The Best Day of the Year

Today is the most wonderful day of the year.

It’s the Friday before opening day of gun deer season in Wisconsin. If you stop by Farm and Fleet (or is it Fleet Farm?) you’ll find it to be “Orange Friday.” And it’s not about fruit or Protestants in Ireland.

About a half million hunters will take to the woods and fields tomorrow morning. It’ll be one of the coldest openers ever with temperatures around 10 degrees and a howling wind. The temperature and the light snow covering will be good for hunters. The wind will be good for deer because it makes it hard to hear them and because they tend to hunker down in the wind.

In any event, I love everything about the preparation (I have a list three pages long) and the anticipation on the eve of the hunt. I’m looking forward to getting to the Jordahl farm in the early afternoon and going up to my stand to make some final adjustments. Then the other hunters will filter in and we’ll enjoy a pot of Peter’s chili. Sometime after we all settle in, Jordy will give his final instructions to the group of eight hunters. We all need to know where we’ll be and when we’ll be moving and in which direction. There’s also the annual advice to take does to control the herd and to shoot only the most prized bucks. We’re a pretty sober and responsible group in the field, though sobriety does not necessarily hold after a day’s hunting.

I thought it might be fun (or not) to give a quick history of the hunt. One of my preparation rituals each year is to reread Robert C. Wilging’s wonderful book “On the Hunt.” Wilging’s book is good reading for anyone interested in hunting or just in Wisconsin history since deer hunting is so intwined with all things Badger.

Here’s the Cliff Notes version of Wilging’s fine book.

Deer hunting in Wisconsin goes back centuries, starting with Native Americans. Indians actually took a lot of deer (some bands needed to kill four deer per day just to survive) and in all seasons. But because their numbers were relatively small and because they roamed the land, it was all sustainable. Most of those deer, as it happens, were in southern Wisconsin, where the open prairies and oak savannas formed perfect habitat as opposed to the closed north woods, which didn’t provide enough browse for deer to reach.

Around the mid nineteenth century white settlers joined this form of subsistence hunting. They took deer to feed their families, but the take remained sustainable. But soon Native Americans were pushed onto reservations and market hunters took over. Everything pretty much went to hell. The market hunters were supplying venison to restaurants all over the country and hides to markets as far away as Europe. With no controls or any real sense of conservation, the herd was completely wiped out in the lower two-thirds of the state.

At about this time, around 1900, another dynamic took over. Clear cutting of the north woods was nearing completion. An unintended consequence was to create fantastic deer habitat as second growth saplings make tasty deer food. At the same time, a more affluent nation produced sport hunters, with the resources to ride trains to the north just to hunt. It was typical for hunters to get off a train where there was no station to set up a tent camp or to take over an abandoned logging camp for a week or two. When it was time to go home, they’d simply flag down the train and head back south with their bag.

This was the period of Teddy Roosevelt and a conservation ethic started to kick in. The state started to take a greater role in managing the herd and regulating hunters. The Wisconsin deer population probably hit its low point during WWI. But then the good north woods ecosystem and strengthening protections started to regrow the herd. About this time the state also developed about 800,000 acres of deer refuge, mostly in the north.

Wisconsin also spent much of the 1920’s and 1930’s in alternating closed seasons, with no hunting allowed anywhere. The result of all this was a rapidly rebounding deer population and a range that was being reestablished in the south. By the 1950’s seasons started to reopen in much of southern Wisconsin.

In the meantime, second growth forest in the north started to lessen the prime deer habitat of the cutover, but by the 1960s that second growth was being harvested, reestablishing some of that habitat. Sustainable forestry practices ever since have kept the population out of boom and bust cycles.

Today, we have what is almost certainly the largest herd — about 1.5 million or more animals — as we have ever had in the history of the state or of the area that became Wisconsin. The hunt is necessary to keep the herd within the land’s carrying capacity. Well, that’s not exactly true. Nature will establish its own balance but that would come through massive winter die offs mostly through starvation. As I look down the scope of my rifle — and I admit that I grow less eager to shoot a deer each season — I keep that in mind.

And, of course, the high deer density is a contributing factor to Chronic Wasting Disease, a fact that we will just have to live with and manage, unfortunately.

But despite CWD, these are the best days for hunters ever. We have a large herd that is precariously close to going over carrying capacity, but not yet over it. And, despite the never ending arguments over exactly how to manage the herd and to regulate hunting, these are still relatively calm days when it comes to these prickly questions. It has been much, much worse in the past.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. It’s time to check stuff off my list and get on the road. For those of you who also enjoy the hunt, shoot straight.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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