Search
  • Patrick Durkin

Time to Update Wisconsin’s Deer Season Schedule

Updated: Feb 16

It’s hard to look at Wisconsin’s 2021 deer season results and not picture some old guy trying to squeeze into his long-forsaken Army uniform or wedding-day suit.


A look that worked in the 1970s can embarrass even the best a half-century later. And yet here we are trying to manage Wisconsin’s 2020s deer herd with our long-cherished nine-day gun hunt as the program’s foundation.


The nine-day gun hunt hasn’t been up to the job since Jimmy Carter’s administration. If you’re unsure who Jimmy Carter was, how about this: We should have dumped Wisconsin’s nine-day gun season when we abandoned its four-person party-permit system for shooting one doe.


If you’re still scratching your head, try this: The nine-day gun season’s shelf life expired about when the compound bow took over archery season.


With 40-plus years of futility and fighting behind us, let’s move on. After all, recent deer harvest data show many hunters have already done so. It’s time the Department of Natural Resources, its seven-person policy-setting board, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, and every other in-state hunting group acknowledge the nine-day season is obsolete. (And please, Hunter Nation, go away. We don’t need your moth-eaten meddling.)


Let’s start the remodeling project by outlawing what’s left of deer baiting, and replacing the nine-day gun-season with a 16-day minimum hunt. For the Northern Forest, schedule the 16-day hunt to start the Saturday nearest Nov. 3. Roughly speaking, the zone’s southern border would follow the bottom of Burnett and Washburn counties; extend south to central Chippewa County; run eastward across the southern borders of Taylor, Lincoln and Langlade counties; and then northeast to central Marinette County.


Depending on the year, the Northwoods season would start between Halloween day and Nov. 6. This would let folks gun-hunt the Northwoods during the rut. Minnesota gun-hunters have hunted the rut for decades, and their buck population remains healthy. Further, without buckets of artificial food disrupting the wild herd’s natural activities, hunters would see more deer moving on their own at midday.


Besides, Northwoods hunters are already showing that preference by hunting earlier in fall with crossbows. Since crossbows were legalized in 2014 for hunting deer throughout autumn, Northern hunters have put crossbows to 22% greater use on deer than their counterparts in the rest of the state.


In 2021, for example, even when you lump crossbows into the total statewide kill, they make up 60% of the 95,218 deer taken with arrows. But in the Northern forest alone this past fall, crossbow hunters took over 70% of the region’s 16,869 arrow-killed deer.


We pause to also acknowledge the crossbow’s overall growing popularity. When crossbows could first be used by everyone in 2014 – not just those 65 and older, or with doctor-certified issues — they took 33% of deer killed with arrows statewide, and 46% of deer killed by archers in the Northwoods.


The anti-crossbow folks say that’s a terrible upward trend, but it’s just free will. Many hunters decided they like hunting with crossbows. No one forced crossbows on them. Likewise, no one forced archers to shoot compounds when they hit the market in the early 1970s.


And if you think crossbows are “too easy” or “too deadly,” please acknowledge the obvious: The crossbow’s impact on Wisconsin archery hunting is far less than what compound bows achieved. Don’t believe it? Let’s return to 1971, my first year in Wisconsin’s deer woods. Don’t forget to bring your recurve bow, metal-clip carcass tag, and cedar-shaft arrows with Bear Razorhead broadheads.


During the ’71 deer season, Wisconsin gun-hunters registered 70,835 deer. Bowhunters that year registered 6,522 deer, or 8% of the 77,357 statewide gun/archery kill.


The compound bow soon boosted the harvests. By the mid-1980s, the Wisconsin DNR had to account for bow-kills in their population estimates. Until then, the bow-kill was too insignificant for such calculations.


Consider Wisconsin’s harvest data for the 10 years preceding the crossbow’s 2014 arrival. During that decade, bow-kills averaged 23.25% of Wisconsin’s deer harvest, varying from 20% to 26.5% of the annual kills. During the past eight years since crossbows joined the hunt, the archery/crossbow kill averaged 29.5% of the annual harvest, ranging from 27% to 33.4% of the total kill.


To recap, arrow-slinging as a percentage of Wisconsin’s deer kill rose from 8% with recurves, to 23% with compounds, and to 29.5% with crossbows. Given that, can you really insist crossbows radically changed deer hunting the past eight years?


