Keeping tradition alive during an unordinary Wisconsin deer season

Gun deer hunting is the foremost outdoors tradition in Wisconsin.

Each year, over half a million licenses are sold. During the nine-day season, the state’s gun deer hunters temporarily become the eighth-largest active military in the world.

It would be pretty hard for you to know a handful of Wisconsinites and not find some connection to deer hunting. With nearly 10 percent of the state’s population participating in the sport each year, deer hunting is engrained in our culture and that makes me incredibly happy.

For my dad and I, the tradition involves a three-and-a-half-hour drive to a little town called Neillsville. Located in central Wisconsin, my mom and dad lived in the area when I was born. My dad was a music teacher at a local school district.

That’s where he met Jerry, the landowner who has been gracious enough to let members of our family join him on his 33-acre plot of land for nearly three decades.

Like many of our fellow hunters, we had to alter our plans due the COVID-19 pandemic. In the name of safety, we were not staying at Jerry’s house this year. We opted for a hotel room in Marshfield, the largest city in the immediate area. While this significantly cut down on our time to catch up and share meals together, we made the sacrifice in hopes of keeping everyone healthy.

We made the best of it. I was born in Marshfield, but my family moved back home shortly after that. This was the first opportunity I had to make memories in the place I was born. We enjoyed takeout from a pair of local restaurants and I was appreciative of the chance to experience a little bit of life in the place my life began.

Opening Day came and we began the 30-minute drive to the land where we were to meet up with Jerry and his brother-in-law. Along the way, my dad pointed out a few meaningful landmarks. It was nice to take in these sights firsthand, even if it was just as we were passing through.

Per usual, we settled into our stands a little less than an hour before sunrise. While I don’t disagree with the strategy, this is my least favorite part of the hunt. It’s generally cold and the pitch black of the early morning hours offers up nothing in terms of sightseeing. The adrenaline rush brought on by the anticipation of the new season was in full swing but, for a while, there was nothing to do but sit and wait.

When daylight graciously breaks, the forced patience of waiting for its arrival quickly pays dividends. There’s something truly special about witnessing the woods come alive. The drawn out calls of owls transition to the sounds of the clucks of turkeys as they descend from their roosts. Woodpeckers begin their long day’s work by tapping on their timber of choice. Crows shout out to their buddies as the morning flight begins. Squirrels begin their romp about the dead leaves in search of nourishment before winter sets in.

Like clockwork, the landscape draws into focus and the memories come rushing back. I’ve been hunting out of the same ladder stand, wedged between a pair of old oaks and a pine tree, for 14 seasons now. To be honest, I’ve lost count of the number of deer I’ve harvested in this spot, but it’s been all of the deer I’ve ever taken with a rifle sans my very first.

An abundance of memories have been made here. I often catch myself reminiscing as though I’m going through a checklist as I scan the terrain from left-to-right, with an eye on the past and another, more hopeful one, toward the future.

“The first deer I shot here stopped right there.”

“There’s where my first buck came from.”

“Both deer from my first double landed on that path.”

This little refresher exercise is as much about cementing the fuel that powers tradition as it is a crash course on what may be to come.

Generally, there’s plenty of time for this process on opening morning. The four-legged fur-bearing critters on this land are notoriously late risers. Or, at least, that’s the illusion given by the pass-through nature of the land. Deer find it as a nice place to take a stroll to and from bedding or food. But few of them actually call this place home. On this opening morning, I didn’t see my first deer until nearly 1 p.m. But it was finally time to start creating some new memories.

It was almost lunch as I heard feet stomping on the semi-frozen forest floor. I turned to my right and caught a glimpse of some trotting brown legs, while a pair of white tails flickered gently. The deer appeared to be on the smaller side and on high-alert.

The smaller of the two began edging up the mild hill in front of me, from right-to-left. The other seemed content on lower ground, beginning to let its guard down, it slowed and began to graze.

This was the first time I was able to get a proper look at the second deer, I could see the pair of spiked antlers that protruded from his head. They ended just above his ears.

As the doe fawn he was with began to disappear out of sight, the spike buck became nervous. He promptly quit eating and began galloping across the flat ground at the base of the hill until he caught up with his traveling companion.

Whether they are shooters or not, the first deer of the season always brings its own combination of relief and excitement. That tandem has a way of fueling the kind of hope that keeps these long sits fun.

After a quick lunch, we were back in our respective stands. Afternoons had typically been quite good to me at this spot, even when mornings are slow. I remained optimistic as I settled back in for the relatively brief afternoon sit.

It didn’t take long to hear the steady beat of footsteps. The hollow thud of hooves originated from the neighbor’s land and was increasing in volume as a pair deer approached from behind me and to my right.

I am familiar with this route. When deer come from the west in this stand location, as they often do in the afternoon, this is about the only place they come from. A patch of medium underbrush connects begins at approximately the property line and eventually transitions to the hard woods. You often hear deer coming from this direction before you see them.

Just last year, at almost exactly this time of day, I was lucky enough to harvest a pair of deer from a group of five that came in along this pathway. As the two does came closer, my confidence began to rise.

Both animals behaved as though they were not here by choice. Deer can be pretty skeptical creatures, but this duo seemed to be bordering on paranoid. As the first doe slowly made her way to my side of the walking path that divides the undergrowth and the more mature forest, the other refused to follow.

I decided to focus my attention on the doe that committed. She stood at about 70 yards, roughly 110 degrees off my right side and was partially obstructed by a handful of trees.

