Snow would help hunters in dragging a buck.
Snow would help hunters in dragging a buck.
A slowly growing deer herd and a slightly earlier deer hunt should leave hunters optimistic when they take to northern forests for the start of the nine-day gun season this Saturday, Nov. 21.

According to Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz, the deer herd in the North Woods appears to be in pretty good shape. 

While the North had some early and heavy snow  and numerous sub-zero nights last winter, the punctual spring was forgiving, reminded Holtz.

“The North Woods has had excellent growing conditions for forage, with abundant ground cover and plenty of fawning/escape cover,” said Holtz. “Last year, the conditions were favorable for deer as well, but with sub-par hunting conditions and the latest possible opening day under our current season structure, harvest was lower than originally predicted.”

For the third straight year, Vilas County hunters will see a limited supply of antlerless permits after five years of buck-only hunting across the county from 2013-’17; and for the fourth straight year, Oneida County will also allow some antlerless harvest after four years of buck-only hunting from 2013-’16.

Forest County, where there are vast acres of national forest available for hunting, there will be no antlerless permits available as the Forest County Deer Advisory Council has recommended an effort to grow the deer herd in the management unit.

The North Woods has been experiencing a roller-coaster fall when it comes to weather, with a cold and wet October with some snow followed by a warmer-than normal November. As of Monday, there was about 1 inch of snow on the ground. Snow generally improves visibility for hunters in locating and tracking deer.

There is a slight chance the snow could remain on the ground as forecasters are predicting high temperatures in the mid- to upper 30s this week, except for one warmer day on Thursday when the high could reach 50. The forecast for the weekend is a high of 37 both days with mostly cloudy skies. Lows will be in the mid 20s.

Unfortunately, the opener on Nov. 21 means the rut, or the deer breeding season when bucks are more vulnerable, will be winding down for the most part, according to wildlife experts. It’s better than last year, however, when the opener was Nov. 23 — the latest possible opener for the Wisconsin gun season.

With the 2020 gun deer season just days away, the  DNR is reminding hunters of the local three-county ban on baiting and feeding deer in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties to help control the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

To stay on top of CWD, DNR staff will issue free CWD surveillance authorizations to the public on select parcels of private land within two CWD surveillance zones in Lincoln, Langlade, Oneida, Forest and Vilas counties (see related story in outdoors). In addition, hunters can voluntarily submit the head of their deer for testing in efforts to continue the fight against CWD, regardless of where the deer is harvested.

In CWD-affected counties, the DNR said it would like to see a higher participation rate in the testing to help the department see if the deadly brain disease has spread from where it was originally discovered on the Three Lakes Trophy Ranch. There also have been four wild deer that tested positive for CWD in southern Oneida County and northern Lincoln County.



Recent harvest

With a limited antlerless harvest in recent years, there is optimism among DNR experts and hunters that the whitetail herd is growing in the North Woods.

The buck harvest plummeted in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties from 2007 through 2009 and then took a jump in 2010 and 2011. It leveled off in 2012, but the buck kill dropped 10% in 2013, dropped another 28% in 2014 and fell by 18.5% in 2015.

In 2016, the buck harvest finally jumped by 33%, including 26% in Vilas County, 36% in Oneida  County and 36% in Forest County. The buck harvest jumped again in 2017 and stayed about even in 2018. But then in 2019, the buck harvest plummeted 38% in Vilas County, 46 in Oneida County and 49% in Forest County.

Wildlife experts put part of the blame on the late opener last season and then a 14-inch snowfall on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, followed by another 8 inches on the second weekend that reduced the hunter effort during the second half of the nine-day season.

Last year, hunters killed 612 bucks in Vilas, 837 in Oneida and 549 in Forest. In addition, hunters registered 173 antlerless deer in Vilas, 625 in Oneida and 189 in Forest County.