So let’s return to remodeling Wisconsin’s deer season: The state’s deer hunting population fell by about 100,000 hunters the past 20 years. Further, the Wisconsin Legislature outlawed earn-a-buck regulations in 2011. Unfortunately, lawmakers haven’t tried replacing hunters or EAB with anything effective, and lower deer kills resulted. Yes, the Natural Resources Board said counties could hold antlerless-only seasons, but no county has the spine or stomach for triggering tantrums, so that’s a phony option.


Yes, hunters can fill their pockets with bonus antlerless “authorization” stubs, but most have little incentive to use them. Therefore, it’s time we open an either-sex gun season the Saturday nearest Nov. 15 in all counties south of the Northern Forest, and close it on Groundhog Day, no matter which day Feb. 2 falls on. A long gun season across farm country would coax more hunters to hunt more often, and make up for what they lost when the NRB eliminated October’s popular T-Zone antlerless-only hunts 10 years ago.


That sounds aggressive, but January’s current extended bow and crossbow seasons draw little interest. In 2019 and 2020, those January hunts generated a combined 3,310 deer, roughly half what recurve archers registered in 1971.


Meanwhile, the North’s bowhunters and crossbow hunters have shown they’d rather hunt when it’s warm, even if it means forsaking gun season. To accommodate that interest, Wisconsin should open its archery seasons statewide the Saturday nearest Aug. 25 and let bowhunters hunt bucks in velvet. If Western archers can hunt elk and pronghorns before Labor Day, we can trust Wisconsin’s to hunt whitetails equally early.


These suggestions are sincere. It’s time our hunting seasons matched our interests and availability.


Wisconsin Northern Forest Deer Harvests

Year Gun All Bows Xbow Total

2004 93,881 24,109 — 117,990 (20% bows)

2005 83,367 19,451 — 102,818 (19% bows)

2006 88,941 26,431 — 115,372 (23% bows)

2007 95,613 25,881 — 121,494 (21% bows)

2008 70,695 20,543 — 91,238 (22.5% bows)

2009 43,053 19,062 — 62,115 (30.7% bows)

2010 46,190 16,140 — 62,330 (25.9% bows)

2011 56,059 20,918 — 76,977 (27% bows)

2012 53,265 17,837 — 71,102 (25% bows)

2013 43,479 15,678 — 59,157 (26.5% bows)

2014 26,629 9,606 (46.3% Xbow) 4,446 36,235 (26.5% bows)

2015 28,794 11,701 (51% Xbow) 5,950 40,495 (29% bows)

2016 36,101 13,329 (56.4% Xbow) 7,520 49,430 (27% bows)

2017 46,709 18,227 (61% Xbow) 11,168 64,936 (28% bows)

2018 47,979 16,049 (65.1% Xbow) 10,452 64,028 (25% bows)

2019 30,784 15,178 (66% Xbow) 9,994 45,962 (33% bows)

2020 33,733 20,271 (68% Xbow) 13,798 54,004 (37.5% bows)

2021 35,767 16,869 (70.3% Xbow) 11,863 52,636 (32% bows)


Wisconsin Deer Hunting Harvests

Year Gun All Bows XBow Total

1971 70,835 6,522 — 77,357 (8.4% bows)

2004 413,794 103,572 — 517,366 (20% bows)

2005 387,310 78,450 — 465,760 (17% bows)

2006 393,306 113,918 — 507,224 (22.5% bows)

2007 402,563 116,010 — 518,573 (22.4% bows)

2008 352,601 99,284 — 451,885 (22% bows)

2009 241,862 87,241 — 329,103 (26.5% bows)

2010 253,038 83,833 — 336,871 (25% bows)

2011 257,511 90,200 — 347,711 (26% bows)

2012 274,047 94,267 — 368,314 (25.6% bows)

2013 255,003 87,628 — 342,631 (25.6% bows)

2014 222,588 81,701 (33% Xbow) 26,891 304,289 (27% bows)

2015 222,731 87,098 (39% Xbow) 34,094 309,829 (28% bows)

2016 228,726 88,048 (45% Xbow) 39,776 316,774 (28% bows)

2017 227,645 92,394 (51% Xbow) 47,228 320,039 (29% bows)

2018 247,614 87,629 (54% Xbow) 47,224 335,243 (26% bows)

2019 196,135 94,085 (55% Xbow) 51,957 290,220 (32.4% bows)

2020 225,730 113,109 (58% Xbow) 65,444 338,839 (33.4% bows)

2021 203,846 95,218 (60% Xbow) 57,071 299,064 (32% bows)

Wisconsin should lengthen its gun and archery deer seasons so hunters are more likely to go afield and return for multiple hunts each year. — Patrick Durkin photo

921 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All