Wisconsin deer hunters could see their best season in at least five years after back-to-back mild winters and lower antlerless deer harvests have allowed the herd to grow in large sections of the state.
Much of our farm country is flush with whitetails, and deer numbers are rebounding in many Northern Forest and Central Forest counties.
Bob Nack, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' big game section chief, said it should be a good season all around this fall, with hunters in many counties having the opportunity to harvest multiple antlerless deer and a buck.
The winter of 2015-16 will go down as one of the mildest winters on record since the Wisconsin DNR began measuring winter severity in 1960. Following the previous mild winter of 2014-15, herd growth was evident in most Northern Forest fringe counties and fawn observations this summer were up.
While herds are recovering in much of the north, some County Deer Advisory Committees (CDACs) want more time to allow populations reduced by hunting, harsh winters and predators a chance to come back strong. With that in mind, there is buck-only hunting in 10 counties this fall, down from 12 last year and 19 two years ago. That means more opportunity to fill a tag for hunters in counties that have come off the buck-only list.
DNR big game biologist Kevin Wallenfang said the CDACs provide a seat for major deer stakeholder groups including hunters, agriculture, forestry, tourism, transportation, urban representatives, the Chippewa tribes, and cooperators enrolled in the Deer Management Assistance Program. There's also opportunity for public input at the meetings, and hunters can connect with their representatives throughout the year via e-mail or by phone in some cases.
In a sense, some of the pressure has been taken off DNR wildlife managers by increasing the power that local county committees have. But even with a lot of input from coffee shop conversations, phone calls, e-mails and more, CDAC members know they can't please everyone.
This season's buck-only counties include Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas, Florence, Forest, Iron, Jackson, Oneida, Sawyer and Vilas. There will be limited antlerless deer harvest in the buck-only units, as state law allows disabled hunters, military personnel on leave, and youth hunters to harvest antlerless deer in buck-only units. However, three CDACs — Ashland, Forest and Sawyer counties — voted to ban doe and fawn harvest by youths this fall.
There also will be a nine-day, antlerless-only holiday hunt gun deer season in all or parts of 13 counties in central and southern Wisconsin: Brown, Columbia, Crawford, Green Lake, Marinette, Marquette, Milwaukee, Pepin, Richland, Rock, Sauk, Waukesha and Waupaca.
Eleven counties are allowing two free antlerless farmland tags with each bow/crossbow and firearm tag purchased this season, and four others are offering three free antlerless tags.
Most others have the usual one free tag for use in farmland zones, but two — Barron and Chippewa counties — have no free tags, though there were $12 bonus tags available there.
Counties where two free antlerless tags are being awarded with each license include Buffalo, Crawford, Grant, Green Lake, Manitowoc, Marquette, Milwaukee, Pepin, Richland, Sauk, and Vernon; those with three freebies include Door, Kewaunee, Shawano and Waupaca.
The state Natural Resources Board approved the season framework and antlerless deer quotas in late May. The season framework reflects recommendations from County Deer Advisory Councils, the second year these councils had direct input into the process.
The issuance of bonus deer hunting permits, in addition to Farmland Zone permits included with each deer hunting license, includes 22,775 permits valid on public access lands (compared to 18,450 in 2015) and 136,875 permits valid on private lands (compared to 125,375 in 2015).
Bonus tag sales began in mid-August, and were limited to one per day until sold out.
Nack, who also serves as the state's Deer Management Assistance Program coordinator, said the DNR received 254 applications from landowners who enrolled private properties in DMAP last year, and as of early summer, had received 228 in 2016. The number of Level 2 and Level 3 properties, each 160 acres or more, increased by 10 over 2015.
Nack said there was increased enrollment in southern Wisconsin with more landowner interest in reducing deer numbers to manage the habitat on their properties. Statewide, more than 220,000 acres has been enrolled since the program began in 2014.
Workshops are held for landowners on properties across the state, focusing on deer ecology and management, wildlife habitat management, and other topics of interest. Landowners can sign up at any time. Check out dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/dmap.html for more information.
LOOKING AT 2015
It was a year of contrasts last season, with bow and crossbow hunters combining for a record buck harvest of more than 51,800.
With more broadhead hunters choosing crossbows, archery license sales (227,700) slid to their lowest level since 2002, the CWD fear factor season. You'd have to go back to 1993 to find another year with fewer archery licenses sold.
The reported bow kill of 31,229 bucks was an increase over 2014, however, but the antlerless kill of 21,775 was the lowest since 1989, and the combined total of 53,004 was the fewest by bow since 1990. However, those numbers are deceiving, because 2014 was the first season crossbow harvest was tracked separately. Plenty of hunters — the disabled and those age 65 and over — legally used crossbows in the archery season in prior years.
