November 18, 2013
DURAND, Wis. -- Deer camps all over the country center on a name for a variety of reasons, but few are as pure and creative as Tracy Noll’s “Can You Hear Me?” camp in Buffalo County, Wis.
The camp’s name came from an exchange Noll had in 1969 as a Marine just returning home from a firebase in Vietnam.
He had grown up deer hunting the hills and ridges of western Wisconsin. Just home from the war, he was looking forward to spending a morning deer hunting.
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He took out at dawn on his family’s farm, slipping through the woods close to the land’s boundary. Nearby, he noticed someone had built a home near his favorite hunting area.
At the same time, he was noticed as well. The matron of the house opened the back door and yodeled out a “yoo-hooo.”
Noll’s spine stiffened a bit, as the lady continued.
“Yoo-hoooo! There’s no hunting allowed here.”
It didn’t take the Marine long to counter.
He blurted out, “Can you hear me?”
The lady sang out a “yes.” To which she received a response befitting a Marine who had just stepped out of the frontlines, one that’s certainly not appropriate for print.
That was almost 50 years ago and the vestige remains today as about the only official name Noll’s camp has, even though for the most part it’s simply known as “camp.”
This however isn’t your ordinary deer camp. It might best be described as Noll’s trophy cabin, nestled in the rolling hills of Wisconsin and smack dab in the middle of what some might refer to as utopia for trophy whitetails. More Boone and Crockett bucks are taken each year in Buffalo County than any other in the country.
Trophy whitetails drive this county, and Noll is taking the ride with it. After decades of climbing the corporate ladder to the top of the dairy industry, his hunting life practically revolves around chasing big animals.
Noll is currently just a few species away from completing the “North American 29.” In official terms it is the Super Slam of North America Big Game, where a hunter must have registered the legal taking of all 29 of the traditionally recognized species of big game in North America.
That slam includes four species of bear, five species of deer, three species of elk, and five of sheep, including a muskox. And many of those trophies adorn the walls and hallways of his camp. The quest keeps him traveling the continent.
But his camp is where he feels most at home. Hunting trophies on other people’s land isn’t as satisfying as doing it in your on backyard.
That backyard is pretty special. Buffalo County is well-known as a mecca for whitetail hunters, especially bow hunters. The timing of the archery season typically coincides with the rut. And the mixture of habitat found here produces more than its share of big deer.
As an example, in 2010 Wisconsin led the nation in putting Boone and Crockett bucks in the record book with 65 typical scores, most of them from Buffalo County. That’s nearly as many as Kentucky (25), Minnesota (25) and Ohio (23) combined.
This map shows Boone and Crockett entries over the past 10 years. The darkest colors denote 11 or more trophy deer in that county. (Courtesy Wis. Dept. of Natural Resources)
The county is primarily rolling hills with farmland interlacing the ridges, creating an abundance of edge. Agriculture centers on corn, soybeans and alfalfa, all playing a part in the overall growth of the individual deer.
Mast producing trees line the woods with more than a healthy inclusion of walnuts. And to top it off, the winters here are brutal enough that only the strong survive when it comes to the gene pool.
Add into that the local groups of hunters, who really didn’t see the numbers of deer until well after the 1950s, finally recognized in the 1990s that they had something special and were willing to take care of it.
Hunters in these parts typically can age a deer on the hoof at first glance, and they are intent on letting younger bucks walk.
On a three-day hunt during archery season, there were three deer taken. One each evening of the hunt, each of them bordering around 140 inches.
But it’s not all about the trophy all of the time. The Noll family gets together every year during the opening weekend of gun season in a family reunion spirit of deer camp.
“It’s a meat hunt,’’ Noll said. “If it’s brown, it’s down.”
The “meat hunt” is a literal term. They gather each season trying to get around two dozen deer in two days of hunting, then they spend three days making sausage for the family.
“Sometimes we get less, sometimes we get more,” Noll said. “Then we start Booner hunting.”
That tradition dates back to the late 1950s. Noll killed his first deer in 1960 on that family hunt.
“They armed me with a single shot, 12-gauge shotgun with a slug,” Noll said. “One slug, kind of like Barney Fife. Here's your bullet, use it wisely.
“They stuck me in the apple orchard behind the house, the old farm. And did a drive. This little buck squirted outside and came over the apple orchard, jumped the fence on the high side and was 10 yards away when I shot at him. And I hit him good. He wasn't bleeding but he didn't expire right away.
“So I'm chasing him around with no second bullet.”
The memory forces a grin across Noll’s face. It’s quickly evident that memories are what deer camp is all about for him and his family.
The more serious of the big buck hunters gather each year in bow season, chasing big deer in the hills and hollows. As night fades, they gather in Noll’s camp, standing amid the Muskox and the trophy animals to re-live the day, before eventually transitioning to the stories of years gone by.
The process from hunting to memories makes the title from 1969 of “Can you hear me?” seem all the more relevant.
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