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Another Wisconsin deer season comes to a close

This year's deer harvest from Mike Reiter's hunting group.

The opening of the deer gun season is a greatly anticipated event. Deer stand renovation and maintenance, plus firearm sight-ins, are preliminary activities leading up to the main event. This year was no exception.

We arrived at our destination early Friday afternoon to make sure everything was in place. Getting together with family and friends is as much the allure of the deer season as the outing itself.

Our crew this year totaled 12 participants and each had a designated elevated stand. Some of the stands are quite elaborate with heaters, roofs and windows while others consist of a platform with railings only. Each hunter is in charge of his stand and that dictates the stand's amenities and creature comforts. Mine has sides, and a shooting rail. My seat consists of an inverted pail and swivel pad. Last year I added a small portable heater. This year, because of the abnormally warm weather, the heater went unused.

Each hunter knows exactly where everyone else is located. Portable monitors are used to update everyone on the hunt's progress. Deer numbers are quite abundant in the area near Cumberland where we hunt.

This year our area was a regular deer management unit and we had to purchase antlerless permits. Everyone enjoys venison and consumes it regularly so our goal is to get meat in the freezer. Bucks are considered a welcome added addition to the larder. Each of us contribute $5 into a kitty which is distributed up as to the first deer, first buck and largest buck harvested. Prestige means much more than the financial gain as the proceeds are doled out on the final day of the hunt.

We hunt out of my sister and brother-in-law's home which is located on 180 acres of prime deer habitat. There is plenty of sleeping space and everyone has their own bed. The amount of nasal noise elicited at bedtime dictates the location of certain hunter's accommodations however. Everyone brings up their culinary specialty for the meals and no one ever goes to bed hungry. Snacks are ever present and the lunch and supper meals are superb. More than a few pounds are added during our stay.

Saturday morning opened up warm and a bit foggy. Everyone was in their stand prior to daylight with plans of returning to "camp" at noon. Six deer were harvested in the morning while another was added in the afternoon. Three more were tagged prior to the Tuesday "quartering" day for a total of 10 deer decorating our custom made hanging platform. Over the course of the first four days, the number of hunters ebb and flow as some returned to work or home.

Tuesday is the day we skin and quarter the deer. A few hunters will take their portion home to process themselves while others return on Saturday to cut up the chops, steaks and roasts. Meat is trimmed from the carcass and carefully separated from the fat and sinew. This meat will be ground into burger. A group of us freeze some of the burger and meet again at a later date to prepare various sausage recipes.

We sell the deer hides and pool the money for next year's pre-hunt road trip. The carcasses will provide food for the birds and be picked clean during the upcoming winter. I take a few of the carcasses home and hang them in trees in my woods. Not a scrap remains in the spring as the woodpeckers, chickadees and creepers strip them clean. I bag up the scraps after quartering the deer. This will provide my crows food for the winter when placed on their feeding platform. I also take the trimmings from our processing.

Over the course of the winter, I'll stew it up in my "canine" slow cooker and add it to my dog's kibble. They love the added nutrients and prefer that over the normal offerings. The few remaining deer parts are brought to a spot in the woods where the fox and coyotes make short work of them. Nothing goes to waste.

Sitting in a stand for many hours allows the mind to wander as one surveys the woods for any approaching game. Hunting has changed dramatically over the last 40 years. Hunting from elevated stands is the norm rather than the exception. The quality of clothing and boots has improved dramatically allowing hunters to remain comfortable for hours on end even in cold weather. Deer drives are a thing of the past as private land access has essentially dried up. In the past, hunting access was almost universal, with neighbors allowing access to their land upon a simple request.

Contrary to many younger hunters perception, there are many more deer now than there were in decades past. The problem is that they are concentrated in areas that at times are inaccessible. On Friday of the deer season I drove Interstate 94 from Baldwin to Madison and back. Over the roughly 220 miles of highway driven, I counted 47 recently killed deer carcasses on the road. That number didn't include the numerous "grease patches" which was all that was left of a deer and semi interaction. As the north woods matures, the deer habitat declines. Deer need good habitat and quality food and the southern half of Wisconsin now provides that. Deer are extremely adaptable and will prosper if the right conditions exist.

The quest for the big buck has privatized much land that once had open access. The amount of leased land has skyrocketed. Too much emphasis has been placed on the size of the deer's rack rather than the animal itself. Hunters that do their homework and spend time surveying the woods and monitor deer movements deserve the big deer if that is what they set their sights on. I personally do not do my homework and any nice deer I harvest is a blessing.

Hunting regulations and deer management has changed drastically over the last few years. Hunter's organizations have become organized and very powerful. They have placed political pressure on our legislators to change or not change certain laws that regulate our sport. The vast majority of the hunters are in the middle and perhaps don't realize what is happening.

It is the 2.5 percent of the biased hunting population that drives the movement. It is definitely the tail wagging the dog. We had a process in place that at one time allowed public input into the rule making process. It is now mostly overlooked with regulation changes being made without any public debate moved directly by legislators. Reliable data provided by knowledgeable in-state experts should drive the process. Wildlife management must remain apolitical. But I digress.

Each year's deer hunting season provides a different set of factors that affect the success of that season. Weather is a crucial common denominator that can determine the overall success or failure of the hunt. Snow cover affords increased visibility and also allows a better tracking condition to see what is moving in the woods. As forests mature the best forest management plans will provide quality deer habitat that allows deer to seek out the best food and cover. Areas that had supplied the deer what they desired in the past may not do that in the future and deer numbers in that area will decline dramatically.

Some hunters tend to blame several other factors such as predation and over harvest on the decline but in reality the final outcome of deer harvest success is a very complicated and a multifaceted equation. Many things must be considered in the harvest numbers. Changes in the way hunters hunt and even the teams the Badgers and Packers play on opening deer hunting weekend will affect the harvest outcome.

The times, they are a changing.