Wisconsin is offering two dramatically different deer hunting opportunities this fall, yet each one holds something special for those who wait patiently on a frigid deer stand: whitetails.
Even after one of the most severe winters on record, there's no shortage of deer in Wisconsin's vast farm country. And, though they're far fewer in number in the northern and central forests, enough whitetails survived the brutal winter to provide savvy bow, crossbow and gun hunters with all the thrills associated with a far less pressured big-woods hunt.
Despite dire predictions of devastation in the herd after a winter that set records for days with air temperatures below zero and days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground, having fewer deer up north actually allowed more to survive. When back-to-back severe winters killed an estimated 200,000 deer in 1996 and 1997, the northern herd was much larger than it is today and there was not enough food to go around.
Deer flocked to logging operations last winter, and many took advantage of year-round handouts or food plots near homes, cabins and businesses. Photos of large groups of deer in deep snow behind northern residences were regularly seen on Facebook pages, and come late May, pictures of fawns were being posted.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources big-game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said the 2013-14 winter produced the highest winter severity index counts since the DNR began tracking it more than 50 years ago. About 23 percent of the radio-collared deer in the northern study area and 11 percent of those in the eastern farmland area died over winter. Forty-three percent of the juvenile collared deer up north died compared to just 10 percent of the adults.
While the adult mortality wasn't as bad as some might have expected, it's likely that fawn recruitment was negatively impacted. Not only were there likely more single fawns than twins born, but some of the fawns born may also have been too weak to survive, or the does were in such poor shape that they couldn't provide adequate nutrition.
That could be tempered somewhat, though, by a gun deer opener last November that likely saved tens of thousands of deer. Winds from 20 to 30 miles per hour, with some stronger gusts, reduced deer movement and sent chills below zero. Many hunters left the woods early in the day and returned late, greatly reducing the impact of what is normally by far the biggest harvest day of the year.
Bow and crossbow hunters — with all ages of legal hunters in the woods and fields for the first time in history this fall — will get the first shots at whitetails when the bow/crossbow season opens Sept. 13. The gun deer hunt for sportsmen with certain disabilities is Oct. 4-12 on enrolled properties only, and the statewide youth gun hunt is Oct. 11-12. The regular 9-day gun deer season runs Nov. 22-30, the 10-day muzzleloader season Dec. 1-10, the Central Farmland and Central Forest zone unit antlerless hunt Dec. 11-14 and the Southern Farmland unit holiday hunt — antlerless-only this year — is Dec. 24 to Jan. 1.
WHAT'S NEW IN 2014
This year's hunts feature the biggest changes in decades, led by a revamping of deer management units and a separation of public and private land antlerless deer tags.
In addition, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp said buck-only hunting for much of the north will help the deer population recover. In total, 19 counties (all or in part) and four tribal reservation deer management units will allow buck-only hunting for most hunters. An exception is that youth hunters, disabled hunters, tribal hunters and qualified military personnel will be allowed to harvest a limited number of antlerless deer in units deemed "buck-only."
When bonus antlerless permits for farmland zones went on sale in August, hunters had to designate the zone, county and land type — public or private — they hoped to use the permit on. The new rule allows the DNR to limit antlerless harvest on heavily hunted public lands, with the idea being to increase the quality of the hunt in future years as the herd increases.
Hunters who experience a situation where the deer is shot on public land that must be retrieved on private would first need to contact the landowner for permission, and if it's granted, use the public land tag. If a hunter with a private land tag shoots a deer that runs onto public land and dies, he or she may retrieve it and tag it with the private land tag.
This is the first year in which Wisconsin is setting goals to "increase, decrease or stabilize" the herd by county instead of setting quotas in more than 130 former deer management units. Starting next year, county committees made up of whitetail stakeholders — both hunters and non-hunters — will make recommendations for their county.
DNR big-game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said the changes came about as a result of the Deer Trustee Report public input process.
"Most hunters judge the quality of their hunt by how many deer they see, and it's clear that many want to see more," he said. "The antlerless permit numbers in the north are rock-bottom, but the farmland region is going to produce some spectacular deer-hunting opportunities this year."
While noting that the DNR can't adequately manage wildlife without the cooperation of hunters, Stepp said the agency tried to strike a balance between the social and biological interests expressed by hunters, landowners, farmers, foresters, and many other stakeholders.
The entire Northern Forest Zone is proposed as buck-only with just two exceptions. Those are Marinette County, where agricultural damage claims remain high and winter impacts were less severe, and in the Superior metropolitan subunit.
Meanwhile, the DNR has updated the boundaries of the Chronic Wasting Disease Zone. It now includes 35 counties where CWD has been detected.
FIND YOUR SPOTS
If you don't yet know where you'll be hunting this fall, there's still time to get out and scout. The DNR has many online tools available, including links to public and private lands open to hunting, as well as maps of state park areas where hunting and trapping is allowed.
All state park units have been eliminated, but some special hunts — such as muzzleloader- or archery-only — remain. County boundaries now designate most units, but all metro subunits have been maintained.
It's always best to have more than one spot scouted because deer movements change throughout the season, as does hunting pressure.
