One of Wisconsin's great outdoor traditions is in full swing — the annual gun deer hunt runs Nov. 21 to Nov. 29. For tens of thousands of enthusiasts, it’s an annual ritual of sharing cabins, meals, and plenty of camaraderie.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) promotes Wisconsin as "one of the country’s premier white-tailed deer hunting states," but this year the agency is urging hunters to fold in an extra layer of safety measures because of COVID-19.
Some hunters are taking that message to heart, including Bob Martini. Deer hunting has been part of his life since he was 12 years old.
“Fifty-eight consecutive seasons this will be, and we’ve been hunting at the Deerskin River for 42 years. Because we built the cedar log cabin there and we’ve been hunting three generations out of that cabin for a long time,” Martini explains.
The Martini deer camp is about an hour’s drive northeast of his home near Rhinelander. Last year, one of his sons who hadn’t hunted for two decades was able to rejoin the group.
Before the pandemic, the plan for this year was to repeat that reunion of family scattered in far-flung states.
“Our children and our family were all planning to come — eight people under one roof,” he says.
But Martini decided the health risk of sharing the space was too great, so he canceled the gathering. "It’s very tough on us but sometimes you just have to step back, look at the data, make the right decision and then cope with the emotion side of it,” he says.
Tom Hauge faced a tough decision too.
Normally the home he shares with his wife, Mary Jon, in Prairie du Sac serves as base camp.
"Instead of our house filling up on Friday and people moving into the downstairs and then Mary Jon laying out a fabulous spread in front of us for the evening meal,” Hauge explains.
The base camp shifted to a virtual gathering on Zoom.
“We had nine people gathered and we went through, kind of making sure everyone knew where their stands were, where we were going to park in the morning,” he says.
Hauge says another cherished tradition among hunters will be absent this year — at least for his family — because of the need for social distancing.
“About 70%, surprisingly, of the hunters in Wisconsin process their own animal. The initial cutting up of the deer is done and that's is normally a pretty communal activity,” he says.
Hauge says his son set the example when he got a deer earlier this fall during archery season.
“He has a mountain tent out on our little 20 acre piece in Sauk County and he did all of the meat processing out in that little tent and told me to stay away." Hauge adds, "I’m thinking that, that’s probably what’s going to be happening and certainly will impact folks.”
The annual gun deer hunt is a tradition for Bruce Neeb, of Eau Claire, and his sons, too.
“We’re a small crew actually compared to both Bob and Tom; my two sons, my nephew and his good buddy who he's known since kindergarten but they wanted to go ahead with deer hunting," says Neeb.
Neeb decided if they all tested negative for COVID-19 the week before the hunt, they would go ahead with deer camp.
“I’m still waiting on the test results from my youngest son but those should be in today and the plan is to meet up at the cabin in Conover later this afternoon,” he says. “I’ll be real curious as we get up north to see how full the parking lots are at taverns and supper clubs; but no, there will be no taverns, or night clubs, or supper clubs for us.”
Staying away from restaurants and bars is a good public health move for hunters, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. The agency is also advising hunters to venture into the woods with people who share their household.
Neeb says his crew will cook together and play cards as usual, but they’ll spread out at night.
“In fact my oldest put out a screened porch to the cabin this year so he’s looking at perhaps sleeping out on the screened porch; and I’m sure Joe, my youngest, will probably have the living room to himself. I get the old man’s room,” he says.
All three hunters we spoke with say it’s difficult to navigate this uncharted deer season. Tom Hague of Prairie du Sac says he’s not sure all hunters will, as he puts it, "have their guard up" to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
As of midnight on Nov. 21, the Wisconsin DNR reports the sale of over 803,000 deer hunting licenses, an increase of 3% from last year.