Special holiday treat
Richland Center — The coulees were covered in snow and wind whipped through the hollows.
As I trudged up a ridge, even thick-trunked red oak trees swayed to the westerly gusts.
But white-tailed deer in the area were determined to head out to feed, regardless of the weather.
At 3 p.m., a trio of antlerless deer climbed out of a ravine and toward the crown of an agricultural field. They knew clover and turnips could be found beneath the snow.
Later, another lone deer entered the field from the northwest. And then a buck fawn appeared from the southeast.
The deer were easy to spot from my position at the edge of a treeline. I watched the animals through binoculars, marveling at their efficiency as they pawed the ground and extracted mouthfuls of green.
For many deer hunters, satisfaction is measured in deer sightings. This outing, during the holiday hunt in late December, had already delivered.
But in areas like Richland County, where deer numbers are high and chronic wasting disease is present, I'm also highly motivated to be more than a spectator.
For all these reasons, the holiday hunt has become my favorite Wisconsin deer season. This year it was held Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 in 13 counties.
Rules allowed only antlerless deer to be killed.
Along with 15 others, I had joined Lloyd Purnell Jr. of Pewaukee and Mike Purnell of Oconomowoc to hunt on their Richland County property they call the Roost. The brothers have hunted the area, where their mother Billie was born and raised, since their youth.
The holiday hunt at the Roost has become a tradition for our group.
In the opinions of the Purnell brothers and me, the hunt hits on almost all cylinders.
For starters, it's held at a time when kids are on vacation from school and many adults are off work. The opportunity is ripe for families to spend one or several days hunting between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day.
The 2016 group at the Roost included two married couples, two father-and-daughter duos and one father-and-son. The ages ranged from 14 to 60-something.
The gathering was centered around deer hunting, but most important was the meeting of friends and families. Notably, three people didn't hunt but happily participated in the rest of the celebration.
If you want to keep the hunting tradition alive, this is a fine recipe for success.
The timing of the holiday hunt also has provided some of the best hunting conditions in the last decade of Wisconsin deer seasons.
This year was no exception. Snow covered the landscape, making it easier to spot deer.
And since it's held in late December, the holiday hunt presents deer that haven't been heavily pressured for weeks and have settled into a bedding and feeding pattern that typically brings them out well before dark.
The cold and snow, too, caused the deer to focus on a handful of food sources, increasing the odds for hunters.
Significantly, the hunt provides one last firearm season to help meet deer harvest goals for the year.
A recent check of 2016 deer harvest goals and actual kills showed not a single county in the farmland region met its target.
In Richland County, by mid-December hunters had registered 2,004 antlerless deer in the nine-day gun season, 328 by archery, 178 with crossbow, 87 in the youth season and 34 by muzzleloader. The county, which has a goal of "decrease," was more than 10,000 deer short of its antlerless kill target of 14,000.
In another example, Waukesha County set an antlerless goal of 1,740 deer for 2016. It had tallied 807 in mid-December.
Our group fanned out to various parts of the property and hunted from stands or still hunted on the ground. Deer drives were organized, too.
After several days, 10 antlerless deer had been tagged.
In this era of deer management, it's irresponsible for counties that fall short of their deer kill goals to not hold the holiday hunt.
In areas with chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the wild deer herd, the regulations should also be changed to allow shooting of bucks, which carry the disease at higher rates than females. Early versions of the holiday hunt allowed both antlered and antlerless deer to be taken.
As hunting traditions evolve, I've come to value the holiday hunt as much as any deer season in Wisconsin.
With so much of the state's land in private hands, it provides an additional option to landowners who, like the Purnells, recognize the need to harvest deer.
And no other deer hunt provides as much opportunity for friends and family to join. State wildlife officials, County Deer Advisory Councils and the public should take note.
Paul Smith is the Outdoor Editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel