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Wild Things: Hunters Hope Rain Holds Off for Annual Gun Deer Opener

As if 2020 hasn’t had enough bad news, forecasters have predicted the possibility of more than an inch of rain during the opening weekend of the gun deer hunting season.

No matter the weather, thousands of hunters will take a break from the almost nonstop noise about politics, COVID-19 and the latest gossip about celebrities to don blaze-orange clothing and head outdoors. 

Staying safe and recharging the batteries – emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually – are a huge part of the annual trek to tree stands, ground blinds and favorite trails in the fields and forests of the Kewaunee/Door County peninsula. 

There’s so much to look forward to, including the chill in the air and the thrill of a prayer answered when silence is broken by the sound of a deer approaching through crispy leaves.  

When it all comes together, it’s social distancing at its finest hour. 

“I think sometimes it gets lost in the numbers, what we’re really out there for,” said Jeff Pritzl, DNR Northeast Region wildlife program manager and an avid hunter. “In a lot of ways, you have to take what Mother Nature gives you and just enjoy it.”

Pritzl said that because deer are not evenly distributed, some hunters will see very few whitetails, and others will see plenty.

Even without a deer behind every tree, it’s a safe bet that many hunters will be eating fresh venison during the coming weeks.

That’s because even if opening weekend is a washout for some, there are seven more days of the regular firearm season, followed by a 10-day muzzleloader hunt and four days of antlerless-only gun deer hunting. 

A lot has changed since Wisconsin gun deer hunting seasons were first regulated in 1851, but one thing remains constant: the dream of seeing a trophy buck like this one that Greg Klaubauf took in southern Door County earlier this century. Photo by Kevin Naze.

Although there is some public hunting in the area, far more hunters own, lease or secure permission on private lands. Under the law, people may not enter or remain on any private land unless they have permission of the landowner or occupant. 

Previously, hunters were required to get permission only before entering any agricultural land, fenced land or land posted as “No trespassing.” Now, posted notice is not required for land that’s fenced, cultivated, undeveloped or occupied by a barn or other agricultural structure, and it is trespass for a person to enter or remain on such lands without permission. 

Landowners are reminded that it’s the sheriff’s department, not the Department of Natural Resources, that enforces the trespass laws.

It’s illegal to trespass on private property, and private-property owners are no longer required to post their land against trespass unless public land adjoins it. This old sign was spotted in a swamp. Photo by Kevin Naze.

How Many Will Hunt?

Through the end of the nine-day gun hunt last year, 564,664 licenses were sold – the fewest in more than 40 years.

Part of the drop was expected: simple demographics because of a generation of older hunters aging out. Another key factor was the full inclusion of crossbows in the archery season, which allows more hunters to enjoy a longer season under warmer weather conditions.

Surging COVID-19 cases could affect some deer camps this season, but the pandemic in 2020 hasn’t stopped anglers or park visitors. Both groups have seen significant increases in participation.

Will we ever get back to the 600,000-plus from 1977 to 2015? With crossbow use soaring during a more-than-100-day season, I don’t think that’s likely.

Wisconsin once had five days off – no deer hunting – prior to opening day. In my opinion, that anticipation led to more time to think about the gun hunt: buying licenses, assembling all the gear and making plans with family and friends. Today, with bow and crossbow seasons open nonstop, many hunters with unfilled tags head out every chance they can.

Through Nov. 10, Wisconsin hunters had registered more than 90,000 deer, including nearly 1,700 in Door (930) and Kewaunee (758) counties. 

Virtual County Deer Advisory Council Meetings

Every three years, County Deer Advisory Councils provide recommendations to the DNR to help determine the herd-size objective for their county. Councils will begin that process next month with virtual meetings, including Dec. 7 for Door County and Dec. 16 for Kewaunee County. New this year, the public can weigh in beforehand at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Hunt/cdac.

There will be a public comment period in early January before final objectives are set. Recommendations will then go to the state’s Natural Resources Board on Feb. 24.

Though there has been some discussion in Door County about the possibility of splitting the unit north and south, DNR biologists did not recommend it for Door during a recent Deer Advisory Committee meeting. 

Two potential Deer Management Unit boundary changes were recommended in Douglas and Marathon counties, along with three metro subunit boundary-change recommendations affecting Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Waukesha and Washington counties. 

More Info in App and Online

Find a list of legal shooting hours by zone (Door is in the northern zone; Kewaunee is in the southern) in the 2020-21 hunting regulations pamphlet, on the DNR’s Hunt Wild app or online at dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/hunt/regulations. The app also has a list of chronic wasting disease sampling self-service kiosks and deer-carcass disposal locations. 

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