It's that day again - the opening day of the deer hunting season in the great Badger/Packer/Cheesehead state of my birth. No day in the state is more sacred and more anticipated that this day. By tradition, almost, opening day is the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Opening day of the walleye fishing season is a much more subdued affair. Many were the times that I stood in the racing waters of the Red Cedar River below the damn in Mikana waiting for 12:01 a.m. to come on the opening day of fishing season. At the appointed minute everyones fishing lures hit the water and the spring ritual began. But it pales in comparison to the opening day of deer hunting season.
Opening day of the Wisconsin Badgers football season and opening day of the Green Bay Packers season are also monumental days in Wisconsin. Tail-gate parties begin. The number of green and gold and/or cardinal red bumper stickers on cars increases almost exponentially. All eyes are focused on Green Bay or Madison on that day. But it pales in comparison to the opening day of deer hunting season.
There is absolutely nothing like the opening day of deer season. I remember one year sitting in the bar in Mikana the night before deer season opening listening to some crackpot blathering on about the albino deer that he saw occasionally in his pasture. This guy was convinced, and became even more so with each passing bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, that his albino deer was an albino because his neighbor had a Charlois bull (a white skinned breed of bovine) and this guy just knew beyond any shadow of any doubt that the Charlois bull had bred a female deer and that's how the albino deer found its way to his pasture. No amount of explanation of genetics and mutations could convince him otherwise. He was, like so many others in Wisconsin at this time of year, what I used to call a "Nine-Day-A-Year-Deer-Biologist." He knew and no amount of fact was going to change his opinion.
My first professional job after graduate school was working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Pierce and St. Croix Counties. Our office was in Baldwin and Bruce Moss was my supervisor. One morning on our way over to get a cup of coffee before heading out to the field Bruce told me a story that has never left me. Its a story that is as true today as it was in June 1976 when Bruce uttered it. It goes:
Imagine that you have a pain in your tooth. You go to the dentist and he says you need a root canal. Because of the dentists training and experience you let him open your tooth, pull out the nerve, kill the tooth, and then refill the tooth.
Or if you have a pain in your right side and you go to the doctor and the doctor says you have appendicitis. He then tells you that if your appendix is not removed it will burst and the poisons in it will likely kill you. Because of the doctor’s training and experience you let him open your body, cut a part of it out of you, and then you let him sew your body back up.
However when it comes to wildlife, everyone from the president of the local bank to the janitor at the local high school is an expert and wildlife biologists who many times have as much or more training and experience as a doctor or dentist don’t know a thing about what they are saying.
And so it goes with deer hunting.
Before the deer hunting season opened in 1976 I was sent to Balsam Lake to explain a radical new concept for the deer hunting season. Since deer hunting season began it was always nine days long. It began the Saturday before Thanksgiving and ended the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was as predictable as the sunrise and it was as much a part of the culture of Wisconsin as mom, home, and apple pie. If you wanted the nine-day biologists up in arms, just mess with their deer hunting season. That is exactly what had been proposed and that's what I was sent out into the lion's den to explain. Because of rapid human population growth in the southern third of the state the DNR proposed that the hunting season be shortened to four days in southern Wisconsin. It would remain at the cherished nine days in the central part of the state and anywhere "up north" (north of Highway 29 the season would be two weeks long. The idea being that more hunters would go up north to hunt because the season was longer. I went over to the Polk County Sportsman's Club meeting to explain this.
Freshly out of graduate school and still idealistic as hell I thought this would be an easy sell. It made perfect biological sense. Hunters would still be able to shoot one buck a year (that bag limit changed a few years later) only now they had more time to hunt. It made sense to me but not to the assembled mass of more than 100 nine-day biologists waiting for me.
