There are plenty of late-season hotspots still holding good numbers of whitetails. Here's a look at Badger State public lands where you can still fill a tag. (December 2008)
Late-season whitetail hunting can be as good or better than what you found earlier in the fall. Odocoileus virginianus, known more affectionately as the white-tailed deer, is still alive and well on public forests and lands throughout the state.
Liberal regulations and seasons are providing good winter shooting this year. The statewide muzzleloader season lasts 10 days and provides great blackpowder shooting. A four-day antlerless hunt that is open in most of the state runs Dec. 11-14.
Shooters were understandably nervous on the opener about the deer prospects in parts of the state that were under water last June. The news was good, though, and the whitetail population wasn't hurt at all.
"Wisconsin was a mess, but it won't affect the deer," wildlife biologist Tom Isaac said. "Deer will simply head for higher ground during floods and high water. At the worse case scenario, they're good swimmers."
Isaac didn't look for the decrease in the number of deer that other wildlife populations are suffering.
The highest concentrations of deer are in the east-central and southern regions of the state. Not that there's a shortage of deer elsewhere. During the DNR's 2007 estimations of deer densities in Wisconsin, it was found that whitetails sometimes reached numbers as high as 100 deer per square mile.
Here's a look at hotspots that will be great places to bag a deer this month.
JACKSON MARSH WA
Jackson Marsh is Isaac's late-season pick for his neck of the woods.
"There's usually not a lot of snow on the ground, but the walking can be tough," he said. "If the ground isn't completely frozen, get out the waders or the boots and get into the deeper cover. That's where the deer will be."
Deer numbers are high in the area due to the heavy winter cover. Most of the marsh consists of lowland cedar, ash and maple with some areas of thick undergrowth and brush. Ponds and creeks meander through higher ground around the edges of the area. A deer couldn't ask for more.
Portable deer stands are legal and provide good observation points on thick, marshy ground. Just remember to remove the stand every night.
Caution should be a part of everyone's field gear. Pheasant and rabbit hunters will be moving through the marsh during the month and care needs to be taken to avoid accidents. Good target acquisition is necessary.
There is good road access into the interior of the area. Isaac recommends looking for out-of-the-way deer that are holding away from the usual hunter locations. Drive down dead-end or cul-de-sac roads in the marsh and start hunting from there.
Jackson Marsh is near Milwaukee and picks up a fair amount of hunting pressure. Parking lots are plowed when the snow isn't heavy. If the snow is keeping most hunters out, the deer will be closer to the vehicle access points.
The area is open throughout the muzzleloading season, the December antlerless hunt as well as being a shotgun season unit from Dec. 1 through Dec. 10. Jackson Marsh is in the 77m metro unit. If last year's harvest of 2,739 deer is any indication, the shooting should be good.
The marsh covers 2,312 acres in eastern Washington County north of Highway 60 near the village of Jackson. Access is on County Highway 6 north of the intersection of highways 45 and 60. Watch for the signs showing sections of marsh closed to hunting.
For additional information, contact the DNR at (262) 670-3409.
CHEQUAMEGON-NICOLET NATIONAL FOREST
Retired wildlife biologist Keith McCaffery isn't quick to give out spots that he knows are harboring big whitetails. Too much pressure can hurt an area, McCaffery said, and he doesn't want to contribute to that. He is willing to recommend public lands that can handle the pressure and the Chequamegon-Nicolet NF is one of them.
The forest is huge and loaded with deer. It sprawls across the northern region of the state with vast expanses of land and varying levels of access. It's a safe bet that hunters will find areas suitable to their levels of expertise and hunting styles along with opportunities at a seemingly endless supply of deer.
Birch, aspen, cherry, maple and young hardwoods like hickory and oak produce lush foliage for winter browse. Thick stands of low underbrush and second-growth timber offer protection from nose-diving temperatures and provide food and bedding.
McCaffery is willing to give a thumbs-up to the Medford-area hunt. The resource is a 60-mile-wide swath of primeval forest running all the way up to Bayfield County.
