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Sitting on a burlap bag stuffed with straw, and resting my back against the trunk of shoulder-width white pine, I eagerly anticipated the dawn that would mark the beginning of my first opening day of deer hunting in Wisconsin’s central farmland.

Little did I realize that I was joining in a family tradition that would continue, uninterrupted, for 54 years.

While checking out some of my hunting gear in preparation for my 55th consecutive opening day on the deer stand, my thoughts wondered back to that first day when I followed closely behind Dad while we slowly worked our way, as quietly as possible, for about 20 minutes to a pair of clearings.

I wasn’t sure how he was able to find his way through the hardwoods and scrub brush in almost total darkness. But we made it with about a half hour to allow the woods to recover from whatever noise we might have made.

With our backs separated by about 20 yards of thick brush, we had clear views of any deer that might move within range of our slug-loaded shotguns.

The memories of that first season will always bring a smile to my lips – not because I bagged a big buck (I never fired a shot) -– but because of the bond it strengthened between two generations of a family joining in a tradition as old as time.

Farmland hunting begins

Dad actually started this family tradition several years earlier when he, his uncle and a family friend began deer hunting on local farm woodlots.

Prior to the mid-1950s, hunting Wisconsin’s white-tailed deer, was basically a north-woods event that brought carloads of red-coat clad men to spend several days in deer camps north of highways 64 and 8.

As the decade of the 1950s began, deer populations slowly increased in many agricultural counties. Spotting deer tracks in a field was shared with neighbors, and actually seeing a deer was big news, indeed.

When Dad shot his first buck in 1956, a modest seven-pointer, it drew about as much attention from friends and neighbors as an exotic African kudu might get today.

Deer hunting while operating a family dairy farm required some sacrifices, most often in lost sleep. Cows still needed to be fed and milked, and other morning chores had to be completed. That meant being in the barn at least a couple of hours earlier than normal (which didn’t always please the cows) in order to be settled in the deer stand before first light.

Changes through the years

Like many other aspects of life, numerous changes occurred in how and when we hunted deer over the last half-century.

Although, the basic nine-day firearms’ deer season around Thanksgiving has remained a constant for most of those years, we’ve seen various seasons added and discarded along the way.

After being limited to harvesting bucks, hunters saw the Party Permit added allowing a group of four to purchase a permit to harvest an extra deer of either sex. Then came Hunters’ Choice where the regular license could be used for either a buck or doe. Today hunters in several agricultural counties are allowed to harvest two or three bonus antlerless deer.

We’ve gone from being required to wear back tags, and having to affix a metal tag to the deer’s hind leg, to the complete elimination of back tags and tagging requirements.

In-person registration has been replaced by electronic registration that enables hunters to register a deer right from the field using their phones.

Management tools like the October antlerless hunts and the Earn-A-Buck rule, succumbed to political pressure, and we now have a 10-day muzzleloader season, followed by a four-day antlerless season immediately after the regular gun season. Many counties also have antlerless hunts around the Christmas holiday.

To increase safety, Hunter Safety Education began in 1967, then red coats and hats were replaced by blaze orange, and now fluorescent pink clothing is also allowed.

The use of slug-loaded shotguns was once mandatory in many farmland counties. But now muzzleloaders, centerfire rifles and certain handguns are permitted.

For the past 15 years hunters have had to become educated about the threat of chronic wasting disease, and more recently have had to contend with a growing population of grey wolves, and the threats wolves poses to the deer herd.

One thing hasn’t changed though: Hunters still pay for most of the state’s wildlife conservation programs with money from the licenses they buy and from the excise taxes collected on their purchases of firearms and ammunition. 

Looking to the future

Dad  and I continued to share the deer woods for most of the next quarter century, and I’ve continued the tradition during the nearly three decades since his passing. During those years I’ve hunted with a buddy I’ve known since we were both 5 years old.

I still eagerly anticipate opening morning. While I don’t always hunt all day or every day of the season, I enjoy those days I spend in the woods and the possible opportunity to get my adrenaline pumping at the sight of a magnificat whitetail monarch.

In the future I, and other hunters, will need to focus on the challenge of keeping the deer hunting heritage alive by getting more youth, women and men involved.

The tradition of family members mentoring new generations of hunters is no longer sufficient. Fortunately, the Department of Natural resources and conservation organizations recognize this, and are organizing various learn-to-hunt programs and mentored hunts.

The latest initiative was enacted on Nov. 11, when Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a bill that allows people of any age to participate in a mentored hunt, and also allows hunters and mentors to have more than one firearm between them. Wisconsin now joins more than 30 states that have no minimum hunting age.

This program has the potential to help thousands more youth become involved in this great family tradition, as long as the mentors are mature and responsible, and keep the focus on fun and safety.

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