IN NORTHWEST WISCONSIN – The concern here Friday evening was where exactly on the misery index hunters would find themselves come first light Saturday. This would be the opening day of deer hunting in Wisconsin, and when our bunch exited a restaurant called Bistro 63 about 9 p.m. Friday, having finished dinner, trees bent to a gale-force northwest wind and snow swirled atop the two-lane blacktop that divides the small berg of Barronett.
This year we numbered 16 hunters, sleeping in four locations that included a reconstituted barn, an RV, a house and a cabin. I sleep in the cabin, and en route to it I tooled through cascading snow on roads that turned from paved to gravel to dirt. Getting stuck is always a concern. But I had no trouble, and upon arrival I put a match to the cabin’s gas lights and stoked its wood-burning stove.
Soon enough I crawled into my sleeping bag. All night the wind howled, and I wondered during frequent awakenings which predictive voice at dinner Friday night would be correct about deer movement in the morning.
One long-held theory suggests deer don’t like wind because they can’t safely pinpoint threats. So they lie low until things blow over. On the other hand, sudden cold after such a temperate fall might prompt whitetails to move aggressively toward food and back to bedding areas, making them vulnerable.
“I think they’ll be moving,’’ Tony Berg said.
Tony and his three brothers, Kevin, Mitch and Paul, and their dad, Norb, regard deer hunting in the same way most of Wisconsin’s approximately 600,000 deer hunters regard it: as a ritual best practiced continually, not just during the state’s nine-day November season. Year-round, the Bergs log their land, cultivate food plots and build, modify or move deer stands.
Saturday, on the tract of their property I hunt, I opted not to sit high in a tree but instead low to the ground in a tent-like blind. Concealment is one advantage of these makeshift tents, as is portability, and I sited mine near a convergence of trails that threaded a narrow passageway between two swamps, centered by a well-traveled ridge.
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My alarm rang at 4:45 Saturday, and for a long moment I wasn’t quite sure what condition my condition was in. The fire in the stove had gone out. The wind still howled. My two sons had spent every November of their adolescences doing just this with me in this cabin, and I missed them. But there you have it. I made a pot of cowboy coffee, put together a sandwich, pulled on multiple layers of blaze orange and stepped into the great unknown.
Charlie Berg of Mendota Heights would kill the first of our opening day bucks, a dandy eight-pointer with long tines. I knew this because in my little hovel while watching hawk-like for hooved animals I received a text saying so. Charlie, 15, is Paul’s son.
Word also soon pinged its way through the ether to my phone with notice that Dave Berg of Edgar, Wis., Norb’s brother, had dropped a buck, also an eight-pointer. And Rick Battis of Eagan would follow with a six-pointer. Wind or no wind, snow or no snow, the meat pole was filling up on schedule.
I also was seeing deer, an alarming development, given my unfilled tags here in recent years.
At 6:55, a fork buck had materialized through the aspen, spruce and jack pine that surrounded me, moving west to east on the very trail I had fantasized on previous days would be home to a real whopper. This was decidedly not a whopper, and I gave the young guy a pass.
I also saw two does, each with triplets, spaced a half-hour apart, before, at 8:30, I poured a cup of coffee and succumbed to the temptation of the Double Stuf Oreos I carried in my pack.
Which is when I saw a buck, its head low, an eight-pointer anyway, a good-sized deer moving on the ridge left to right.
The buck angled in a fashion that wouldn’t lead him into one of my shooting lanes. Instead his route through the tangled woods was helter-skelter, in front of some trees and behind others.
Shouldering my .270, I found the animal in my scope and tracked him for a long second or two. A narrow pathway connected the two of us visually, and when he stepped into it, I coughed up a throaty doe bleat.
You never really know what deer will do.
Maybe on wintry, windy November mornings they’ll move, maybe not. And maybe when they hear an unexpected sound coming from a tent-like blind they’ll pivot and skedaddle to avoid trouble.
Not this time.
This time the buck froze, and I squeezed the trigger, sending a 130-grain copper bullet through the narrow pathway that connected us visually.
Collapsing onto himself, the buck was dead before he hit the ground.
That’s what happened this time.