"Where a hunter should go depends on where he or she lives and their expectations," McCaffery said. "Convenience is one of the top criteria that I use and that means that you should try to hunt within a few miles of home. But if you're looking for a true wilderness experience, you can always try the 30 miles on either side of U.S. Highway 13 north of Medford."
For die-hard hunters willing to get off the beaten path and take nature at its finest, the forest's 44,000 acres of designated wilderness areas are just what the doctor ordered.
The Porcupine Lake Wilderness is the smallest at 4,446 acres. It's a beautiful area and hosts the North Country National Scenic Trail. Several species of soft and hardwood trees are abundant in the area with stands of white pine thrown in for good measure. The area is rolling and hiking isn't difficult. The wilderness is four miles southeast of Drummond in Bayfield County.
The Rainbow Lake Wilderness covers 6,583 acres of the same type of excellent cold-weather habitat. Old abandoned railroad grades provide access into the interior. Rainbow is four miles north of Drummond.
The deep-woods cover is thick on the Blackjack Springs Wilderness. The habitat mix includes wetlands, diverse undergrowth, streams and uneven landscape. The deer love it.
The Whisker Lake Wilderness covers 7,500 acres 11 miles west of Florence in Florence County. There is plenty of off-the-road country and white-tailed deer.
The Headwaters Wilderness is the largest of the forest's wilderness areas at 18,188 acres. Most of the hiking is on flat ground through old-growth hardwoods. It lies 16 miles southeast of Eagle River in Forest County.
Remember that when you're in one of the wilderness areas, you're on your own. A compass, map and charged cell phone are essential. It won't hurt to have some emergency survival equipment in your car or backpack, just in case.
The Chequamegon-Nicolet NF covers a total of 880,000 acres. Birch, aspen, maple, oak and hickory are wintering holes that will take some footwork to find. New forest management plans are closing some sections of the forest to motorized vehicles. Watch for signs or contact the forest office ahead of time for closed areas.
For additional information on the Chequamegon-Nicolet NF, call (715) 762-2461 or (715) 362-1300.
The Ambere WA is only one of several great late-season destinations in Marinette County, according to wildlife biologist Aaron Bushholz. About a quarter of a million acres of public property are available.
"There's deer all over these properties," Bushholz said. "These state-owned lands are about an hour and a half north of Green Bay and are still overlooked by deer hunters."
The chances are excellent of scoring a nice deer. Ambere WA consists mainly of scrub oak, aspen, jack pine and swamp conifer and covers nearly 2,000 acres of marsh and bottomland forest, much of which is tough to navigate. The DNR uses burns as a way to maintain the young forest environment and the resulting low-level browse helps feed whitetails throughout the cold weather. Hunting the edges of woody cover is productive and it's a great place to go if you want to avoid the crowd. A couple of rough forest roads are available that may be inaccessible in the winter, or hunters can hike in on the firebreaks.
Ambere is on Highway 141 about five miles west of the town of Amberg.
Two other top contenders for late-season deer in Marinette County are the Pike Wild River and Lake Noquebay wildlife areas.
Pike Wild River is a long, narrow river corridor with little vehicle access. The area extends from northeast of Wausaukee almost to Dunbar. A 150-foot no-cut restriction along the Menominee River has left original forest intact with much younger forest and dense underbrush in the remaining sections.
Lake Noquebay WA is located 13 miles northeast of Crivitz with access off highways X and W in Marinette County.
The section of the county in Deer Management Unit 41 has too many deer. According to Bushholz, hunters probably won't have applied for all of the antlerless permits that are available. The area is ripe for more deer-control regulations that may be addressed in the coming years.
For more information, contact the Wausaukee DNR office at (715) 856-5146.
SUPERIOR MUNICIPAL FOREST
The Superior 1M is a metro unit doorstep hunting opportunity that will put a lot of meat in the freezer this year. About 4,500 acres of the city of Superior's municipal forest are open to hunting and there are deer everywhere.
The public hunting areas within the city are a combination of public and private lands the city has obtained permission to open for hunting. The city has done all of the homework for you. No additional permission is needed to hunt the private property. Areas inside the city limits are limited to archery-only hunts for safety reasons.