I selected a desired shooting lane and fixed my crosshairs on the spot in anticipation. The doe carefully advanced a few more yards, head on swivel, constantly assessing her surroundings. She began to look behind her and I could tell she was leaning toward the route the other doe had chosen. It became pretty clear she wasn’t going to make it to the spot I had picked out, so I adjusted.

She was at about 65 yards, still at more than a 90-degree angle from the front of my stand. Being a right-hander, this was a less than ideal shot from a sitting position. But it was still a makable one. I half-stood and braced my gun against the pine tree in attempt to steady myself as much as possible. She quartered slightly toward me as I lined up my cross hairs. I flipped the safety to the fire position and let my rifle speak its piece.

The shot didn’t feel great. The doe took off sprinting back the way she came, tail up as she scampered frantically through the brush. She paused briefly in the young pines and I momentarily lost sight of her. “Maybe she’ll go down right there,” I thought to myself.

A few seconds passed and the deer came back into view. She had joined the other doe and they were quickly making their escape. This wasn’t good.

After some time had passed, I quietly descended from my stand and evaluated the scene of the shot. The verdict was clear: a complete miss. There wasn’t a drop of blood or a single hair to be found.

Now every missed shot is a blow to a hunters pride. This one certainly annoyed me. I made a handful of mistakes that would generally come from an inexperienced hunter. It happens to all of us, at some point. But that didn’t take much of the sting away. I was peeved.

To me, this sport is like a timed pop quiz. Once you become proficient in basic outdoors skills such as marksmanship, hunting is little more than evaluation of how quickly and accurately you can tick the boxes off your checklist in a given situation. I failed a few portions of this test.

For one, I rushed the shot. Never good when striving for accuracy with a single-projectile weapon that is often unforgiving. But when I saw how nervous the deer was, I too became nervous fearing I would miss my opportunity. So I fired off a round almost as soon as I had the deer in the crosshairs. I didn’t take time to control my breathing and double-check the steadiness of my base. Far from textbook.

The other major sin I committed was lifting my head after the shot. It’s human nature to want to see the animal fall. All hunters are looking for that instant gratification. But lifting your head before the exchange is complete can lead to inaccuracy as your head actually begins moving upward before the bullet has completed its rapid journey out of the barrel.

To overcome this, I try to remind myself, “if you’re going to watch the deer fall, watch it through the scope. Once that deer is down, it is down forever. You’ll have plenty of time to look at it after.”

In this instance, I didn’t heed my own advice. And I paid dearly.

It’s a crappy feeling, letting a shot go and instantly having a handful of things you would have done differently. I tucked my tail between my legs and climbed back into my stand with just under two hours remaining in our day.

I stewed for awhile, firing off a few venting text messages to a handful of friends and family. But I quickly regained perspective. Sure, I was frustrated by how I handled the course of events. But given all the craziness and real problems in our world today, it’s hard to be terribly upset about missing a deer for too long. At the very least, I missed her entirely. I didn’t cause the animal any harm outside of being scared out of her mind for a few moments. If things were going to go badly, at least they went badly in the best way possible. I took solace in that.

Day 2 had a different feel to it. The woods awoke in a much more muted fashion. Hardly any turkeys making noise, the crows were notably quite. It was cool and still.

In the waning moments of darkness, I heard a series of repetitive foot steps to my left. Most likely a small group of deer quietly progressing through forest en route to their daytime destination. The soft crunches of leaves continued on a cadence with procession in full swing until the sources of the noise disappeared in the distance. The animals either took respite on top of the hill in front of my stand or proceeded to the next chunk of land to the east. Still, I took it as an encouraging sign.

Light came, and there wasn’t much of anything to look at. Nothing was moving. Occasionally, gunfire rang out in the distance, each shot with its own story. A series of stories that will forever be unknown to me.

Shortly before 8:30, a pair of shots bellowed from the property directly to the south. I was struck with a jolt of excitement. I’ve seen this movie before and it normally ends well for our hunting party.

It seems, more often than not, if our group harvests deer on the second day of the gun season it is almost aways the bi-product of action on this particular neighbor’s land. In fact, the last buck I shot from my stand came hauling down the walking path from next door after a series of shots.

This season, it played out similarly. Mere moments after the initial shots, a loud boom echoed from my dad’s stand followed by a series of frantic footsteps. Not knowing if my dad’s deer was down, I hurriedly began scanning the land for the source of the steps. A snow white tail flashed over the ridge. Hopefully that wasn’t my father’s target.

Yards away from the escaping deer, I saw a patch of brown quickly making its way between me and my dad. I hurriedly shifted my sights in that direction, in case my support was needed. But the brown patch never emerged from the trees separating our stands.

I reached into my pocket and grabbed my phone. There was a text from my dad on the lock screen that simply read, “Done.”

Our group was on the board and our family had venison in the freezer for another year. My dad climbed down and quickly and silently field dressed the animal before retreating to his tree once again.

The remainder of the hunt was uneventful as occasional showers of graupel began to make its way to earth.

We met at the trucks and said our goodbyes, but not before we spent some much-needed time trading stories of previous hunts, including memories of my late-grandpa’s most notable deer. We laughed, remembered, and enjoyed each other’s company safely. This year was different, but the sentiments of an enduring friendship between our group remained.

Eventually, we went our separate ways. Jerry began the walk back to his stand for and afternoon hunt and my dad and I got in the truck and headed home.

We chatted about the weekend’s events over the familiar tones of the Statler Brothers while celebrating our collective success.

That, after all, has become tradition too.

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