November 22, 2017
Which will it be? Here are some options for Wisconsin deer hunters to avoid Tag Soup this season.
Deer hunting perspective changes drastically the weekend after Thanksgiving, at the close of Wisconsin's traditional 9-day firearm season.
The quest for a trophy is quietly slipping away as that buck you've chased since mid-September — or maybe even the year before — will be losing one or both of its antlers soon.
Deer hunting is woven into the very fabric of Wisconsin life, like brats, brandy and our beloved Packers.
There is a strong sense of camaraderie, tradition and family that drives perspective that changes the weekend after Thanksgiving: Will your nagging sister, obnoxious brother-in-law and their three screaming kids ever go home?
With the exception of a special Holiday antlerless season when family tradition returns, whitetail pursuit in Wisconsin becomes all about putting venison in the freezer.
Celebration over young Johnnie's first buck and ribbing on forgetting to chamber a round when that Booner stood broadside not 40 yards away may be recalled next year with relish when Thanksgiving rolls around again.
But two hours after sunset the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Wisconsin's 9-day gun season is over. For most of us, it's time to focus on other pursuits such as ice-fishing or those NFL playoffs.
All is not lost if the biggest 12-pointer you've ever seen walked away, leaving gaping voids on both the living room wall and your freezer. The wall may have to endure another year of the "Dogs Playing Poker" painting.
But you still have a chance at horns during the late muzzleloader season. And there are several more options for avoiding tag soup with gun and bow before the 2017 hunting season ends.
You can shoot a buck with a gun in all Metro sub-units through Dec. 6, with antlerless-only options Dec. 7-10 statewide — and in select Farmland zones during the Holiday Hunt, Dec. 24 to Jan. 1.
Those hunting with bow and crossbow in Metro sub-units can hunt the late season Dec. 11 through Jan. 31, 2018, other areas through Jan 1 and in some units through Jan 7.
Deer management in Wisconsin is a study in complexity. DNR regulations specific to deer hunting are available online or in a 48-page novelette.
Although this is now much more confusing than the one page of deer hunting regulations hunters needed to understand when I first entered the Wisconsin woods with a deer gun more than 50 years ago, the regulations also are much more concise and just a couple of taps away for anyone entering the field with a communications device more sophisticated than my rotary-dial, coal-powered flip phone.
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There are only a few small but significant changes since last year's season. The most troubling is carcass tags and licenses are now printed on plain paper. Several old hunters I have talked to say this has been the biggest assault on Wisconsin's deer hunting legacy and tradition in their lifetime.
Millennial hunters reading this should consider putting down their shiny iPhone or tablet for just a minute and asking Dad or Grandpa what they think about doing away with those old cardboard back tags with individual numbers.
The only "unique" number that must be carried afield in 2017-18 is on a paper carcass tag, with regulations noting a hunter must not possess more than one physical copy of each tag.
Other noteworthy changes include permission for hunters to leave ground blinds and tree stands out overnight on public lands north of Highway 64 and the fact that Oconto County is now closed to baiting and feeding deer.
Highway 64 is a key meridian once the late muzzleloader season ends. With the exception of Chippewa, Barron and Polk counties to the northwest, antlerless harvest opportunities are extremely limited north of that east-west road.
Most lands south of Highway 64 are considered "Farmland Zone" in which one or more free antlerless tags are included with the purchase of a paid deer hunting license. An exception to this rule is a large swath of land running essentially northwest from Adams County to the Chippewa County line, where no bonus tags are offered.
Access to private land anywhere in the state has changed drastically over the past 20 years. Being granted permission to hunt used to be commonplace. In the 21st century, that opportunity is rare.
Hunters afield before the end of the traditional gun season now have essentially three options: Somebody in the family owns hunting land, you can lease hunting land, or you can hunt on public lands.
There are more than 1 million acres of public hunting land scattered across every county in Wisconsin. Of course, the public lands with the best deer hunting typically have the most hunting pressure.
You can go to dnr.wi.gov/topic/lands/ for a list and location of public hunting opportunities statewide.
South of Highway 64 there are areas where deer cause extensive crop damage with too many whitetails remaining when the traditional gun season ends. In those areas, a little scouting with binoculars and knocking on doors may result in permission to fill an antlerless tag without paying a lease fee or contending with an obnoxious brother-in-law.
When muzzleloader season closes on Dec. 6, bowhunting offers essentially your only chance remaining to harvest a buck this year. After mid-December, the chance that dominant buck on your hunting ground will lose one or both of its antlers increases every day, enhancing the need for a good pair of binoculars.
If you're truly serious about hunting, there will be ample time to study your target with optics before sending that bullet or arrow on its way.
