Silver Cliffs and Lead Bullets

Dec 19, 2017 -- 10:31am

Another gun deer season has come and gone in the Badger State, and in between a combined 550-plus miles of driving to two different tree stands and four total days in the field, I had plenty of time to reflect on how I got to this point. To be honest, I never thought I would continue to hunt after my first trip into the woods. I was instructed from the very beginning that this would not be an instant gratification kind of fun, and that people could go years without securing a kill. I was led to believe the ‘fun’ in it all was the privilege to sit long enough in single-digit weather to assimilate your rear end to the thin patch of vinyl in your tree stand that is marketed as a cushion, while seeing nothing but an un-ending wilderness of greys, browns, and if the weather favors it that particular year, whites.

But something about it was intriguing to me. I mean, at home Dad’s eyes would light up when reminiscing on past hunts, and about what the strategy for this go around would be. I knew Dad was a man of a very select group of true passions, but that he was all in on these limited endeavors.

One such was classic rock, or as he would call it, Boston. Truth be told, my mom is the biggest reason I immersed myself in music, beyond just flipping through tunes on the radio or an iPod. She wouldn’t let me quit piano lessons, and told me the ladies went crazy for cello players (sorry ladies, I switched over to saxophone after only a couple of years). But it was Dad who introduced me to the fascinating tones of yesteryear, as Boston quickly branched into Def Leppard, and Def Leppard to Led Zeppelin, and Led Zeppelin to Clapton, and ultimately leading me to the dulcet, vivacious sound of Rush, my favorite group of all time (While I have the opportunity, I’d like to clear this up: it’s Neil PEArt, not PURR-T or PAY-URT; also the song is Y-Y-ZEDD, not Y-Y-Z).

The reason I bring this up, is because every year before moving out, when we would drive up to Marinette County, Dad would play his collection of Boston CD’s. It became one of the symbols of that 9-day odyssey thousands of Wisconsinites partake in starting every third Saturday in November. And collectively, the symbols are why I have committed myself to the hunt almost every autumn for the last 13 years, not the pursuit of a 12-point buck. Hunting is something I have a passion for, and hope to share with my progeny when the time comes.

However, just like with anything else we are passionate about, it can be hard to adjust to its changes over time. These difficult realities are creeping up on my little home away from society, both tangibly and intangibly. Over the last few years in particular, Wisconsin has effectively re-worked the whitetail hunting process. It started with the simple introduction of rifle hunting statewide in 2013. This was done in response to several studies that effectively debunked the idea of certain guns being more dangerous in southern counties of the state, with higher population densities. The Department of Natural Resources had been studying the accident rates since the late 90s, and was eager to expand the options for southern county hunters.

As such, some who would normally have headed into the northern woods with their rifles instead opted for the cornfields and marshes of the south. I certainly don’t blame them; not only are the deer more abundant downwind of Highway 10, but they’re usually bigger due to a more diverse pallet. Nevertheless, the mystique and allure of a northwoods deer still remained, and so the atmosphere of our hunts remained largely the same.

Then came last year, when Governor Scott Walker announced likely the single greatest change to how the hunt is carried out in the state: the switch to online registration. On the surface, the idea seems like a perfect way to streamline what can be, depending on location, one of the more tedious parts of the hunt. It gives people the convenience of quickly registering their deer from their laptop or phone, without necessitating a drive to the nearest registration station.

Unfortunately, this practice is likely to bring about a rather noticeable change, particularly in northern counties. Let me just say that first, I don’t believe it will change the number of deer taken in by too much of a margin. While theoretically, it could make harvesting unregistered deer easier, I firmly believe most hunters in Wisconsin, and in other states, participate in accordance with DNR regulations, out of the spirit of a fair hunt (if not a bit begrudgingly at times). No, where this change will be most felt is at the former watering holes for hunters young and old: gas stations or other deer registration points.

The truth is that hunters can still register their deer the old-fashioned way, by driving their kill to the nearest registration point and checking their tag number in with the official at the station. This could especially be handy with people who don’t have the best access to the internet (in this day and age?? Shocking I know, but internet still is not a guaranteed utility for all). But, if I’m being honest, enough people have internet access to make the effort of driving out of their way to register a deer seem unnecessary.

But why is this such a big deal anyway? Surely, a slight loss of traffic at gas stations for a 9-day period can’t be enough to severely dent yearly profits up north, right? Well to that I would ask you, how often have you been to the northwoods of Wisconsin? For the general population, it’s one weekend in the summer, perhaps a weekend in January for a snowmobile trip, or the deer hunt. Other than that, MOST Wisconsinites have no reason to visit that part of the state due to it largely still being underdeveloped, sparsely populated, and lacking in most modern amenities. This is no problem for someone like myself, having at one point lived in an area smaller than some closets I’ve seen, but for the average person living in 2017, this scares the heebie-jeebies out of people.

Thus, those who do choose to make their living up north are heavily reliant on the spending of those who visit. Without hunters making a necessary stop to the registration stations, how will proprietors make up the loss of revenue? Add in the unpredictability of the snowmobile season with recent so-so snowfalls, and the necessity of all avenues of revenue manifests itself even more so.

So as to not come off as a know-it-all, I can’t honestly say I have a fool-proof solution. The idea to bring the hunt into the 21st century is indeed an attractive one, and I certainly would hate to see the hunt completely undone by failing to adapt to the winds of change. But when life moves at a million miles an hour, it’s important to have these little outlets to a slower pace. That’s the deer hunt for me, from the road trips, to the Boston, to the frozen rear ends, and I’d hate to see it swallowed by an unstoppable tide of bureaucracy and overregulation. Part of what makes hunting so enjoyable is the very real challenge, but I’d like to keep that challenge limited to the battle between myself and Mother Nature, not myself and Madison.

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