Completing my presentation I asked if there were any questions. I had already been greeted with cat calls from people in the audience - they never told us about this part of wildlife biology in graduate school! One particularly old and grizzled man sitting near the front of the group raised his arthritic hand and asked to be called on. When I acknowledged him he stood up and said in a very thick German accent, and with his index finger on his right hand pointed crookedly at me said, "You god-damned college boys. You come here and tell me about deer. Well I've been hunting deer for sixty years and I know deer." He put particular emphasis on the last three words. Saying his peace he sat down. He had no question. He just felt compelled to put that college boy who was messing with his deer season in his place.
Later that same year I ran a deer registration station in Cumberland, in the northwest corner of Barron County. The station was along heavily-used Highway 63, a major artery for cars and hunters returning south after hunting in northern Wisconsin. State law required that anyone with a deer in their possession had to have it registered and a registration tag attached to it. The registration had to be completed within a certain amount of time after shooting the deer. Without the tag you were subject to a citation and a fine. It was the kind of law enforcement that Barron County game warden Owen Anderson liked because he could sit in his car and drink coffee rather than actually get out in the woods and enforce laws that really mattered.
One of the activities that we participated in while registering a deer was to determine its age. There is a very easy technique that allows for that and its done by looking at the amount of wear on the molars of the deer. The following figure demonstrates how to tell ages of deer by their teeth.
When someone arrived with a deer my now-ex-wife and I would ask if we could examine the deer's mouth to tell its age. Data collected on age distribution of deer provided one glimpse at the health of the herd.
To examine the mouth we made an incision on the side of the deer's cheek and then inserted a piece of metal between the jaws (a jaw spreader). Turning the spreader 90 degrees would open the mouth and we could peer in. When doing so the first thing you look at is the last molar on the bottom jaw. If it had 3 cusps on it the deer was 1 year 6 months old or younger. If there were only two cusps then the animal was at least 1 year 7 months old or older and you had to look at the amount of wear on the remaining molars to determine the age. Something like 70 percent of all the deer harvested in Wisconsin are 1 year 6 months old or younger. In other words, 70 percent of the deer paraded down the highway in Wisconsin in this week in late November 2012 were born in May 2011. Sorry, that is how biology works.
Many deer hunters, however, don't let biological fact get in their way of being a nine-day-a-year-deer-biologist. Most are convinced that you age a deer by the number of tines or points on the antlers and to be counted as a point they must be at least 3 inches long. For example the male deer shown at the start of this post appears to be a "4-pointer" with two tines on either side of its antlers. Another common mistake is that deer have horns. They do not. Deer have antlers which are an extension of the bone in the skull. Antlers are replaced each year as the seasons change. Horns are made up of a substance involving hair. Horns do not fall off each year like antlers. Instead horns get bigger as the animal ages. Sheep have horns. Pronghorn antelope have horns. Rocky Mountain goats have horns. Deer and elk and moose have ANTLERS.
Antler growth is a function of the biological well-being of the animal. If the deer is eating well its antler growth will be more advanced than if it wasn't eating well. The oldest male deer I ever aged in Wisconsin was four years old. It had one spike antler on either side of its head. That animal had not been eating well that year. But I digress.
In mid afternoon on opening day a group of hunters showed up with four deer in the back of their pickup. I walked out to take care of the deer and as I left the building where we were working another pickup showed up with one deer in the back. My now-ex-wife went out to handle that lone deer and asked if she could open its mouth to determine its age. It was a male with 8 points on its rack of antlers. The hunter said "sure, go ahead, but there's no need to look at its mouth. It has 8 points so its 8 years old." Ruth slit the deer's cheek open, inserted the jaw spreader, opened the jaws and looked at the last molar. It had 3 cusps on it which means the deer was 1 year 6 months old. She informed him that his deer was one and a half years old and the guy became furious!
"You don't know a god damned thing about deer!" he screamed. "That deer has 8 points and that means its 8 years old." Ruth made the mistake of trying to reason with him and explained how we tell the animal's age. She even re-opened the mouth, explained about the technique for aging and showed this man the three cusp on the last molar. He wanted nothing of it and started making noise like he was threatening my wife. That wasn't about to happen so I walked over and asked if she needed some help. She also asked if I would age the deer for this man because he didn't believe her. I spread the mouth open, saw the 3 cusps on the last molar and said "Sir, your deer is 1 year 6 months old. It was born last year in May." I then showed him the chart we used to tell the age of the animals.
