulations, licensing and other details, log onto dnr.wi.gov.