Deer Season Still Delivers High-Quality Memories
My oldest daughter, Leah, hunted deer with me for the first time since 2014.
A good friend, Tom Heberlein, saw deer from his favorite stand for the first time since 2003.
I shot a deer with my first deer rifle, a Savage Model 99E in .308 Winchester, for the first time since 1984.
I spent time with friends at Old Tamarack, Heberlein’s Ashland County deer shack, for the first time since 2019.
Heberlein served buttermilk pancakes for brunch at Old T for the first time since COVID-19 infected the world in March 2020.
And three hunters at Old T saw deer in their habitat-poor forest for the first time since who knows when, the 1950s?
Therefore, no matter how hard some hunters grump their way into December, I’m calling the November 2021 firearms deer season a success.
Yes, the statewide harvest was down over 14% on opening weekend from 2020. I guess the buck fawn I shot two hours into the season with my second oldest deer rifle, a Winchester Model 70 in .30-06 Springfield, wasn’t enough to turn Wisconsin red, blue or whatever color you get when the harvest increases from the previous year.
And, yes, many hunters report hearing less shooting and seeing fewer deer than most years past. And yes, too, the deer season’s nine-day structure has become a poor fit for a herd too large and diseased, and for a hunting population that’s shrinking and changing its habits.
But I’m not sure what to make of this year’s numbers from opening weekend. Things kind of blew apart by midmorning on Sunday, the season’s second day, when gusting winds rocked treestands statewide, driving many hunters to the ground. Once there, many hunters didn’t know what to do with themselves, so accustomed are they to treestands and elevated box blinds. Many folks lack options when their boots crunch snow or fallen leaves instead of metal mesh or discarded carpeting.
Even some of those hunters, however, returned to the woods Nov. 22 and enjoyed themselves by hunting new areas and filling a few antlerless tags. And when I heard the next day, Tuesday, from my good friend Doug Duren, he reported 12 deer killed on his family’s farm near Cazenovia, including four antlered bucks, two buck fawns and six does.
When I returned to Cousin Peg’s Richland County farm on Nov. 27 to hunt with my friend Jason Stein, we didn’t see a deer all morning. Stein and I then worked into the noon hour moving Cousin Terry’s two-seat ladder stand from a ridgeline saddle to a wooded knoll about a quarter-mile closer to Peg’s house.
For a change of scenery, Stein and I then hunted different spots in the afternoon. Stein watched a nearby field at Peggy’s recommendation, and I hunted my old tripod stand where I shot that buck fawn on opening day.
Stein again saw no deer, but I shot a big ol’ doe at dusk as she led three other deer down a cornfield’s edge 100 yards away. After gutting the doe and returning with my truck to retrieve it, I revised our agenda, but not intentionally. Peg, Stein and I spent the next hour changing my truck’s front passenger-side tire after I flattened it when hitting a farm implement hidden by weeds and darkness at the field’s edge.
We were grateful the ground was frozen and the evening dry, but Peg noted we weren’t lucky. “If you were lucky, you wouldn’t have hit that thing and shredded your tire,” she observed while holding a flashlight as I belly-crawled to fit the jack beneath the axle.
Likewise, if Chris White had been lucky, the big deer he saw at dusk on opening day in Ashland County would have skulked past his stand five minutes earlier when sunlight better illuminated the Nicolet-Chequamegon National Forest. When White spotted the deer he thought the 2013 opener was repeating itself. He shot a trophy-sized 9-pointer that cold day, and hoped this similar-sized deer repeating that walk was equally impressive.
The deer paused to stare when hearing White turn and raise his rifle. He had a clear lane to aim but not one to study the deer’s head. White also lacked an antlerless tag, given that he was hunting public land and those tags are intended for private farms farther north.
And so White tried futilely to see antlers on the deer’s head, obscured as they were by hazel brush, spruce branches and balsam boughs. The view didn’t improve when White increased the scope’s magnification. Yes, he tried that.
All White could do was embrace the last option all good hunters would choose: He put the rifle’s safety back on when the deer disappeared into the forest.
Heberlein shared a less suspenseful story after the season’s second day. As many hunters fled the forest in the face of gale-force winds, he watched a doe lead two fawns into the marshy woods below his heated “old-guy stand” in red pines about 150 yards from his shack. Heberlein and our friend Rich Stedman make a mark on the stand’s wooden interior for each hour they hunt there. By their count, these were the first deer they’ve seen in 52 hours of hunting the stand since it was built and hunted in 2017.
Heberlein, too, lacked an antlerless tag for the same reasons White cited, and could only play-act as the deer nibbled buds and lichens, and then bedded and chewed their cuds. “I tried hard to grow antlers on them,” Heberlein said. “I put the crosshairs on their chests, too. But they didn’t grow antlers, and I didn’t take the safety off. They finally moved on.”
We assumed these were the same three deer Stedman reported earlier from “Peter’s Stand” a half-mile to the east. Deer are so few in this chunk of forest that even wolves don’t hunt there. Their tracks are infrequent, and just pass through on straight lines, seldom stopping to sniff the air or smell the ground.
Someday, we too will pass through without making the world pause, but for now we’re busy making memories.
Patrick Durkin, Chris White, Rich Stedman and Tom Heberlein posed for this photo in 2017 at Old T in Ashland County. That’s when Heberlein first hunted from his new “old-guy” heated deer stand. Heberlein saw his first deer there on Sunday, Nov. 21.
— Patrick Durkin photo