Deer are easier to pattern between now and the close of hunting season than pretty much any other time of year. Surviving what can be a truly brutal Wisconsin winter is their sole focus.
This essentially involves spending most of a 24-hour day bedded down sheltered from prevailing weather and close to a food source. Deer activity may still be mostly nocturnal, mainly because daylight periods are shorter.
Generally speaking, the colder our weather gets, the earlier deer will leave bedding areas and go to food sources. The "golden hour" of deer activity in the afternoon begins about 3:45. If weather conditions are stable, you can anticipate deer arrival past your ambush point within a framework of just a few minutes.
In the morning, deer may still be moving at 8 a.m. Getting nestled into your ground blind 30 minutes prior to shooting time is plenty early. Hunting out of a ground blind after mid-December is more effective than hunting out of a tree stand — unless the tree stand has Anderson windows, a Laz-E-Boy recliner and a quiet propane heater.
Portable ground blinds hide movement, contain scent and offer at least some protection from the elements. They can be erected in minutes in an ideal ambush location within easy archery range of a heavily used deer trail in the snow, factoring in prevailing wind direction and quickly camouflaged using snow.
Since deer are focused on survival they will become accustomed to seeing your blind in just a day or two. You can easily monitor it from the comfort of a vehicle with binoculars and a wristwatch.
If weather is too rough to sit in a blind for an hour or two, you can always locate a probable bedding area and execute a short drive with a couple of companions if you are a gun hunter. It is critical when driving deer that even non-shooters wear blaze orange and that all persons involved know the whereabouts of everybody else at all times.
The late hunts are a great opportunity to share the deer hunting experience with kids! You can share how you used to give thanks for the harvest, while removing that old hunting coat to get at the back tag that used to have your Grandpa's number.
Do it while fishing through pockets in layers of clothes for that 2017 carcass tag on a piece of computer paper. This is a truly teachable moment on several levels, not the least of which is tradition.
Modern electronic devices can help you access a wealth of deer hunting information without need for interpersonal relations. With hunting opportunities fading fast and hay put up in the barn, there is great opportunity to fill a tag in parts of the state where wolves are few and deer are many. But how do you find a good spot to hunt at this time of year?
Until the firearm deer season ends, most whitetail hunters have just three options to follow their passion: Hunt public lands, spend considerable money on a hunting lease, or have family who own property that holds deer.
Wisconsin's farmers are some of the hardest working, honest folks in our state. They have little time and even less trust for urban and suburban intruders who speed up the lane in shiny trucks and talk even faster than they drive.
They can spot a phony even before seeing a turn signal just before the mailbox on a gravel road. Crops are already harvested and chores may be done, but work on a farm never ends — and there is little time for a stranger who is trying to sell something when there is work to be done.
But farmers also like to go to town and spend some time in cafes and taverns visiting with neighbors and friends. Many small towns have just one or two "watering holes" where rural folk gather — usually between 10 a.m. and noon or after supper, from 6-9 p.m.
Spending some time where farmers go to visit can pay great dividends for non-local hunters who show up without pretense or frequent fondling of their iPhone or tablet.
Don't feign interest or knowledge in grain futures or beef prices. Farmers already know you're a stranger who either wants to sell something or wrangle permission to hunt.
Strike up a conversation with the waitress or barkeep. Be honest and direct. Ask if they know any farmers in the place who have a problem with crop damage from too many deer.
Keep your ears open. There is a good chance the half-dozen men gathered around a back table will bring up that exact situation, with either personal experience or knowledge of a neighbor down the road with deer issues.
Politely try joining the conversation. Confirm what they already know — you're not from the area and have deer tags to fill. Don't be surprised if this conversation provides the name of a farmer or two who might actually consider allowing access to their property for a late-season hunt.
Contact the farmer. If he's not already in the restaurant or tavern, get directions to the farm and show up the following day at mid-morning when chores are likely done.
Don't offer to pay for permission to hunt. At least not initially. Farmers cringe at the urban tendency of throwing money at a situation believing money will fix it.
Farmers want to know that you will respect their property. They need assurance you can differentiate between a Jersey heifer and a whitetail doe and that if you open a gate you will close it behind you.
Every farmer has at least some worries about liability. Be prepared to offer a "hold harmless" agreement for access to the land.
Don't be surprised if the farmer grants permission to hunt, even without negotiating a price for the hunting access. Regardless of any financial agreement, hunting permission is more than a business transaction — it is building a relationship that can last for years.
When you show up to hunt, bring the farmer a ham or hand him a gift certificate to a local restaurant. Follow up at Christmas with some deer sausage and cheese.
Don't give up if your first attempt results in rejection. Often rejection may produce the name of another farmer.
This is all about investing some "face time." Texting "thkx" to the farmer's cell phone just doesn't cut it.