The big story of the opening day of Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season was the cold and wind that brought many hunters in from their blinds early as they attempted to warm up – and many were empty-handed at that point since deer didn't want to move much in the cold.
Department of Natural Resources big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said later Saturday afternoon that he would have preferred better weather to make the opening weekend deer harvest more successful for hunters, but said it was a little too early to get worried that the deer harvest would be light.
Each year 50-60 percent of the total deer harvest is accounted for on opening weekend of the gun deer season.
Officials said there were 615,872 hunting licenses sold up to midnight just before the opening day. Hunters purchased 633,460 licenses for the nine-day deer hunt in 2012.
Wallenfang said even if bad weather persists through this season there is still a statewide bow hunting season, an antlerless season and a holiday hunt in southern Wisconsin in the chronic wasting disease (CWD) zone.
"There's still a lot of deer season to come up yet."
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp was unable to get out hunting on opening day because of a medical issue with her husband, but was enjoying the excitement of other hunters being shared on the department's online social networks.
"It's been great sharing those experiences of other hunters and their new memories being made. Our state is America's deer hunting destination," she said. "I know the opportunities don't end with opening weekend."
Stepp said she was "chomping at the bit" to get out in the woods later in the week and was really looking forward to her time in the woods — even if she doesn't succeed in harvesting a deer.
"For a lot of working families, deer hunting is an important time to just be quiet together. Just being quiet in the woods is one of the deepest and most important parts of the experience for me."
Stepp and several of her staff members talked with reporters Saturday afternoon (opening day) to brief them on how the 162nd annual gun deer season was going.
Wallenfang, who called in from Conover in northern Wisconsin, said hunters in eastern parts of the state were doing better than expected but the cold and wind, which in some areas created wind chills below zero, had limited the success of hunters in other parts of the state.
He mentioned the Manitowoc area where hunters were doing better than expected. In some parts of the north there was as much as three inches of snow on the ground which hunters generally favor, but the cold was keeping deer from moving.
"Registration is down," said Wallenfang. "Deer hunting has been open in the Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) for a week and they're telling us their harvest is down."
Still there have been some good stories. In Crivitz, an 80-year-old man was thinking of not going out this year because of some mobility issues, but decided to go out in the woods. "He registered an 18-point buck — the biggest deer he's ever gotten," Wallenfang said.
In Conover the largest deer registered on Saturday was shot by a hunter from Connecticut, he added, proving that Wisconsin's deer hunt draws people from all over the country.
According to state officials, the gun deer season contributes more than $1.3 billion in revenue to the state of Wisconsin.
Keith Warnke, DNR hunting and shooting sports coordinator, called in to the teleconference from his spot in a deer stand, noting that in the past couple of years the department has made an effort to draw in more female hunters and new adult hunters.
There were more females aged 10-30 who got hunting licenses this year, he said and the proportion of total hunters who are female is now 10 percent.
The number of young male hunters is also up, which is good news for the deer hunt, he said, since those numbers had been declining in recent years.
Scott Gunderson, the DNR executive assistant, spent opening weekend in the Thorp area with the tough assignment of mentoring a group of rookie female hunters. The group included women in their 20s, 30s and 40s who had either never hunted before or had only done so once or twice.
He said they set up their hunt on land owned by a female landowner. There was three inches of snow on the ground there.
"The group is a little disappointed Secretary Stepp couldn't join us but everyone here is having a great time even though no one has gotten a deer yet." The group is enjoying the woods and all the things they get to see out there that never see anywhere else, he added.
Warden Todd Schaller, DNR recreation enforcement and education section chief said there had only been a few minor injuries, which were still under investigation. It sounded like they might have been caused by the cold, he added.
The injuries to hunters occurred in Grant, Green Lake, Kewaunee and Monroe counties and were from self-inflicted gunshots, no doubt having to do with heavy gloves and mittens and cold hands, Schaller said.
He reminded hunters to always follow the key points of gun safety — the first of which is to always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
Hunters using elevated stands should use a body harness for safety and a haul line to bring their gun up to the stand. Every firearm should always be treated as if it's loaded, he added.
Schaller said the four injuries were all still being actively investigated so not too many details were known at the time, but he felt that none of them would require those hunters to be hospitalized.
One change for hunters this year was that the use of rifles is being allowed statewide to all registered hunters. This is the first season that the use of rifles is not enforced by the DNR on a county-by-county basis.
Schaller said questions to the DNR's call center showed that hunters were making an effort to understand the policy. Hunters were made aware of the policy change early enough that they were able to get their questions answered.
Hunters were told that some local municipalities may still have ordinances restricting rifle and that they should be familiar with local laws.
Previously rifles were prohibited in all or portions of 18 counties in southeastern and west central Wisconsin.
That policy change came as a result of a request from the state's Conservation Congress. After the DNR evaluated safety issues, it made the change, he said.
Another change that is on its way is how deer are registered during the season.
Wallenfang said that in 2014 hunters can expect their deer registration stations to be the same while the agency tests some pilot programs — in parts of the state and among a certain number of hunters — that may point the way to methods of registering deer by phone or online.
But even if and when that system becomes available, he said, the DNR will still need a number of traditional registration stations in order to take samples for CWD and gather other information on harvested deer.
There were 246,041 deer harvested during the nine-day deer hunt last year.
The most hunting licenses ever purchased in the state for the nine-day gun deer season (since electronic record keeping began in 1999) was 694,714 in 2000.
State Department of Natural Resources officials offer the following advice to keep everyone safe during the hunting season.
Four rules of firearm safety:
· Treat every firearm as if it is loaded.
· Always point the muzzle in a safe direction.
· Be certain of your target and what is beyond it.
· Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
Tree stand tips:
· Always use a full-body harness.
· Always unload your firearm while climbing into or out of the stand.
· During the ascent or descent: maintain three points of contact -- two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand.
For more information on these and other hunting tips visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website at www.dnr.wi.gov.