Wisconsin's gun deer hunting season has begun. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
Wisconsin's gun deer hunting season has begun. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

UpNorthNews reporter Julian Emerson recounts his wide range of experiences with Wisconsin’s gun deer hunting season.

On a cloudy November morning many years ago, I learned firsthand about Wisconsin’s gun deer hunting season. 

Back in 1977, when I was 7, my family relocated from Minneapolis to our new home: 36 acres of woods in Trempealeau County. We were used to the ways of the big city and didn’t even know a deer hunting season existed, much less the fervor with which many approached the hunt. 

As my brother Chris and I tossed a football back and forth on what we would learn was the opening morning of that year’s gun deer season, we were startled by a loud bang—then another, then a flurry of blasts. 

We weren’t familiar with guns or hunting of any sort, but we figured those loud sounds amid the otherwise quiet morning were gunshots. As the shots continued, we turned and ran as fast we could toward the log cabin we called home, bullets whining and snapping tree branches overhead. 

Moments later, we arrived at our house. Mom and Dad were already outside the front door, worried looks on their faces. An orange-clad hunter emerged from the surrounding trees. When Dad angrily confronted him, the man said he didn’t realize anyone was living there. 

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I guess he had somehow failed to spot the many “no trespassing” signs Dad had posted on trees marking our property’s border. After a brief discussion with the hunter, Dad returned to the house and announced that we were leaving immediately to spend the week with my grandparents in Iowa rather than risk being hunting targets. 

That occasion marked the beginning of my family’s annual trips to spend the Thanksgiving holiday away from our home in the woods. It was also the start of many deer hunting-related experiences for me, despite the fact I have never actually hunted. 

Down But Not Out

My first deer hunting experience wasn’t the only time I dodged bullets during a hunt. 

In the mid-1990s I was assigned to cover the deer hunting opener for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram newspaper. I wanted to capture as much of the hunting experience as I could, from the months of preparation for the big day, to hunters’ excitement as their prize big buck came into view. 

Having lived in Wisconsin for nearly 20 years by then, I had learned a bit about the time-honored tradition of deer hunting in the state, the importance it held for many people not only as a way to fill their freezer with venison, but to enjoy the challenge of the hunt with family and friends. 

I spent part of my childhood in Buffalo County, an area known for producing trophy bucks. Deer hunting there verges on religion. Many of the region’s residents discuss aspects of the hunt nearly year round. Back when I worked at a convenience store in the Buffalo County city of Mondovi, the biggest day of sales each year was the Friday before the gun deer hunt opener. It was as if the community glowed blaze orange.  

As I lay shivering in the snow in the early morning darkness in a woods overlooking a field surrounded by orange-clad hunters, I thought about the warm cup of coffee I had shared with one of the hunters an hour earlier. He had discussed his preparation for this hunt, how he had chosen this very spot above the nearby field because it overlooked a path frequently taken by deer. 

Darkness slowly transitioned to light. Gunshots sounded in the far-off distance. Hunters in this group wondered if some far-off hunter had already shot their prize deer. 

During the next several hours, hunters around us were shooting at deer, but they weren’t showing up for this group. Despite the lack of deer, by late morning I had more than I needed for my story. I thanked the group for allowing me to document their hunt. I told them the path I would walk, about three-quarters of a mile, to my car. 

A short time later I trudged through the snow toward my car, my back to the hunters. As I descended a steep hill and reached flat land, I glanced behind me and was surprised to see at least 15 deer sprinting across the field, between me and the hunters I had just left. 

A barrage of shots followed. I dropped face first to the snow-covered ground, bullets splitting the air above me. I lay there for some time after the shots stopped, too afraid to stand up. When I finally did, I ran the rest of the way to my car.   

Record Buck

Among my most memorable deer hunting outings was one I didn’t actually attend. Some years back I had asked my friend Bob Decker if I could accompany him as he bow hunted on land south of Mondovi. I cancelled those plans when I realized my younger daughter was playing in a basketball tournament that day. 

I had joked with Bob that he would shoot a buck with giant-size antlers, an animal that had garnered nationwide media attention and had been named “the Field & Stream buck” after the outdoors magazine of that name. Hunting experts speculated the animal may have record-size antlers after viewing footage of it. Bob laughed and said he was very unlikely to even catch a view of the prize buck. 

Turns out he did indeed shoot it, and it was included among big buck records. After returning from the basketball tournament, I drove to Bob’s house south of Eau Claire and marveled at the animal. Then I got busy writing the first of numerous stories about the buck that were picked up by newspapers across the country. 

Bob Decker of Eau Claire shot this record buck, known as “the Field & Stream buck” while bowhunting in November 2008. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Making Morning Memories

Last week I walked a large patch of woods south of Eau Claire owned by Bill Nielsen. He and his longtime friend and hunting partner (and my former Leader-Telegram colleague) Joe Knight, were making final checks of their tree stands and strategizing about the upcoming opening day hunt. 

As they traveled from one stand to another, the duo told me about past hunts, how each stand has its own name, including one named for Nielsen’s late wife, Sarah Burgess. They pointed to a picnic table surrounded by seats and reminisced about deer hunting gatherings there. They discussed past deer they had shot, and those that got away. 

At one point, strolling through the woods, Nielsen pointed to a spot where he once spotted a 9-point buck and tracked it, pushing it toward Knight, who shot it. 

“I knew it was a big deer,” Nielsen recalled as Knight smiled at the memory. “I was following it, and you could tell it was a big deer. And then it moved toward Joe and he shoots it.” 

As Knight and Nielsen continued toward another tree stand, followed by Nielsen’s dog Josie, they discussed how this year could be their last time hunting together on this 240 acres Nielsen owns. They have deer hunted at this spot together since the early 1990s. Nielsen, 71, said he’s considering selling his property because it’s getting hard to maintain it.  

Bill Nielsen, left, and Joe Knight share a laugh during a recent check of their deer hunting tree stands on property Nielsen owns south of Eau Claire. The duo have hunted together on Nielsen’s land since the early 1990s. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

“I guess we have been hunting together here for a long time,” Knight, 67, said. 

“We sure have,” Nielsen replied. “There are a lot of memories here.”

A moment later Knight spotted evidence of another deer-hunting memory in the making. He pointed to a small tree that was broken and bent, evidence a buck had been there. 

“Bill, did you see this? How the deer have been brutalizing your tree?” a smiling Knight asked. 

“Yeah. So that looks like a major buck,” Nielsen responded. “Maybe we’ll see him soon.”