By this time last year, Darla Fisher's seasonal deer hunting dreams were fulfilled.
The bubbly 82-year-old great-grandmother made the shot of her life at a beastly 11-pointer during the crossbow season in western Wisconsin.
"I must be kind of a good shot," she said. "I mean, it was a good shot. Oh, my gosh. It was really fun."
For an encore, she has been bowhunting again. If she doesn't get lucky soon, she will unpack her .30-30 brush rifle. The Badger State's nine-day firearms season opens Saturday with expectations for increased chances around the state.
Wisconsin wildlife managers say whitetail abundance has been primed by the mild winter of 2020-21 and from below-average harvests in 2019 and 2020. This season, archery and crossbow hunting has been extended in 27 counties to late January. In addition, the state added antlerless Christmas season hunts and now offers hunters access to testing services for chronic wasting disease everywhere in the state.
In Pierce County, where archers, crossbow hunters and supervised youth already have harvested more than 500 deer this season, Fisher hopes to shoot a brute she has been spying on trail cameras. Nicknamed "Curly" for his mop of antlers, she thinks of him as a brother to the buck she bolted last November.
"I don't want to shoot small deer," she said. "I want to shoot big deer."
Fisher answered an inner-calling to hunt deer more than a decade ago when she retired from her job as a coronary unit nurse at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. She and her late husband, Richard, raised their four children in a quaint country house on the outskirts of Ellsworth, where they also raised chickens.
When the kids were grown, Richard planted a field of prairie grass that added to their transformation of 80 acres of hilly farmland. They planted trees and created other wildlife habitat. With continual upgrades, it's become a haven for deer, wild turkeys, song birds, butterflies, bees and furbearers.
"It was so beautiful and such a peaceful place,'' Fisher said. "I just loved it and I said to myself one day, 'I will try hunting.' "
Steve Pechacek, a friend of the Fisher family who mentors Darla on landscaping, said her aw-shucks mannerisms belie a tenacious streak that he sees in the field. Once, when they were struggling to finish a food plot, she crawled onto the planting machinery to push seeds around.
"I absolutely love her spirit," Pechacek said. "This lady guts out her own deer and everything. I could see her doing this another 10 years, easy."
What sets her apart from a lot of hunters is her year-round enthusiasm and commitment to her land, Pechacek said. He has a deep background in organic farming, and together they have planted lush patches of winter peas, brassicas, turnips, radishes, sorghum, buckwheat, sunflowers and milkweed. On her own, she's carved out trails and seeded them with thick grass and clover. At the bottom of a slope, she formed a small pond. Most recently, she started an apple orchard.
"I don't go to bars. I love all the wildlife that we attract and that's half the reason I hunt," she said. "There's so much to learn."
'It better be a big one'
Born in Plum City, Wis., and raised on a farm, she attended high school in Ellsworth and studied nursing at a pair of small colleges in the Twin Cities. Her daughter, Becky, and three sons — Tim, Ted and Jody — grew up doing farm chores, helping neighbors, riding horses and playing sports.
"Our kids, they were good kids. Maybe they had a beer or two. I don't know," she said, smiling. "Becky always tells me to keep on thinking that they were perfect."
Behind the wheel of her side-by-side while giving a visitor a tour of her hunting grounds, Darla Fisher said a broken hip is the only thing that sidelined her from hunting since she took it up around the age of 70. Stopping her ATV at various spots to tell stories, she checked on three of her deer stands and pointed out where she hunts for shed antlers after each harvest season.
Earlier that day, she watched from one of her stands as a nice buck chased after a doe. He would disappear, then return with his nose to the ground. "That buck was so pretty," she said. "The doe would come out of the woods and pretty soon here comes Mr. Prince right behind her."
She said her dedication to quality deer management has rubbed off on sons Tim and Ted, who each have hunting land of their own. Jody, who suffered a traumatic brain injury years ago, harvested a big buck on her land from his wheelchair. "I was so happy for him," she said.
Even her own grandchildren (she has nine, along with two great-grandchildren) aren't allowed to shoot small bucks. "I tell them, if you are going to shoot an eight-pointer, it better be a big one," she said.
Buck of her dreams
She harvested her first trophy buck during the gun season of 2017. She preserved the nicely symmetrical 10-pointer in a shoulder mount that now hangs above her gun safe. Upstairs in the entryway foyer is the shoulder mount of "Covid," the buck of her dreams.
She nicknamed the deer and a friend memorialized it with a collage of pictures, including poses caught on trail cameras and one of Darla dwarfed by the deer as it hangs from rafters for butchering.
"I told myself when I saw him coming: 'Just be ready. Just aim,' " she recalled.
Four female deer were out in the open, 35 yards away from Darla's partially enclosed shooting stand. It was an hour before sunset and the buck strutted into the middle of them, partly broadside.
"He stopped for a second and I shot him right behind the shoulder blade," she said. "He jumped up and they all took off in different directions."
For more than a few minutes, she thought she might have missed. She waited, then called Tim for help searching. He found the deer dead on a nearby slope, just 50 yards away.
"Oh my gosh, he was so excited for me," she said.
She never gets tired of telling the story. At first, her son feigned that she shot a small deer. She frowned until she saw for herself.
Admirers of "Covid" have said she'll have a tough time finding a buck with a bigger body and rack.
Over and over, Darla said friends and family members have been instrumental in supporting her passion for deer hunting and preserving wildlife habitat.
"I have super people in my life," she said.
But not everyone fully understands her mind-set during deer season. She wondered out loud last week how she should respond to a quilting party invitation.
"Oh my gosh," she said. "They're good friends but I thought, 'Are you kidding me? This is in the middle of everything. I can't go quilting now.' "