That said, the crossbow license count jumped to 131,623, up more than 18,000 over the inaugural season in 2014. The buck kill climbed more than 4,000 to 20,594, and the antlerless kill increased more than 2,000 to 13,500; the total crossbow harvest was 34,094.
There was a slight increase in gun license sales, 613,165, but outside of 2014's 609,816 you'd have to go back to the late 1970s to 1980 to find so few among the blaze orange gang.
Gun hunters reported killing 99,757 bucks, up more than 2,000 over 2014, but still the third lowest since 1983. The antlerless call-in count of 122,974 was the lowest in 32 years, and the total of 222,731 was second lowest since 1993.
With whitetail populations slowly rebounding in the Northern Forest and Central Forest after back-to-back tough winters three years ago, the deer harvest in those regions was much lower than in farm country. However, hunting pressure also was down across much of the north, and if we can get another mild winter or two and more young forest habitat from logging operations, it won't take long for deer to come back strong.
As expected, the farm regions produced the most whitetails. Topped by Marathon, Waupaca and Shawano counties, the Central Farmland Zone was good for more than 183,000 whitetails in 2015. The "Big Three" combined for more than 24,000 with gun and close to 10,000 with bow and crossbow combined.
The Southern Farmland Zone was second with more than 53,000 gun deer and a combined total of more than 19,500 killed with bow and crossbow.
Northern Forest hunters tagged nearly 29,000 gun deer and more than 11,000 deer with bow and crossbow, while Central Forest Zone hunters reported more than 9,000 deer killed with gun and nearly 4,000 animals taken with bow and crossbow.
Southern Farmland leaders were Vernon, Sauk, Grant, Columbia and Portage counties, while Taylor, Marinette and Washburn set the pace up north. Adams and Clark led total deer killed in the Central Forest.
Hunters can get a detailed look at historical deer harvest numbers by county at dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/cdacmetrics.html.
WHERE TO GO
Wisconsin hunters will find more than 7 million acres of public and private lands available for hunting this year. The largest of these are county, state and national forests, but there are many other options, including DNR wildlife areas, large portions of many state parks, some U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service areas, and a number of land trust organizations.
There also are hundreds of thousands of acres of private land available, including properties enrolled in Open Managed Forest Law, Voluntary Public Access programs, Turkey Hunter Access and Damage Permit programs.
Hunting public land isn't for everyone, but unless you own your own land, get permission to hunt private property, or lease some land, it may be your only option.
On some big public parcels, it's critical to make sure you understand maps and know the boundaries. A handheld GPS with the latest, updated software is a plus, but it's not necessary if you do your pre-season scouting and get familiar with the layout of the property.
Pre-season practice, familiarity with your bow, crossbow or firearm, and taking only the shots you know you can make will ensure you have the best chance at a quick, clean kill. Take your time and take only shots you know you can make, and you aren't likely to have to worry about wounded game running onto private property — or another hunter finishing what you started.
There are a number of schools of thought when it comes to scouting out a spot to sit on public land. Some hunters prefer only remote or overlooked parcels with hard-to-access stands. Others take their chances on prime properties that are well traveled, often having a backup stand or two in mind should they find other hunters in the immediate area. That's a valuable option come opening morning of the gun hunt or the prime month-long bow period of the pre-rut and rut.
Whatever your choice, you can't get venison sitting on the couch, so get out there and put in your time. Hunt smart, resting a stand if needed, and be ready, willing and able to swap locations if deer patterns change.
Leasing is increasing in popularity across the state. Some "40s" are commanding as much as $1,000 to $2,000 in lease fees, but a lot depends on the quality of the habitat on that property and the deer population, including trophy potential.
If you're new to leasing, be sure to do your homework on what good ground is going for in a particular area. If money is tight, as it often is for many of us, consider going in with a friend or two to lower your costs. Of course, the more hunters on a particular parcel, the more pressure on the whitetails. Some acreage can stand plenty of intelligent hunting pressure, but others — especially semi-open, fragmented farm country — can go cold quickly, as in the deer turn mainly nocturnal, if it's overhunted.
Here's the bottom line: Public or private, solo or with a group, Wisconsin deer hunting can be some of the most exciting in the world. A rebounding deer herd in most areas means increased sightings are likely this year. Pre-hunt scouting, sharpening your shooting eye, and taking only high-percentage shots will up the odds that you'll be dining on venison steaks this fall. Good luck!