Smith: A holiday treat for deer hunters, land managers – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Richland Center — The coulees of Richland County were covered in snow and whipped with wind.
As I trudged up a ridge, even thick-trunked red oak trees swayed to the westerly gusts.
But white-tailed deer in the area were determined to head out to feed, regardless of the weather.
At 3 p.m., a trio of antlerless deer climbed out of a ravine and toward the crown of an agricultural field. They knew clover and turnips could be found beneath the snow.
Later, another lone deer entered the field from the northwest. And then a buck fawn appeared from the southeast.
The deer were easy to spot from my position at the edge of a treeline. I watched the animals through binoculars, marveling at their efficiency as they pawed the ground and extracted mouthfuls of green.
For many deer hunters, satisfaction is measured in deer sightings. This outing, during the holiday hunt in late December, had already delivered.
But in areas like Richland County, where deer numbers are high and chronic wasting disease is present, I’m especially motivated to be more than a spectator.
For all these reasons, the holiday hunt has become my favorite Wisconsin deer season. This year it was held Dec. 24 to Jan. 1 in 13 counties.
Rules allowed only antlerless deer to be killed.
Along with 16 others, I had joined Lloyd Purnell Jr. of Pewaukee and Mike Purnell of Oconomowoc to hunt on their Richland County property surrounding the cabin they call the Roost. The brothers have hunted the area, where their mother Billie was born and raised, since their youth.
The holiday hunt at the Roost has become a tradition for our group.
This year the group included: Lloyd Purnell Jr., his daughter Phelan and her boyfriend Andrew: Mike Purnell, his wife Cindy and their daughters Dakota and Payton; Jim and Tracy Smukowski of Oconomowoc; Brian Porter and his son Jordan of Oconomowoc; Dave Dumke of Milwaukee; Jesse Spanaus of West Allis; brothers Jake and Bradley Yanke of Belgium; Aaron Wenzel of Beaver Dam; and me.
Heidi, an 8-week old golden retriever owned by Jim and Tracy, also contributed to the bright camp atmosphere.
In the opinions of the Purnell brothers and me, the holiday hunt hits on almost all cylinders.
For starters, it’s held at a time when kids are on vacation from school and many adults are off work. The opportunity is ripe for families to spend one or several days hunting between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day.
The 2016 group at the Roost included two married couples, two father-and-daughter duos and one father-and-son. The ages ranged from 14 to 60-something.
The gathering was centered around deer hunting, but even more important was the meeting of friends and families. Notably, three people didn’t hunt but happily joined the celebration.
If you want to keep the hunting tradition alive, this is a fine recipe for success.
The timing of the holiday hunt also has provided some of the best hunting conditions in the last decade of Wisconsin deer seasons.
This year was no exception. Snow covered the landscape, making it easier to spot deer.
And since it’s held in late December, the holiday hunt presents deer that haven’t been heavily pressured for weeks and have settled into a bedding and feeding pattern that typically brings them out well before dark.
The cold and snow, too, caused the deer to focus on a handful of food sources, increasing the odds for hunters.
Significantly, the hunt provides one last firearm season to help meet deer harvest goals for the year.
A recent check of 2016 deer harvest goals and actual kills showed not a single county in the farmland region met its target.
In Richland County, by mid-December hunters had registered 2,004 antlerless deer in the nine-day gun season, 328 by archery, 178 with crossbow, 87 in the youth season and 34 by muzzleloader. The county, which has a goal of “decrease,” was more than 10,000 deer short of its antlerless kill target of 14,000.
In Waukesha County, a kill goal of 1,740 antlerless deer was set to “maintain” the population this year. It had tallied just 807 in mid-December.
Our group fanned out to various parts of the property and hunted from stands or still hunted on the ground. Deer drives were organized, too.
Some people hunted for one day, others for three. At the end, 11 antlerless deer had been tagged.
In this era of deer management, it’s irresponsible for counties that fall short of their deer kill goals to not hold the holiday hunt.
In areas with chronic wasting disease (CWD) in the wild deer herd, the regulations should also be changed to allow shooting of bucks, which carry the disease at higher rates than females. Early versions of the holiday hunt allowed both antlered and antlerless deer to be taken.
As hunting traditions evolve, I’ve come to value the holiday hunt as much as any deer season in Wisconsin.
With so much of the state’s land in private hands, it provides an additional option to landowners who, like the Purnells, recognize the need to harvest deer.
And no other deer hunt provides as much opportunity for friends and family to join.
State wildlife officials, County Deer Advisory Councils and the public should take note.