One of the beautiful things about Wisconsin deer hunting is the fact there's something for everyone.
Want to increase your chances of seeing a lot of whitetails? Hunt the farm country of southern and central Wisconsin.
Like solitude and the opportunity at a buck that might not have seen a human all season? Go deep into the county, state or national forest lands in Wisconsin's vast Northwoods country.
A mild winter and reduced hunting pressure on antlerless deer in recent years means there will be more hooves on the ground this fall, and while it's still a tale of two different worlds — the Northern and Central Forests vs. the Central and Southern Farmlands — there are enough whitetails that anyone serious about putting venison on the plate should have ample opportunity.
Whether you prefer your hunting with a crossbow or vertical bow, shotgun, rifle, muzzleloader or pistol, there are plenty of days for you to get after deer this fall.
The archery and crossbow seasons offer at least 114 straight days beginning Sept. 12 and ending Jan. 3, going even longer in the Metro zones. The gun deer hunt for hunters with disabilities is Oct. 3-11, the youth gun deer hunt Oct. 10-11, and the regular gun hunt Nov. 21-29. The muzzleloader season is Nov. 30 to Dec. 9, and the December antlerless gun hunt in units with a quota is Dec. 10-13.
A RECAP OF 2014
In the first year of full inclusion of crossbows for deer hunting by anyone age 10 and older, more than 47,000 hunters bought either the crossbow license or an archery license plus a $3 upgrade to allow the use of both. Patron license buyers could also use crossbows, but it'll take some surveying to estimate how many might have done that.
Either way, the new season allowed the combined crossbow/archery buck kill to hit a record "bow" total harvest of 46,201 — 15,768 by crossbow and 30,433 by vertical bow. That topped the previous high of 45,988 recorded in 2012.
With antlerless deer included, crossbow users registered 26,891 whitetails while archers totaled 54,810 and gun hunters 222,588.
The grand total of 304,289 whitetails included 2,203 "unknowns" from improperly filled out registration stubs. There were 143,397 bucks, 158,689 antlerless and the unknowns.
While the gun harvest was the lowest since 1993, some of that was by design, with 19 units designated as buck-only. Last season also marked the 21st straight year of a harvest of at least 300,000 deer.
Roughly 1 out of every 3 crossbow or gun hunters registered at least 1 deer, compared to about 1 of every 4 vertical bow users. For bucks only, the kill rate was about 1 in 5 for crossbow users, while only about 1 in 7 bow or gun hunters tagged out. Of course, with more hunters passing up younger bucks, the percentages may appear more disappointing than they could be.
The mean age of crossbow hunters was 52 — 14 years older than the average vertical bow hunter.
The vast Central Farmland Region, representing 35 counties, set the pace with 187,093 deer tagged. Compare that to the Southern Farmland's 69,759 whitetails booked, the Northern Forest's 36,235, or the Central Forest's 11,163.
Marathon, Waupaca and Shawano counties, all in the Central Farmland, combined for more than 35,000 deer killed, while Polk, Buffalo, Clark and Marinette each had more than 8,000, and then Dunn, Vernon and Sauk more than 7,000.
Buffalo and Dunn are also in the Central Forest, as is a large portion of Oconto, which had more than 6,900 deer taken, 5,740 of them in the agricultural portion of the unit.
Adams and Clark had the top harvests in the Central Forest, while Taylor, Oneida and Rusk counties trailed only Marinette in the Northern Forest.
Columbia, Grant and Richland counties all had big harvests in the Southern Farmland, trailing only Vernon and Sauk.
Wisconsin DNR big game specialist Kevin Wallenfang said areas that were buck-only last year but have bonus antlerless tags available this year (six units) obviously will see an increase in antlerless harvest by design.
"We had a very mild winter, which you would expect should increase numbers in several areas around the state, including the forest zones," he said. "But things obviously are not going to turn around for the north in just one year."
There were 6,123 antlerless deer killed in non-quota areas in the Northern Forest region last fall, with 5,368, or 87.7 percent, of them on youth tags. The Central Forest non-quota areas saw 486 taken, 309 (63.6 percent) on youth tags. Statewide, 6,609 antlerless were taken, with 5,677 of them on youth tags (85.9 percent).
The majority of the youth deer were taken during the nine-day gun season (3,946) and October youth hunt (954). The rest consisted of 365 in early archery, 151 in muzzleloader, 149 in early crossbow, 73 in late archery, 36 in late crossbow and three in December gun antlerless season. In addition, there were 458 deer shot on damage/nuisance permits.
Wallenfang said the DNR's science services department re-evaluated the final antlerless kill numbers from buck-only units last fall, and anything not attributed to youth were either disabled, military on leave, or just confused hunters who did not know where they were or thought the tag they had was an antlerless tag.
According to law enforcement, that occurred very infrequently. Anyone caught registering a deer with the wrong tag would not be included in the harvest numbers.
NEW IN 2015
One of the biggest changes in 2015 involves something that happens after the field dressing, with deer and bear joining Canada goose and wild turkey as species eligible for electronic registration.
