We have certainly had colder weather on opening weekend, and it has been windy at times, as well. The combination of below 20-degree temps and a 20-mph northwest wind, however, made this a memorable opener for those of us hunting near Lake Superior. It was memorable, as well, for two very different mentored hunts a few miles apart in Bayfield and Douglas counties.
This year, our group consisted of: Jonathan Small, of Bayfield; Alex Blaine, of Washburn; Dave Roll, of New Auburn; Blake Gross, of Ashland; John “Ozzy” Oswald, of Westby; and yours truly, also of Westby. Like many deer camps, ours started out with a family group, then added members over the years.
I have hunted this land since 1973. Jon joined me as a non-hunting observer around 1980, and as a hunter in 1987. Alex has hunted here for at least 20 years, often with the group, but some years as the only hunter. Dave joined us about five years ago. Blake and Ozzy became part of the gang last year.
Like many Northwoods properties, this land is a mix of aspen, hardwoods, evergreens, and brushy thickets. It is home to ruffed grouse, gray and red squirrels, and whitetails. Other visitors or residents have included porcupines, snowshoe hares, coyotes, wolves, black bears, fishers, bobcats, and turkeys.
One 15-acre former hayfield is now overgrown with dense alders creeping in from the edges and young white pines struggling to compete with non-native buckthorn. Jon and Alex put a hurt on the worst of the buckthorn last winter as the first step in habitat improvement.
Deer remain the one constant here. On opening weekend, we always see plenty of sign and at least a few deer, and this year was no exception. We all had antlerless tags, as there were plenty available for private land here, but for the second straight year we failed to fill one. Judging from the number of shots we heard, there were fewer hunters in our area this year than ever before. On Saturday, we counted seven shots all day, including one by our group. On Sunday, we heard a total of 17.
Blake fired the only shot taken by our group, when he felled a forkhorn around 10 a.m. Saturday when the buck stepped onto the trail he and Jon were watching. It was a special deer for him – his first one ever – and for Jon, who graciously shared his best stand and offered Blake the first shot.
“I am probably 35 years older than most people in their ‘my first buck’ photos,” Blake posted on his Facebook page. “But I’m cool with that. Venison for days …”
“Thank you for letting me feel the warmth that comes from sharing the tradition of hunting,” Jon replied. “Nice shot, man. Dropped in its tracks!”
Since we also were shooting scenes for next year’s “Deer Hunt Wisconsin TV Special,” Dave switched from hunter to videographer mode and captured the interaction of hunter and mentor as they re-enacted the hunt.
Most of us toughed out Saturday’s cold wind and snow flurries in our chosen stands. Ozzy got a fleeting look at a doe that the neighbors had pushed, but had no chance for a shot. Dave moved to a normally productive ladder stand and might have had a crack at a doe, but the stand squeaked when he turned to shoot and she and her fawn bolted. Jon and Blake saw a big deer dash across an opening, but had no chance to shoot.
Sunday dawned mild, with a light southwest breeze that felt downright balmy compared to Saturday’s wind. Abundant tracks revealed plenty of nighttime activity, but none of our gang saw a single deer. The biggest discovery was a knoll riddled with deer beds Dave found while still-hunting and hoping to move something to the rest of us. Location noted with a pin drop, we’ll find a way to hunt it without spooking them.
Jeff Kelm, of Wisconsin Rapids, hunted his grandparents’ farm in Marquette County for nearly 30 years, but the farm was sold this year, so he and his son, Robert, joined Adam and Abby Guehna to hunt land the Guehnas recently purchased near Poplar in Douglas County. Adam’s brother, Eric, of Sheboygan Falls, and their cousin, Dan Grossheim, of Dane County, also joined them to hunt opening weekend.
This was 9-year-old Robert’s first season as an active hunter, although he has accompanied his dad on hunts for five years.
The Guehna property is densely wooded with aspen and evergreens. Several steep ravines drain into the Poplar River. Scouting revealed an abundance of deer, but there were no antlerless tags available this year, so everyone was focused on bucks. Robert’s youth license allowed him to shoot an antlerless deer in addition to a buck, and he took advantage of the opportunity.
Armed with his youth model Henry single-shot .243, dressed in four layers of fleece-lined, moisture-wicking clothes, and bolstered by plenty of food and snacks, Robert was ready to let his Christmas gift bark. He shot the rifle enough last summer to get familiar with it and shot an antlerless deer during the youth season. Now he was up north in deer camp for the opener, and he was stoked.
Shortly after daybreak, Jeff and Robert spotted four deer feeding in front of their blind, but deadfalls and tall grass blocked a clear shot. When the does looked back to where they had come from, Jeff knew another deer might be coming. Sure enough, an 8-pointer with a quirky, twisted tine on one side that had shown up earlier on trail cameras charged into view, and the does scattered.
When Robert couldn’t see the buck for a clear shot, Jeff pulled the tripod toward an open window. Without a word, Robert scooted over, shouldered the rifle, and squeezed the trigger. Hit in the right shoulder, the buck took off, bulldozing through brush on three legs, leaving a good blood trail, which they followed for more than a mile before recovering the deer late in the day.
As they were following the blood trail, a buck jumped out and stood looking at them. Thinking it was Robert’s buck, Jeff put it down with a 70-yard shot. It was a different buck, however. Robert later made another good shot and filled his antlerless tag. The group saw several more does and one small buck, but no one else fired a shot.
“All of us at camp had a part in recovering Robert’s buck and seeing and hearing his excitement,” Jeff said.
“It was indescribable. I’m so proud of him and the job he did, the communication with me when he didn’t feel comfortable taking a shot, and the time spent together in the woods.”
For two Northwoods camps, 2022 will go down as the year two hunters scored their first buck, solidifying a long-standing tradition, and creating memories that will be savored and shared long after the echoes of the final shots of another firearms season fade away.