The 18-county Northern Region saw the buck harvest drop from 26,516 in 2018 to 16,304 in 2019 — a 38.5% drop. The antlerless harvest fell from 16,383 in 2018 to 11,239 in 2019, a 31.4% decrease.

The County Deer Advisory Councils here decided last spring that antlerless deer harvest authorizations will be limited in 2020 in Vilas and Oneida counties, and no antlerless permits were issued for Forest County.

In Vilas County, just 75 permits on public land and 150 on private land were available. Oneida County had 500 permits for public land and 2,000 permits for private land. 

For hunters who want to travel south, one or more Farmland (Zone 2) antlerless deer harvest authorizations are included with the purchase of each deer hunting license and are available for selection through GoWild, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) license system.

Hunters can review the list of units with antlerless harvest authorizations available for purchase at dnr.wi.gov.

All deer harvested during any deer season must be registered by 5 p.m. the day after harvest. For more information, visit dnr.wi.gov and search  “electronic registration.”

More than 1.5 million deer have been registered electronically by phone or online since 2015. Now, 97%  of hunters register their deer with no assistance during the opening weekend of the gun deer season. 



Habitat vital

The winter severity always plays a role in deer management and hunter success, according to Michele Woodford, DNR wildlife biologist for Vilas County. She said the northern reaches of the county saw prolonged periods of deep snow and a winter severity index map that reflects the lake effect snows. Meanwhile, southern parts of Vilas County saw less snow accumulation. 

“Deep snows melted to more deer-friendly depths in April, which is the most critical month for deer before spring green-up,” said Woodford. “Adult does appeared to be in good condition this spring, and even last year’s fawns were reported to look very good in spite of the more severe winter in the area.”

Woodford said the age and quality of the forest habitat also plays a role in deer densities by influencing how much food is available to deer looking to build up fat stores for winter.

“Offering a limited antlerless harvest will allow remaining deer a chance to bulk up for winter and help prevent deer from over-browsing important deer habitats. This added hunting opportunity is in hopes that hunters will pass up smaller bucks and buck fawns to improve trophy hunt opportunities for the future,” she said.

Woodford suggests looking for additional hunting spots in and around newly harvested timber that provides thick, new cover with plenty of hiding places and diverse forage for deer. 

In older forests, such as the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the tree branches overlap, making it darker with less ground vegetation, according to Woodford.

“Seeing long distances into mature pine forests can give gun hunters the hope of seeing more deer, but deer have less reason to be there,” she said. “Look to set up hunting spots near large oak trees, natural funnels of thick forest cover, hilly draws or narrows between water.” 

Woodford admitted that hunting on public lands near subdivisions where deer congregate to browse on ornamental plants can have advantages.

“Doing your homework and knowing the local ordinances in and around residential areas can gain you access to additional hunting opportunities,” she said.



Tourism boost


While hunter numbers might be down in northern units compared to the glory days of deer hunting in the late 1990s, DNR officials estimate 40,000 hunters will still take to the woods this Saturday in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties.

In 2019, 564,664 gun deer licenses were sold through the end of the nine-day gun deer season, compared to 576,277 in 2018. This is a 2.02% decrease.

Many northern hunters will come to cabins, resorts and motels in the tri-county area, home to massive tracts of public forestland and industrial forestland that harbor deer in varying densities.

Public forests here include the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, the Northern Highland-American Le­gion State Forest and county forests.

There are also thousands of acres of privately owned industrial timberlands en­rolled in forest crop management that are open to public hunting.

The nine-day hunt will run through Sunday, Nov. 29, and will be followed by a 10-day muzzle loader season Nov. 30-Dec. 9 that is open to anyone with an unused carcass tag. The December four-day antlerless-only fire­arm hunt will be offered statewide Dec. 10-13 and no archery buck hunting is allowed during this season. An antlerless-only holiday hunt is planned Dec. 24 through Jan. 1, 2021, in select farmland zones. The statewide archery and crossbow season runs through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021.