THE deer hunting adventures of Bob Wojtusik, family and friends have taken place in Three Lakes for 70 years, a tradition stemming back to the boom of potato farming in this little town.

The sport they pursue with such passion has survived a collapse in the farming industry, state mismanagement of antlerless tags, a lack of federal logging, a baiting ban and many a severe winter.

Whitetailed deer, especially the trophy bucks that this group targets, always seemed to flourish in the mix of private and public lands they hunted south of town near Eagle Creek.

The 80-year-old Wojtusik started hunting at age 10 when the deer herd boomed here due to potato farming and massive logging efforts that improved habitat.

It was so good for so long starting in the hardwood cutover days around 1950 that when some land became available in the early 1980s, the former teacher and basketball coach bought 40 acres.

His goal was to improve habitat, including ponds and food plots and oak stands, in hopes of establishing a deer haven next to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Wojtusik eventually added another 40 acres to the family holdings and built a beautiful cabin on the property — an official deer camp.

He’s on that property almost every day, evolving into a farmer who has learned how to till the land, plant fruit trees and grow everything from corn and pumpkins to turnips and white clover.

But despite the tradition, the knowledge gained on deer habitat and the thousands of hours of hard work, the dream of ideal deer hunting for family and friends isn’t working out.

And as Bob tells it, they’ve survived every obstacle except the one they can’t seem to do anything about — an overpopulation of gray wolves.

“In the last seven years, our hunting group has hardly seen a deer during the gun season,” said Wojtusik. “On one of those openers, we saw three wolves and no deer. On another, we found more wolf tracks than deer tracks.”

Besides the loss of quality deer hunting for trophy bucks, his biggest frustration is that family members are losing interest in coming to hunt deer in Three Lakes.

“They want to spend their hunting time and take their kids, my grandkids, somewhere they can actually see deer,” he said. “And I don’t blame them, but it really hurts. They can see more deer in a day in the Appleton area than they see all season here; a lot more deer.”

Wojtusik has two sons-in-law who hunt deer with him and one owns land in Price County, where they usually hunt opening weekend.

“They aren’t even interested in coming over for Thanksgiving or for a day on the last weekend, because they aren’t going to see a deer,” he said. “That’s what I’m hearing from my family and it’s not good for me to hear that.”

It’s not that the wolves are eating all the deer, but for seven straight years, they’ve showed up before deer season south of Three Lakes and basically driven the deer elsewhere.

“The wolves are flourishing in the national forest next to our property where they have no enemies,” he said. “A lack of food and habitat is not the problem for our lack of deer and decent hunting. It’s the wolves.”

Wojtusik just finished planting another 470 fruit-bearing trees on the land for everything from grouse and deer to songbirds. Eight years ago, they had a logger take out all the balsam so aspen could regenerate naturally.

“A forester told me years ago to release competition from the few oak trees that were on the property,” he said. “We did that and today, we’ve got more than 100 mature oak trees on the land. Last year, for the first time, we had acorns dropping into one of the five ponds we constructed.”

So basically the Wojtusik family has developed an incredible haven for deer that is pretty much void of deer, thanks to the gray wolf.

He said it was 15 years ago that a neighbor saw eight wolves running together on opening day of the deer season. He said that was the first sign that things were going to change if wolf numbers couldn’t be controlled.

“We used to see 12 to 15 deer in the fields on any given evening in the springtime,” he said. “Now we see a single doe and even that deer is spooky, running off on the first sign of a vehicle. They’re being chased.”

For the Wojtusik family and their close hunting friends, it has been a rich tradition of shooting large, heavy-antlered bucks from the national forest south of town.

Both of his sons, who live in Eagle River and Rhinelander, scored on numerous eight- and 10-point bucks prior to 2010 — before the wolves moved into the area.

One of Wojtusik’s long-time hunting buddies, the late Riley Oberchain of Chicago, made the news here in 1992 when he shot two trophy bucks with a single shot during one of the group’s late-season deer drives.

Today’s Wojtusik story is just one tiny part of what an overpopulation of wolves is doing to damage Wisconsin’s deer hunting tradition, especially in the North Woods.

And for the thousands who are involved in the sport, facing the same frustrations, too many wolves is a really big problem.