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Wisconsin Gun Hunt’s Slow Pace Mimics Bow Season

I’ve long liked hunting’s two basic options for Wisconsin’s nine-day gun-deer season:


If you prefer to hunt deer on their terms by sneaking through the woods or sitting in a stand and watching their trails, you hunt our Northern forests. Because you must scout, study the landscape, and learn natural deer movements, Northwoods gun seasons feel much like bowhunting, but with a rifle. (We’ll forgo baiting debates today.)


And if you prefer more frantic action, and depend mostly on chilled, restless hunters to randomly spook deer and send them careening like pinballs between flippers and bumpers, you hunt farm country. You still might scout a lot, but insights into spooked-deer behaviors aren’t found in rubs, tracks and scrapes. Your stand sites depend more on firsthand experience of where deer flee when gunfire booms across the countryside.


But you know what? As hunter numbers and hunting pressure declined in recent years, my gun-hunts in southwestern Wisconsin started feeling more like bowhunts. That’s not bad, but it is different.


I’ve hunted my cousins’ 200-acre farm in northeastern Richland County since 1983. For roughly my first 25 years there, six to seven hunters regularly showed up opening weekend on the Durkin farm, and another 15 to 20 hunted the bordering five or six properties I can watch from my treestand.

Hunting pressure declined the past decade to about half those numbers. In the past five years only three or four of us hunt the Durkin farm on opening weekend, and only eight to 10 hunt the neighboring properties.


I seldom see deer bouncing about like flushed rabbits anymore. More often I see deer browsing along wooded fencerows or skulking slowly through thick brush, as if assuring themselves they aren’t being watched. And because lightly pressured deer simply wait till dusk to make their feeding forays, I don’t leave my stand until my iPhone buzzes the end of shooting hours.


Yep. Just like bowhunting.


Meanwhile, I haven’t seen so many well-beaten deer trails around the Durkin farm since the 1980s. I assume the whitetails travel those routes mostly at night, because I’ve yet to see a deer use the most hoof-pocked trails nearest my rifle stand.


As if to confirm the calmer state of the farm’s resident deer, I spotted a 10-point buck bedded 200 yards off the road at noon Sunday opening weekend. The buck was lying on a brushy, weedy hillside as I drove toward the barnyard to photograph an 8-point buck my cousin Mike shot three hours earlier.


The 10-pointer lay in its bed as our three vehicles drove past below. After we parked by the barn and I told our group what I’d seen, we huddled around the tractor to discuss our options. The buck finally disappeared into thicker cover soon after we broke the huddle, apparently sensing we meant harm.


Meanwhile, 230 miles north in Ashland County, my friend Chris White was doing what we normally do while hunting the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest: counting trees, documenting wildlife besides deer, and marveling at every deer track in the snow.


Hey, that’s what we do at Tom Heberlein’s deer camp near Cayuga, an area so wanting of deer and whitetail habitat that wolves deem us daft for hunting there. White texted me this note Sunday afternoon as I gassed up in Prentice on Highway 13: “No deer seen yet. Saw three otters this morning.”


But as night approached two hours later, White heard noise behind his treestand overlooking a frozen beaver flowage. He later recorded this entry in Heberlein’s logbook:


“I rotated my torso and peered as far over my shoulder as possible to look directly behind the tree. To my utter amazement, a small deer stepped into view. It was inside of 20 yards and getting closer. When it stepped into view a second time I saw it was a buck. It had a small spike rack that was slightly out of parallel, and dark chocolate in color.


“I slowly rotated to take aim, shouldered my rifle, and took the gun off safety. The deer … was now standing of the far side of a tree 10 feet from my stand. It looked up and raised its head to full alert. He knew something was out of place. The deer turned and circled behind the stand, and cautiously disappeared into the forest, somehow keeping a big tree between us as it headed northward.”


White’s hunt marked his 11th straight gun season at Heberlein’s “Old T” deer shack. White lives in Toledo, Ohio, but so desired to hunt Wisconsin’s Northern forest that he petitioned Heberlein in 2009 to join his camp. Since then, no one at Old T has logged more hours (an eternity) on stand and shot more deer (five) than Chris White.


But after shooting a wall-hanger 9-point buck in 2013, White went four seasons until seeing his next deer, a yearling buck he shot in 2018. Hence, his “utter amazement” to see another deer this year. Old T’s hunters take more satisfaction in deer sightings than muskie anglers do in follows.


This season also marked banner times for snowshoe-hare sightings, and for verified tracks made by otters, bobcats, wolves and black bears. Why, we even found a few deer tracks, most of which were on Heberlein’s 40 acres. But just like the deer on my cousins’ farm, these deer move mostly at night. We never cut a fresh deer track in the wet snow.


White found some consolation Tuesday morning, however, when spotting gray movement in the firs, spruce and hazel-brush across the beaver meadow from his treestand. Judging by its size, White assumed it was a coyote, but minutes later a bobcat stepped out.


White wrote: “It walked broadside from west to east, and stopped in a small clearing. Through my riflescope I saw its wide, slightly pink nose. As it turned and walked into cover, I saw its stubby tail with black fur twitching rapidly.”


Wisconsin’s Northwoods lacks its Southern farmlands deer numbers, but it compensates with diverse wildlife sightings you’ll find few other places.


If you pretend you’re bowhunting.

Dan Klein, left, and Peggy Durkin admire an 8-point buck that Mike Durkin shot on the family’s farm in Richland County on Nov. 24, the second day of deer season. — Patrick Durkin photo

A 10-point buck watches from its hillside bed in Richland County, but soon vanished. — Patrick Durkin photo

Daylight arrives on a beaver pond and meadow in Ashland County. — Patrick Durkin photo

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