“THE ICEMAN COMETH.” This is the iceman that brings snow on the ground and early ice on north Wisconsin lakes. This also is the iceman that stirs hot-blooded whitetail bucks to action, chasing does around the woods in a frenzy during late October and well into November.

Come to think of it, rutting whitetail bucks might be seen about the same as the “Iceman” in the 1946 Broadway play written by Eugene O’Neill which contained many references to an iceman rather than a milkman visiting the play’s leading character’s wife. 

But enough of allusions about a theatrical production that few people younger than the age of 80, perhaps, even remember. The comparison of bucks to icemen, after all, is nothing but a roundabout way to bring attention to the fact that the opening day of Wisconsin’s gun deer season is less than three weeks away.

As I approach my 58th year of heading to the woods in hopes of putting venison in the freezer, I still get a little excited by dreams of bringing home the trophy buck of a lifetime, but I must admit trophy bucks and dreams of such have long ago given way to mere happy anticipation of continuing a long tradition.

My wife and I don’t necessarily need venison to put meat on the table through a long winter — as was the case when I was growing up in one of many North Woods families who did rely on getting a deer — but both of us very much enjoy the low fat, high-protein sustenance we get from eating venison.

My deer hunting dreams and the effort I put into bringing home venison are very much low key these days and have been for a goodly number of years.

As a child, I saw deer hunting and killing a buck as a passageway to manhood. Killing a buck and bringing home venison for the table was not just a labor of love, but a necessity of life. Being able to provide meat for the family loomed large in my mind, although I must admit that my family would have gone mighty hungry had my parents and siblings depended solely on the deer I killed; three of them all told by the time I was 18 and headed off to college. 

Back in those days and for quite a few years later, deer hunting was everything to me in November. Actually, deer season began for me in October, when I started paying particular attention to deer signs wherever my bird hunts took me.

Finding a fresh rub or scrape made my blood run as hot as the bucks who left those signs. I wandered far and wide searching out the perfect spot for a deer stand. I dreamed every night about the buck I might get.

My deer hunting career started with a stand — if you can call a cold, hard stump along a logging road a stand — above Uncle Neal’s cabin on Plum Creek. That first morning of my first season was one of unbelieveable excitement. Here I was, finally joining the fraternity of deer hunters, finally ready to achieve manhood before I even entered my teens.

The joy of a first buck was almost realized when an eight-pointer was pushed up the hill past me by another hunter. It came flying by me at about 40 yards and two shots from a .303 Savage lever action did nothing but severely damage the air the bullets passed through.

To be honest, I know I never truly aimed at the buck, instead swinging on it like a grouse without even looking through the peep sight. I didn’t get a chance to redeem myself that season, nor the next two. 

Finally, at the age of 15, while sitting on the upturned root ball of a large tree Thanksgiving morning, redemption was mine. Three deer came out of a swamp, a swamp 180 degrees and a quarter-mile away from the swamp Uncle Neal had sent me to and after missing not one, not two, but three shots, I finally put the buck down with a lucky fourth desperation shot as it ran toward thick cover.

In that moment, I was finally a buck slayer. At that moment, or so I thought, I achieved manhood. I had finally entered the fraternity of good men and women who were providers of meat for the table. It was, in my young mind, a glorious moment to be celebrated forever. And you know what? That moment, forever engraved in my mind, is still as glorious as it ever was.

I’ve gone on to shoot many bucks. Not as many as a lot of hunters, but on average almost one every two years. Nowadays, I don’t go to the woods feeling as though I have to kill a buck. In recent years, I have let a few bucks walk by without shooting, not because shooting a small buck would be less than sportsmanlike, but because I just didn’t feel like killing one at the moment.

Nowadays, I enjoy the hunt just by watching blue jays and gray squirrels, tiny nuthatches and chickadees, and once in a while, enjoying a true treat such as a ruffed grouse walking up a downed log to its upper end where I am sitting 3 feet away in a blind of pine branches.

My deer season these days is completely fulfilling if, as I did one year, have a glistening snow-white ermine pick up pieces of sandwich meat tossed 5 feet from where the toes of my boots met the ground.

If I have a flock of late migrating Canada geese buzz the treetops over my head, hear mallards quacking on the lake I hunt next to or if I have an albino doe — it has happened during three recent seasons — walk past my blind 20 yards or closer to me, then I consider it a highly satisfying and successful season.

I don’t spend days and weeks preparing for deer season anymore, and I hunt when, how and where I please; with the prospect of spending time in the woods with wild critters around me reward enough.

A buck to bring home for meat on the table is just a bonus.