He was incredulous! "You god damned DNR bastards you don't know a fucking thing about deer! I didn't have to go to college to learn how to age a deer. This buck has 8 points and that means its 8 years old. You better mark that down on your little chart." I pulled out my data sheet and entered the age as 1 year 6 months old. The man screamed "FUCK YOU!" and got in his car and drove off. I'm sure later that night he was sitting in the corner bar (every town in northern Wisconsin has a bar named the Corner Bar) in whatever town he was from bragging about shooting an 8 year old deer and then having to tell off those two smarmy DNR people who told him it was barely older than a fawn.
There must be some sort of macho thing associated with shooting a deer with a lot of antlers and with shooting an older animal. Maybe its a function of dwindling testosterone levels?
The other thing that Wisconsin's nine-day-a-year-deer-biologists know all about is the management practice of hunting does (females). My bombastic uncle Buck Beranek, himself a pedigreed nine-day deer biologist used to bellow out at me "How can you increase the deer herd if you kill the ones that are having the babies?" Sounds logical but there are a few dozen flaws in the argument as Wisconsin found out in the early 1980s.
In 1900 there was an estimated 100,000 white-tailed deer in all of Wisconsin. Most of the state was heavily forested at that time and that didn't provide for an abundance of viable deer habitat. Cutting down the forest and turning the landscape into a mosaic of tree types and ages helped deer flourish. In 1976, the year I ran the deer check station in Cumberland, deer hunters in the state shot 100,000 deer. A couple years later Wisconsin altered the deer season a bit and allowed (and encouraged!) the harvesting of does. In response, in 1996 Wisconsin deer hunters harvested 500,000 deer in the state. The population continued at fairly high levels until a disease called Chronic Wasting Disease substantially knocked back the population. One of the reasons it was so prevalent was the ease with which the disease was transmitted in a large population of animals.
My first FFA (agriculture) teacher was a strange little man named Marcus Murray who maintained an interesting library of magazines in his classroom. One of those that he carried was then called the Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin.
This monthly magazine was a great read for a budding biologist who wanted to learn more about wildlife. I distinctly remember reading one issue (it came out monthly) from 1960 that contained a story "Deer Season 1980" that provided a futuristic look at what deer hunting would be like in Wisconsin 20 years hence. Of course at the time 20 years in the future was almost like the next century. However the story contained some guesses and projections of what deer hunting would be like in the then not so distant future. I remember the story mentioned greater mobility for hunters, more powerful rifles with which to hunt them, and there was a hint that maybe there would be so many deer by then that hunters might be asked to shoot a few does. That of course was a blasphemous concept but eventually it came true. Those "god damned college boys" were right.
Tonight there will be people in hunting cabins out in the great north woods of Wisconsin telling deer hunting tales. Some will revolve around this buck with a massive set of antlers that must have been an elk sneaking off into the forest before someone could get off a shot. Other people will be sitting in the bar in Mikana tonight boasting about the big one they shot "Damn, Ed, I got a 10 pointer today. Biggest damned deer I ever shot." Still others will be arguing about how old the deer was that they shot and nobody with any amount of testosterone in their blood would ever think of admitting that the deer he shot was a fawn last year.
Tomorrow morning most of the people who were unlucky today will be back in the woods trying to track down that monster buck that they can brag about to their buddies. The number of hunters in the woods will dwindle every day as more people get their deer and even more get frustrated and give up. That will continue until sundown next Sunday.
And the following day the stories will change to how "next year" on opening day they are all going to try a different woods to hunt or maybe use a different technique to find a deer or maybe hunt with a different group of friends in a different part of the state. Its as predictable as the sunrise and the debates will begin anew.