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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

CWD, COVID-19 Leave Marks on Wisconsin Deer Season

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

It’s hard to say which C-disease will make me recall the 2020 deer season with greater melancholy: coronavirus disease 2019 or chronic wasting disease.

COVID-19 canceled my annual hunt with Tom Heberlein at his Old T deer shack in Ashland County. The Professor and I considered it foolish for two grumpy old men like us to share a small shack with two younger friends from Ohio and New York. Nothing is purer than Northwoods air and deer-camp traditions, but we didn’t want to forever lose both by disrespecting the C-virus.

Social-distancing isn’t possible in the close quarters of a 1940s deer shack. And, even though we felt fine and tested clean, Heberlein and I didn’t covet an enduring guilt were we to unwittingly give Chris White and Rich Stedman COVID-19. I mean, it’s not like exposing them to an emerald ash borer or other firewood stowaways.

And so when dawn arrived Friday, Nov. 20, Heberlein didn’t set his gear on his Madison steps to await White’s ride from Toledo. That decision marked the first time since 1972 that Heberlein didn’t make the 260-mile trip to the Conley Road to hunt deer. Though excused, my absence at Old T was my first since 2005 and my second since 2001.

Stedman also stayed home in Ithaca, New York, leaving White to keep the camp alive by hunting solo Saturday through Tuesday morning. White, 43, the youngest of our crew, has hunted Old T every year since his first trip in 2009.

Even so we hunted deer Saturday and Sunday, staying in touch with text messages from our stands near Cayuga, and the Ithacas of New York and Wisconsin. Heberlein, meanwhile, tended his deer-camp logs in Madison.

Stedman shot the morning’s only deer, finishing a kill the neighbor started when a wounded 10-point buck struggled by. After discussing ownership with the other hunter, Stedman let him claim the wide-racked buck, agreeing the man’s shot was fatal.

Meanwhile, I hunted the familiar tripod stand on my cousins’ family farm in northeastern Richland County. I’ve hunted the Durkin farm since the 1983 gun season, mostly on its southwestern corner along Highway 154.

Unlike the 1980s and ’90s, you no longer need a handheld tally counter to keep up with opening day’s rifle shots. Deer numbers remain strong in the Driftless Area, but hunter numbers continue falling, even as we increasingly confine ourselves to comfortable stands from dawn to dusk. Most Wisconsin gun-deer hunters were doing “shelter in place” long before we tried spelling “hydroxychloroquine.”

That collective inactivity prompts few deer to bounce across the farmlands like bunnies dogged by beagles. Instead, we hunker stubbornly in our stands, determined to outwait deer until they come to us on their own.

Unlike White at Old T, I expect to see at least one deer whenever perching a day in my old tripod stand, which has a rail and seat, but no walls, roof or windows. It just takes longer now to see that first deer, and feel the adrenaline surge we call “buck fever.”

I felt that jolt about 9:15 a.m. opening day when sunlight highlighted the white hair of a deer’s belly and tail in a creek bed 150 yards away. Raising my binoculars, I studied the stationary deer, which stood in the creek with its tail limp and head low. Brush and branches covered its chest and neck, but its hindquarters were clear.

The minutes dragged by. The deer finally lifted its head when a loud truck with a trailer rattled past on the nearby highway. Branched antlers swept out to both ears, with 3- to 4-inch tines jutting from both beams.

I raised my rifle when the buck’s head drooped once more behind the brush. I found the buck in my scope and studied the situation. It stood on my cousins’ property line, and hadn’t moved for at least 15 minutes. Even its tail seldom twitched. Deer stricken with CWD often head to water to relieve unquenchable thirst. The buck might have been drinking from the creek, but I couldn’t see its head behind the brush.

I considered my options. Should I aim for the hindquarters’ hip sockets to anchor the buck and prevent it escaping onto the neighbor’s land? If it was CWD-positive, I wouldn’t be eating its meat anyway. But what if it got hit by a vehicle the night before, and is healthy other than some bruising or broken bones?

Do I want to ruin all that venison by blasting its hips? And what if I miss the hips and the deer runs wounded onto the neighbors’ land? Can I locate the absentee landowner to get permission to pursue it? Or should I risk a trespassing violation? Or should I seek the Department of Natural Resources’ permission to put down a sick deer? I’d just as soon not burn my buck tag on a suspect deer, and wait until after gun season for a replacement tag.

I resolved to wait till 10 a.m. to shoot. That would be 45 minutes of monitoring this statue in the Upper Willow Creek. But 10 a.m. came and went, and so did 10:15 and 10:30. All the while the hindquarters didn’t move.

But then the buck disappeared. It had been there when I turned toward a sound behind me, but was gone when I swiveled back. I picked the brush apart with my binoculars, but never saw it again.

I ended opening day by shooting a 10-point buck east of my stand at dusk, but I can’t stop thinking about the smaller buck I passed up that morning. I poked through the bottomlands on foot Sunday afternoon. Had it bedded down to die? Nope. Nothing.

Did I do the right thing? Would I have shot those hips if the DNR were paying $100 for each CWD-positive deer? How about if it were paying $1,000?

I’ll probably never know. Worse, more hunters will face similar decisions as CWD worsens, and deer fall more from disease than bullets and broadheads.

I trust we’ll soon get past COVID-19, thanks to science, vaccines and responsible leadership. But I fear we’ve missed our chance to anchor CWD, and that feels darker than mere melancholy.

Patrick Durkin shot this 10-point buck at dusk on opening day of Wisconsin’s 2020 gun-deer season. — Patrick Durkin photo

Rich Stedman, right, congratulates a fellow hunter after helping him bag this 10-point buck in New York state on Nov. 21. — Rich Stedman photo

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