Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s not so much about what it is, but when it is.
Fall is just a great time of year. Hunting, fishing, state championship high school football, the anticipation of Christmas and New Year’s, there’s a lot to be excited about.
Wisconsin’s nine-day gun deer season runs right across Thanksgiving. In the last few years, the weekend after the holiday has become, arguably, my favorite 48 hours of the hunting season.
None of us can recall exactly when it started but, a while back, a group of us started getting together in the waning days of Wisconsin’s most popular hunting season to conduct a series of deer drives on private lands our family and friends own.
I have jokingly referred to this outing as “The Great Sheboygan County Deer Drive.” But one of my friends has recently dubbed it “The Big Push.”
For those unfamiliar with the procedure, a deer drive consists of two groups of people: pushers and shooters. It’s a simple concept. The pushers walk through a plot of cover in hopes of moving any deer toward the shooters. When done safely, it can be a great way to make deer hunting more of a social activity, like waterfowl or pheasant hunting can be.
One of my favorite aspects of this hunt is the willingness of the group to look out for one another. Those who have yet to harvest a deer get priority as shooters. Any venison collected is thoughtfully divided up to make sure those who want some get it, even if they didn’t personally shoot it. For some of my friends, this is the only deer hunting experience they get.
We’ve enjoyed plenty of success over the years. I struggle to think of time we didn’t come home with at least one deer. In our better seasons, we manage to drop several.
This year, our small orange army rolled nine-deep. Around 8 a.m. on the last Saturday of the season, we assembled at our friend’s family farm. Justin and his dad Brian are a huge part of making this annual event a reality. They own several hundred acres throughout the county and are kind enough to let us hunt them.
To be honest, witnessing the often comical interactions between the father/son combo is as entertaining as the hunting, sometimes more so. Brian, a seasoned, hard-working farmer can be gruff, but also incredibly generous and endearing. Justin is amiable, but no less direct. Both men are straight shooters. They just go about it differently.
Justin’s uncle Dave joined myself and several of my closest hunting buddies to round out our group.
After selecting the first location, we assigned roles. The land, owned by one of my friend’s sisters, is a combination of marsh, tall grass, and woods. I was selected to be among the shooters, posting up on one of my friend’s ladder stands. We assumed our positions and the pushers began to do their thing.
A few minutes in, I heard a pair of shots ring out from the tree stand ahead of me. As I followed the ensuing thrashing, my eyes were drawn to a deer that had piled up in front of me and slightly to my right.
Ahead of the downed animal, however, another deer was speeding through the brush toward me. I lifted my rifle and began tracing the deer’s path. Knowing that I had to get ahead of it, I began picking out a shooting lane in front of the deer’s perceived route in anticipation of being able to cut it off. But that opportunity never occurred. The doe darted for the thickest cover it could find and tunneled its way to the neighbor’s land.
Still we were one-for-one. It’s nice to be on the board early.
We summoned Brian’s old pickup truck and loaded the deer up. As we finished, we decided on our next location. As it turned out, it was just up the road, only a few 40s over.
“I hope you brought enough bullets,” Brian quipped while tagging a drag of his cigarette.
Now, I wasn’t sure if that was a dig at our shooting abilities or an allusion to how many deer could be present at this new spot. Either way, I was excited.
This location was primarily a cut cornfield. The key part of the land was a small patch of cedar trees that separated the backyard of the homestead from the agriculture.
We were instructed to be especially quiet as we got out of our trucks. The deer were likely bedding close to the road and would spook easily, especially given the events of the previous seven days.
We needed just two pushers for this little plot. The shooters divided into two groups. The first group was instructed to walk the lane to the corner of the cedar patch. The second group, my group, was to advance through the field toward the fence line and post up on the opposite corner.
With both groups facing the field, we would all have clear, safe shots as the deer ran out from behind us.
At least, that’s how it was supposed to go.
As my squad neared its destination, a small parade of deer began pouring out of the cedars. The first crew got too close to the trees and the deer winded them before the pushers had even left their trucks. A barrage of shots rang out (Brian was right about the bullets). The kink in our plan left only the first team with feasible shooting opportunities. My club quickly became spectators.
To their credit, the first team managed to drop one deer (of the seven that emerged) — a large doe.