Most successful archers, crossbow users and gun hunters will still be required to register their deer in-person at a registration station this fall, though some areas may test other registration methods.
Starting in 2015, hunters will be able to choose from a variety of methods to register deer that may include phone, Internet and in-person registration. Some stations may be maintained throughout the state to collect deer age and sex data, and CWD samples. All deer must be registered by 5 p.m. the day after the kill except during the 9-day gun deer hunt, when hunters have until 5 p.m. the day after the season closes to register their harvest.
Bonus buck opportunities will be offered online in the Southern Farmland Zone this year. Unfilled bonus buck authorization stickers earned last year can still be used this year. Only one bonus buck authorization earned this season may be used this year. Starting in 2015, bonus buck authorization stickers earned in 2014 may not be valid.
Wallenfang wants to make it very clear that having a private land tag doesn't allow you to go onto private land — even to drag a dead deer back onto public land, unless you have permission to do so.
Those fortunate enough to hunt prime private farmland will likely see plenty of whitetails, something DNR northeast deer expert Jeff Pritzl said is not to be taken for granted.
Pritzl recommends that individuals or hunt groups target at least two antlerless deer for every antlered buck in areas with high deer numbers. He correctly points out that some of the top trophies in the state in recent years have consistently come from units with some of the highest antlerless deer harvests.
Finding a good field to watch or trail to overlook isn't too difficult in farm country, but Pritzl said those hunting up north may have to put in more time. Mature forests don't support near as many deer as young, thick forest growth.
Pritzl said that hunters have to temper their enthusiasm with the reality that even in the best years, many hunters don't tag a deer.
"Of course there's no guarantee, but what we tend to see is that those who put in a lot of effort generally have a much higher chance of harvesting a deer," Pritzl said.
Competition for the best habitat on public land can be high, but those willing to get away from the population centers often find some solid ground with much lighter hunting pressure, especially during the archery or muzzleloader seasons.
Some of the crop damage properties are worth a look, and a new law that prevents municipalities from restricting archery and crossbow hunters on private land should open thousands of acres of terrific spots. Land trust properties are another good bet.
PUT IT TOGETHER
Studies have long found that for many hunters, spending time in a tree stand or ground blind is relaxing and therapeutic. Seeing wildlife is important, however, and scouting for some of the most likely spots is the best way to increase your odds of more than just a chance meeting with a deer.
Once you've got one or more spots picked out, time on stand is a good way to increase sightings. There are some exceptions, however. Veteran archers steer clear of favored stands when the wind isn't right, and have a "cool off" period if they spook deer near their stand when going in, coming out or actually on stand.
Gun hunters tend to stick it out on stand no matter what, but having a backup plan can save the hunt.
Comfort on stand is critical if you're going to want to hunt more than the first and last hour or two of the day. That means planning ahead, and then having enough snacks and the right clothing to be able to stick it out. Even where not required by law, many gun hunters include some blaze orange on the outside of their blinds to help others who are following the safety rule of, "Be sure of your target, and what is beyond."
Retired deer biologist Keith McCaffery loves to describe deer distribution as clumpy, and changing year to year. His advice is: "Scout, find a clump, and hunt there."
The increased parcelization of private land is a big factor in deer sightings in some units. There are more small tracts being sold than ever before, and many of the buyers don't want hunting on their property. That can lead to refuge situations as deer quickly learn where they are pressured, and where they are not.
Locking up private properties via leasing is gaining steam across the state, but there's still "hunting with a handshake" available, especially to those who know the right people or offer to exchange time, skills or other things for hunting rights.
If you're one of thousands of lapsed hunters, maybe this is the year to get back into the game. Or, perhaps your past skills could be used to mentor the next generation of hunters. With many barriers removed, it's never been easier to introduce a newcomer to hunting.
There's a $5 deer hunting license available to new hunters or those who haven't purchased a deer hunting license in at least a decade, and qualifying mentors — those who introduce three or more new hunters and anglers to the sports — can get a half-price license of their choice the following year.
Anyone 10 or older can now obtain a hunting license and hunt without first completing a hunter education course. The hunting youngster must be accompanied by a licensed hunter, hunt within arm's reach of the mentor, and follow other rules. Such mentored hunts remove barriers to hunting yet still allow people to safely experience hunting in a highly controlled manner. It gives first-time hunters a chance to try hunting and enables veteran hunters to pass on their passion for the outdoors and help keep Wisconsin's hunting heritage strong.
Learn more about mentoring at http://dnr.wi.gov/education/outdoorskills/mentor.html.
SAUSAGE, STEW, OR STEAK?
Whether you believe all the current and coming changes to Wisconsin deer management means the DNR is turning back the clock or is advancing it, one thing is certain: With more than 1 million whitetails roaming the state and close to 7 million acres of land for public hunting, there are many opportunities out there to put venison on the table. Steak, stew or sausage? How about all of them!
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'œgood luck tree.'
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell\'s giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands\' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it\'s just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost\'s wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail\'s Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'œchip-shot.' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it\'s a good thing he didn\'t.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson\'s persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp\'s Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'œI've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to.'
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran\'s Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who\'d spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won\'t forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'œBig Daddy' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he\'d squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he\'d hit, but couldn\'t find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand.'