One great pleasure in hunting deer after opening weekend of gun season in most states is meeting people who get out there for pure hunting satisfaction.
These hardcore hunters don’t forsake opening day or Sunday, of course, but—unlike some hunters—they don’t define the entire deer season by its opening act. More specifically, they don’t quit the woods by the time NFL games kick off Sunday afternoon.
Those who hunt the entire season possess the same patient attitude found in serious anglers, trappers, waterfowlers or small-game hunters. For these optimists, each day offers new opportunities for sights, stories and memories.
Then again, if you look at deer-harvest data and surround yourself with pessimists, it’s easy to think deer hunting is futile once the second morning slips away.
For instance, data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 2005 through 2013 shows that opening weekend produced 69 percent of each season’s buck kill, with little variation. The opening-weekend average those nine seasons ranged from 66 percent of the buck kill in 2009 and 2010, to 74 percent in 2005.
In fact, for some folks, the harvest data from opening day alone justifies staying in bed on Day 2. From 2005 through 2013, 49 percent of Wisconsin’s buck kill occurred opening day, again with little variation if you toss out the 2005 high (55 percent) and the 2009 low (45.5 percent).
Wisconsin’s antlerless kill isn’t as focused on opening weekend as the buck kill. Even so, data for those same nine seasons showed 55 percent of the antlerless kill occurs those two days. More specifically, 35 percent of the season’s antlerless kill falls on the Saturday opener and 20 percent topples the first Sunday.
Therefore, if you hear someone say you can take opening weekend’s deer kill and double it to project the season’s final total, that’s true only for the antlerless kill. From 2005 through 2013, Wisconsin’s combined buck/antlerless kill opening weekend usually delivered about 61 percent of the season’s total.
That pattern, however, seems to have stopped. Opening weekend this year—Nov. 22-23—produced about 90,300 deer, which was 47 percent of the season total of 191,550. The change is probably some combination of extensive antlerless restrictions, fewer deer in the North Woods, a nearly 40-year low in license sales, and foggy/rainy weather almost statewide on opening weekend.
Meanwhile, those who hunt deer for pleasure don’t seek inspiration in harvest data. After all, the daily percentages for buck kills during the final seven days of Wisconsin’s gun season from 2005 through 2013 ranged from 5.72 percent on the lone Monday (Day 3) to 2.75 percent on the second Sunday (Day 9) of the season’s total. Low odds indeed.
But John Melum of Iola, Wisconsin, is one of those stalwarts who leaves deer data to biologists. He doesn’t care that only 5.25 percent of the seasons’ buck kill from 2005 through 2013 occurred on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. In recent years, Melum has killed three bucks on that day, including this year and last year.
Melum, 53, said he tries to hunt every day of gun season, but not every minute of every day. Deer season is his annual vacation, and he doesn’t want to curse it with false expectations of fast starts. In fact, he’s never killed a deer before noon on opening day, even though he hunts near Iola in the heart of Waupaca County—a virtual deer factory and regularly the state’s top producer.
Melum looks forward to hunting after opening weekend because it’s more peaceful once the crowds depart. “It feels like you’re bowhunting with a rifle,” he said. “The deer are moving on their own again.”
He killed a buck on a Friday afternoon three or four years ago, and then got one about 8 a.m. on Friday (the season’s seventh day) the past two seasons. “Same time, same place,” Melum said. “I wait until there’s legal shooting light before leaving the cabin, and then I still-hunt real slowly out to a ridge overlooking a swamp. I don’t like walking out in the dark because if you spook a deer you can’t see it. Once I get where I’m going, I find a fallen tree, lean my rifle against a tree or branch, and wait. It’s like sitting in a chair.”
Melum thought he was “hallucinating” when he heard a buck grunting less than 10 minutes after he sat down Nov. 28. He saw movement soon after, and a mature nine-point buck stepped out of some pines in the marsh. After shooting the buck at about 70 yards with his .270 rifle, he spotted a smaller buck fleeing the scene.
When he reached his buck, he noticed its antlers resembled a pair of shed antlers he found during the spring turkey season. After dragging the deer to camp, he compared its antlers to the sheds.
“They were a perfect match, right down to the same broken brow tine,” Melum said.
Later that day about 125 miles to the southwest, Doug Duren shot a mature nine-point buck on his family’s property near Cazenovia, Wisconsin, in Richland County. Much like Melum, Duren also alternates between still-hunting and stand-hunting after opening weekend.
He never fired a shot opening weekend, recalling that fog reduced visibility to about 75 yards much of Nov. 22. The fog lifted before the next morning, but by 11 a.m., a rainstorm moved in.
“We have a lot of deer around there, but this year was the slowest opener I remember,” Duren said. “I didn’t hear much shooting, and our group never killed a deer opening weekend. I figured things had to improve later in the week. Judging by the gunshots, hunters in our area did better after Thanksgiving than opening weekend.”
Duren was with two others when he pushed the nine-pointer past one of them while still-hunting. Unfortunately, one of his partners wounded the buck and they had to trail it. Duren eventually sneaked up on it late in the day, and fired a fatal shot when it jumped from a patch of tall grass.
“That was one of the better days I’ve ever had hunting,” Duren said. “The deer were back in their natural patterns. That’s why I always try to get out later in the season.”