That it can be cold in northern Wisconsin goes without saying, said wildlife biologist Fred Strand. The deer have made their seasonal adjustments and hunters will have to do the same.
"Most of the deer are taking shelter from the colder temperatures in the conifer forests," Strand said. "The deer will be in the upland forests or in the lowland, swampy forests."
There's usually some snow cover that makes scouting fresh deer sign fairly easy. In the lowland habitat, the cold temperatures help hunters, since the swamps are frozen over. Deer are generally the most active at twilight, but on warm, sunny days, bucks and does may be out anytime and will feed throughout the day.
A free city parks and recreation permit is required to hunt the municipal forest. You'll receive a map showing the designated archery areas when a city permit is issued.
Metro units have an extended archery season that ends Jan. 31. In Unit 1M last year, bowhunters took 168 deer and gunners took an additional 165. Considering the tiny size of the unit and its being in the urban area, hunters did very well. The whitetail population is good and hunters should do well again this year. When all of the other seasons have finished, archers can still have good action throughout the entire month of January.
Deer Unit 1M is a Herd Control unit and extra antlerless permits are available.
A great nearby destination is the Waterloo Wildlife Area covering thousands of acres and providing good winter shelter for whitetails. The mixture of swampy land, meadows, prairie grass and hardwood forest rounds out what many big bucks consider to be the picture-perfect spot.
The Waterloo WA in Jefferson and Dodge counties is about a mile east of the city of Waterloo.
Prince's Point WA is another top producer of local deer. It covers about 2,000 acres of mostly bottomland hardwood forest and open-water marsh. The border of the open upland habitat located on the northern edge of the property on Koch Road is prime. Much of the property is managed as wetlands and it's perfect for big bucks to dive into when the weather turns harsh. Prince's Point is located just off County Hwy. D, three miles northeast of Whitewater.
Bloomfield is small at 1,203 acres but offers a great hunt because of its diverse habitat. The combination of grassy fields, wetlands and scattered timber are perfect when cold December winds are blowing.
The Bloomfield WA isn't alone, said Tami Ryan, the Southeast Regional wildlife supervisor. Late-season hunters have 18 wildlife areas and state forest acreage to spread out on.
"We don't manage deer populations on a property basis but rather on a larger scale that will cover several properties," Ryan said. "The total 2008 deer harvest for the region will likely be as high or higher than during the 2007 season."
Ryan's management responsibilities scan all eight counties in the Southeast Region. All of them are loaded with deer, although populations vary due to differing habitats, everyday human activity and hunting pressure. The public-land hunting can be every bit as productive or even better than a private property hunt. Hunting state land is similar to hunting the famil
y farm or your neighbor's place up the road, as far as the tactics are concerned. Public spots always have the potential for being busy, but the same woodsmanship, skillful interpretation of deer sign and locating that big buck or doe remain the same.
The first step to a successful hunt on Bloomfield is to understand the nature of the beast. White-tailed deer consume from 5 to 9 pounds of food a day. They approach the day's feed like a stroll through the salad buffet, nibbling here and there and then moving on. By winter, woody plants low enough for browse are about all that's left of their seasonal food supply, and it's the hunter's job to locate signs of feeding and other activity. Knowing that whitetails are passing through a particular draw or walking the same field every day narrows your options for where you'll want to be spending your time. It takes some scouting to be consistently successful.
Get onto the area early before good light. Arriving early means beating all the other guys that will be stumbling around out there. If you're set up in the right spot, the other hunters will drive the deer right past you.
Going out on a weekday is another good idea. Bloomfield can get some hunting pressure and most of it's on the weekends.
Be willing to go where it appears no human has ever gone before. Wintering deer are burrowing into the heaviest cover they can find, especially when trying to avoid hunters. How the biggest racks can penetrate into the tangle is anyone's guess.
Bloomfield WA is between Genoa City and Lake Geneva off U.S. Highway 12 in southeastern Walworth County.
You'll want to keep in mind the 1,034-acre Clover Valley WA south of Whitewater in Walworth County, the Turtle Creek WA covering 1,035 acres in Walworth and Rock counties and the Kettle Moraine State Forest.
For more information, contact the DNR's Southeast Region at (414) 263-8710.