It was good meat. But Brian was not pleased. The way he saw it, had the first group listened to him, it was possible that all of the shooters could have been in on the action, thereby increasing our chances of success.
As my group approached the first group, we were treated to an expletive-laced lecture from Brian about what, exactly, constitutes a “corner.”
I felt like a basketball player sitting on the bench while the starters were turning in a lackluster performance. Even though I wasn’t actively participating, I was one of the few who got to hear all about it from the coach.
Knowing all this, we laughed a little. It was nothing personal. It was one of those situations where you could tell Brian was just giving us grief, though part of him was genuinely upset.
After we arrived at the location of the worthy recipients, we watched in delight as Brian continued his rant. Coach called timeout and let the starters have it. I laughed until I cried. We all did.
These drives quickly teach you the importance of being able to take heat (and the equally important skill of being able to give it back).
But, again, we had more venison for the table. It’s amazing how that cures all.
Our third spot yielded nothing. Not even a tail.
We arrived at the final location of the day just after noon. It was another plowed cornfield, this time on the other side of town. It was flanked on either side by a small woods.
Shortly after the drive began, I heard a shot come from my immediate right. I looked in that direction to see a pair of deer bounding toward me. I hurriedly tried to find them in my scope. I couldn’t do it. I peeked up and tried again. This time, I located them in the crosshairs. But they were quickly approaching a gap between me and the friend to my left in the shooting line. I had to pull up.
Thankfully, my friend was prepared. He dropped a doe just before she entered the woods. It was our third deer of the day.
After some time to recuperate, we were back at it again the following morning. We began by driving the small woods near the family farm. One small doe skirted us, but that was it.
We moved on to another portion of the family’s land in a neighboring town. I was again one of the shooters.
As things kicked off, I saw four deer scamper down the hill across the road. They made their way to our spot, but kept their distance. I caught brief glimpses of them as the trotted across the plowed field in front of me. I gave a whistle to the friend standing to my left, trying to focus his attention toward the group of deer I wasn’t sure he saw.
Eventually, the deer appeared in front of him. But they picked up on his location before he could crack off a round. Though it appeared to the rest of us as though the deer lingered for long enough. He caught some grief about that.
After returning to our trucks, we decided to go back to the property that played host to our first drive of the weekend. The way we saw it, our group’s poor shooting likely drove the majority of the pervious day’s deer processional toward this parcel of land. We deemed it worthy of another attempt.
This time, I chose to push.
We worked the first portion of thicket, probably 100 yards in length. Nothing.
A pair of us crossed into the next patch of tall grass before opting to halt. The other two pushers, dealing with thicker vegetation, had fallen a bit behind us. After they caught up, we resumed in a straight line.
About 30 yards into the second phase of the walk, I heard rustling to my right. I looked over to see a pair of does sprinting across my field of view. Recognizing my presence, they veered away from me and toward an open field where the shooters were waiting.
“Deer! Deer!,” I called out.
Eventually, the safe shots presented themselves and gunfire was heard. When the dust settled, another doe had hit the ground.
Though plenty of us had tags left, we decided to call an end to hunting portion of this year’s proceedings. In total, we had seven deer to process. Four from the previous 24 hours, and three more that group members had harvested earlier in the week.
We got back to the farm and went to work. This portion of the weekend has since been named “Butcher Bash.”
Tables were erected, knives sharpened, music turned up, and cold ones cracked.
It’s amazing how fast deer processing can go when you have a crew of people. It’s also amazing how fun it can be.
We got the banter going, talking stupid and sipping suds between cuts.
A few deer in, Brian grabbed a back strap and a grill and made us lunch. That is always some of the best-tasting venison I consume all year.
“You knew where I was going when I left didn’t you?,” Brian asked us, giving a nod to his yearly ritual of cooking for the group. “You’d be disappointed if I didn’t feed you.”
We smiled and nodded in agreement. This portion of the weekend had become as much a part of the tradition as anything.
Later on, Justin told us how much Brian looks forward to this weekend and detailed the enjoyment he takes in participating. It was a mutual feeling.
In just about four hours, we had processed all seven deer. I sent my dad a text as we were finishing up and he asked if I picked up any tips.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Bring eight friends.”
Good hunts feature either success or camaraderie. But the best hunts have both.