In sociological terms, Keven Cassellius refers to the first seven days of the Wisconsin firearms deer season as “Holy Week.”
Starting Saturday in the Dairy State’s northland, the Osceola pub owner will meet up with family and friends in Burnett County, reoccupy the special places that define their hunt, swap stories, eat, drink and strategize.
But in Wisconsin and Minnesota alike, part of the social fabric of deer hunting has faded. Electronic registration of big game has upended the tradition of small-town buck parades. Check-in your deer and check out what your neighbors shot.
“It’s taken a big part of the social aspect out of Holy Week,” Cassellius said. “It’s not as festive. The people aren’t moving around like they used to.”
For the sake of speedy data collection, Wisconsin did away with in-person deer registration last year in a move that was opposed by the state’s powerful Tavern League.
In Minnesota, hauling your deer to a Main Street registration station is still an option. But under a major change that took place in 2010, more than two-thirds of the state’s deer hunters now tally their kill by phone or internet. The DNR is projecting the total harvest this season to be between 165,000 and 185,000 deer.
“If a guy shoots a big one, yeah, he may take it into town,” Cassellius said. “But now they can shoot ’em, skin ’em and hang ’em without ever leaving their property.”
Conservation officer Randy Patten of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said the shift has drastically reduced local activity during deer season, hurting small-town merchants.
“It has changed dramatically,” said Patten, who is based in Northome in southwestern Koochiching County. “They just stay out in the woods.”
Lou Cornicelli, a senior DNR biologist, said wildlife managers and deer hunters used to wait four or five months for processing of deer harvest information. With computers, the data arrives in real time and the reports are more accurate. Cornicelli said the state has been registering deer for more than 100 years and the conversion from paper to bytes started in the early 2000s.
“It’s been popular with our hunters,” he said.
While the DNR clearly heard protests from the owners of small-town convenience stores, gas stations and bars, Cornicelli said there was a quieter faction of those merchants who were happy not to be registering deer. Since the change in 2010, the number of registration stations has dwindled from more than 800 to 628 or fewer.
“I heard from both sides,” he said.
Brice Vollbrecht, a DNR conservation officer in the Bemidji area, said rural bar owners and other store operators who still offer in-person registration of deer have experienced an absolute slowdown in traffic. The community show-and-tell tradition is still alive via “buck board” contests that pay cash for the most magnificent antlers, Vollbrecht said, but there’s just not as many deer to see as there used to be.
“People don’t have to load the animal into a vehicle and haul it, so they don’t,” he said.
In Wisconsin, the Tavern League tried to stop all-electronic registration before the decision was finalized in 2014.
“A lot of our members depend on deer hunters for their business,” said Pete Madland, executive director of the association. “And socially it was a gathering place for guys on their annual hunts.”
But Madland said the trend toward modernization was too strong in other states. State officials had made up their minds.
“It’s not going to be reversed,” he said.
For Becky Roatch, owner of the B & B Weston Bar southwest of Menomonie, said the state’s elimination of in-person deer check stations is as sad as it is painful. Her remote tavern, tucked away in a coulee of prime woodland deer habitat, still draws its usual crowd of hunters on the first Saturday night of the season.
Roatch caters to hunters throughout the season, offering carcass weigh-ins and drink specials. But last year’s cash register receipts were 50 percent lower than they were in 2014, the last year she could register deer.
“The bars lose out, but so does everybody,” Roatch said.
She recalled growing up in Dunn County and riding along with her parents for a close-up of what roams in the woods.
“You could drive through every little town and see all the deer, and a lot of big bucks,” Roatch said. “You do that now and you don’t get to see a whole lot.’’