My iPhone case shows the size of a wolf track near Pine River, where two of the big predators were hunting deer.
My iPhone case shows the size of a wolf track near Pine River, where two of the big predators were hunting deer.
FALLING snow and a lack of rutting activity in the snowbelt of northern Vilas County subdued deer movement on opening day last Saturday, making it a tough opener in the state forest.

How tough was it? I heard only a half-dozen shots before 8 a.m. and didn’t hear another until a lone blast echoed across the landscape just after noon, when lake-effect snow squalls continued.

And then the skies cleared and it dropped to 10 degrees in a hurry, and a lack of gunfire told the story of deer that weren’t going to get up and move until well after dark.

All was not lost of course because I got to view new terrain in a huge cutover area in the town of Boulder Junction. The highlight of the day was watching a bald eagle glide past at what had to be 30 miles an hour, riding the wind currents without flapping a wing.

That was the scribbler’s opening day story and hopefully yours was much better in some other location. My only live deer sighting was at 5:15 a.m. next to Boat Sport on Highway 70, a nice eight pointer with its nose to the ground.

The only reason there was a beautiful 10-point buck hanging on the meat pole on the shores of Sevenmile Lake is due to Deano Radtke’s decision to hunt Marathon County in the morning, before coming north.

He had 20-some deer in front of him in a private swamp — rutting and chasing in full force there —before he got an opportunity to shoot the biggest antlered buck he’s ever taken with a gun.

Who can blame him for making that great choice, as opposed to the possibility of a no-deer day in the northern forest. It’s happening more and more every year for a lot of reasons, including a lack of deer, lack of tags and the baiting ban here.

You don’t need to bait in farm country when food supplies are everywhere and the deer herd is so healthy that many hunters see 10 to 20 deer a day, including multiple bucks of different sizes.

Yet hunting in the northern forest has its perks, including uncongested, peaceful hunting on millions of acres of national, state and county forest lands. 

I returned to the Pine River country of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest on Sunday morning, a place where the scenery alone makes for a special day in the deer woods. Just don’t expect to see many deer.

After a brief stint in a make-shift blind with the mercury fluctuating somewhere between 5 degrees above zero and 4 degrees below zero, I was off to do some still hunting.

At one point I made the long trek from the parking area on the end of Perry Road and arrived at the Pine River, which was gurgling with a loud roar.

The Pine is a rare find in this part of the country, nestled at the base of towering hardwood ridges. The roar of the river can be heard before you crest the last ridge, but once you do, the river is impressively mesmerizing.

I stood there for 30 minutes, staring virtually straight down at a rock-filled river that carved its way through the woods. There’s no marsh and no tag elders on a river that looks more like something you’d find in the mountains.

One of the most unusual sights of the day were the discovery of two sets of large wolf tracks on a swamp edge near the river, which tells you that hunters aren’t the only predators trying to chase down a deer.

With no rutting activity and no natural daytime deer movement to be found, four of us in the Pine River Camp went searching.

I saw my first live deer in the woods about 11:30 a.m., when two jumped and scrambled away quickly in heavy cover. They had been dining on the tops of fallen spruce trees which, for the life of me, I don’t remember seeing before.

Both had adult bodies but didn’t give me a look at their heads in heavy spruce and balsam cover, so I’m not sure if one was a buck.

There were no ground scrapes in either public forest location that I hunted, which is confusing because the Nov. 17 opener is the earliest possible. We usually expect to catch the end of the annual rutting period this time of year, but it didn’t happen where I was hunting.

We honor the tradition of deer hunting and deer camp every year, regardless of the weather or the deer hunting forecast.

We roughed it at my brother Mark’s house on Sevenmile Lake, most of the crew comprised of the Leinie’s Guys — Mark “Lard-dog” Krueger, Dan “Keet” Moericke and Deano Radtke.

We got a surprise visit Saturday night from the youngsters who spent their childhood years in camp long ago, Steve Moericke of Minnesota and Greg Radtke of Wausau.

We visited the Ridderbusch Dirty Shame Camp and the Yadro Camp on Anvil Lake, talking smart and drinking beer in traditional deer camp style.

Once again we feasted Saturday night on wild goodies — creamed breast of pheasant, wild rice and some of the best apple pie on the planet. I cooked the meal. Deano brings the pies, which include four species of hand-picked apples.

Friday night’s treat was pheasant stew in the slow cooker, where breast and thigh meat mix with potatoes, carrots and peas in a sinful celery/chicken gravy.

Work dictates that I barely get two days of hunting during the nine-day gun season. But there’s always the 10-day muzzleloader season that follows, and a four-day statewide antlerless hunt after that.

There’s still plenty of time to fill a couple of tags. Oh that’s right, now they are harvest authorizations. Don’t get me started on that unenforceable mess of regulations.

Best of luck on the rest of your deer hunting.