While most will choose to register via cell phone, home phone or the Internet, some hunters still will be able to bring their deer to a registration station if it provides a computer or telephone to the public. Additionally, stations in the CWD zones will continue to operate as chronic wasting disease sample collection sites.
Convenience and reduced cost to hunters also will give DNR staff, including conservation wardens, instant access to harvest data.
"We are encouraging local businesses to volunteer their services as a registration station to help give hunters an opportunity to continue their traditions," Wallenfang said. "Any business can offer registration services if they are willing to provide a phone or computer for public use, or assist a hunter with registration.
We have worked with stakeholders and will continue to offer on our site a list of businesses that will offer in-person registration with the new system."
In 2014, 14,000 hunters were selected to register deer by telephone or online and test a new electronic registration system. Those hunters registered more than 10,000 deer electronically.
Improvements for the 2015 deer season include a shortened and much simpler carcass tag confirmation number. In addition, a more efficient keypad-based phone menu will replace the voice-activated system used in 2014. With help from Wisconsin hunters, the electronic registration process has been further streamlined to allow hunters to register their deer with ease.
To register electronically, hunters will simply need to go online or call the registration system and provide the same basic harvest information as in the past. Upon successful registration, each hunter will receive a confirmation number to be written on the carcass tag attached to the animal.
Both deer and bear hunters will be required to register their animals by 5 p.m. the day after harvest. Registration for both deer and bears remains mandatory for all hunters.
To see if any registration stations in your hunt area are offering the phone or computer service, or for more on electronic registration, visit http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Hunt/ereg.html
Meanwhile, this is the first year that citizen committees made recommendations to try to increase, decrease or maintain county deer populations. A majority of the county deer advisory councils voted to increase or maintain their local herds, and the state Natural Resources Board approved them for the next three years.
DNR wildlife regulations policy specialist Scott Loomans said the agency could establish units that are "buck-only" in the sense that the DNR won't issue any bonus permits nor free Farmland Zone antlerless tags if the non-quota unit is in a Farmland Zone.
The rules also give the DNR flexibility to establish that the statewide antlerless tag, which is issued with junior deer hunting licenses, is not valid in buck-only units. However, Loomans said the DNR doesn't want to do that if it isn't absolutely necessary.
"We think the opportunity for a young deer hunter to harvest an antlerless deer is a good thing to increase their chances of success and keep them hunting, and that this limited amount of antlerless harvest will not have an impact on the deer herd," Loomans said via email in response to a question in late spring.
The problem in the past was, under the group deer hunting law, anyone in the group could fill the youth hunter's free antlerless tag.
"Many members of the public are fine with youth being able to harvest an antlerless in a non-quota unit, but they do not like that adults can also fill those tags in group hunting situations," Loomans said.
The DNR does not have any rulemaking authority to change the group deer hunting law, but the legislature does, and was working on such a rule change as this was being written.
"We did get quite a few calls after last year's season from people who were concerned about adults being able to legally harvest their kid's antlerless deer in non-quota counties," Loomans said.
"The legislature can change the group deer hunting law in a way that preserves this antlerless deer hunting opportunity for young people but also establishes that junior antlerless tags are not available for group hunting and being filled by adults."
Conservation Congress Chairman Rob Bohmann was concerned enough to get authorization from his executive council earlier this year to speak with legislators about the issue, and was certain the rule change would be implemented in time for this season.
Anyone hunting the buck-only units should be aware of the possible change and check the DNR Web site for any updates in case the rule wasn't finalized prior to the printing of the regulations pamphlet.
GOT DEER? TAKE TWO
DNR Northeast Region wildlife supervisor Jeff Pritzl said private land managers who are seeing a large increase in deer numbers should consider targeting two or more antlerless deer per antlered buck to help balance the herd and produce higher quality whitetails.
Most of the top trophies in the state in the past decade have come from units where earn-a-buck regulations were in place. Though scrapped by the legislature, that herd management strategy allowed more bucks to survive and showed hunters the potential of what "Let 'em go, let 'em grow," could do if shooting larger-racked bucks was a goal.
"As the herd continues to increase, we'll almost certainly see a spike in crop damage complaints and car/deer accidents," Pritzl said.
On the other hand, Pritzl said parts of northern Wisconsin are still feeling the effects of some recent severe winters and will take longer to rebound. Predators often get the blame, but Pritzl said hunter harvest, winter stress and habitat changes are a big part of the equation.
"As forests mature, they simply don't harbor the ability to support as many deer," he said.
Retired deer biologist Keith McCaffery said there are very localized variations in deer densities, with pockets of high deer activity and areas where whitetails are scarce. Pre-season scouting is essential to finding the spots most likely to produce sightings.
"Deer distribution is always what I call clumpy, and it changes year to year," said McCaffery. "Scout, find a clump, and hunt there."
That's sound advice for any Wisconsin deer hunter wanting to fill a tag — or two!