In northern Wisconsin and many other rural areas, hunting is huge. But for many people, “hunting season” can be bewildering. Like lumping Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, and January White Sales together and calling it Winter Solstice Season. So here are some things you should know about the economic, environmental, social, and cultural impacts of hunting in rural areas.
It’s tradition. If you’re a soon-to-be spouse or in-law, don’t even think of planning the wedding during the 9-day season in late November called Gun Deer. Many of your guests as well as the wedding party and possibly the parson will have standing plans to go to Deer Camp. Deer Camp may be off in the woods, based in an actual structure like a cabin or camper. Or it can be centered at the same kitchen table we use the rest of the year.
It’s less a place than a state of mind. It’s where people trash-talk over cribbage at night then get up before dawn to try to “fill their tags” (harvest the number and kind of deer allowed by a state-issued license). In many families, this 9-day period is sacrosanct. Pray that you don’t need a plumber then, because your plumber is at deer camp.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to the 9-day Gun Deer season, there are other important dates. For some families, other rites of passage pale compared to the weekend Youth Hunt which lets kids get some experience without lots of other hunters in the woods. Archery and crossbow hunters have a long season, theoretically, but may save their vacation days for Gun Deer Camp so bow hunt mostly after work and on weekends. In Wisconsin, muzzleloader season opens right after the 9-day Gun Deer season closes. And that’s just some of the deer seasons. There are seasons for hunting migratory waterfowl, wild turkeys and other game birds, small game like rabbits, large game like bears, and more.
Few people hunt the entire season for every species. But it’s good to always know what seasons are open. And don’t assume they will be the same from state to state or even between zones within a state. My husband and I deferred our honeymoon, planning to travel out of state to hike during Gun Deer Season at home. Turns out, it was deer season where we went, too. Good thing it was 1990 when fluorescent colors were the trend in outdoor clothing.
Dress accordingly. You don’t need to be a hunter to dress by calendar-based sartorial rules. The social stigma of wearing white after Labor Day is nothing compared to the blunder of sauntering down a forest path in colors that blend into your surroundings when bow hunters are about. Dressing to be seen is a good idea even when you’re just cutting firewood or doing outdoor chores on your own land. See your state’s hunting regulations for valuable wardrobe planning guidance. For example, when and where a firearm deer season is in progress it’s prudent to have at least 50 percent of your outer clothing above the waist be solid blaze orange or fluorescent pink (or camo-blaze, which is legal but not as visible). You definitely want your hat or other head covering to be at least 50 percent blaze orange or fluorescent pink. Keep extras on hand for company. They may not know that plaid (hipster code for “weekend in the country”) was traditionally used as a hunting garb because it helped break up the silhouette of the person wearing it. In other words, plaid was camo before camo was cool, and it’s better to be seen. We also put a blaze orange bandana on our dog, and clip a bell to her collar.
On the line. You’ll be seeing hunting garb airing on lots of rural porches and clotheslines. Whitetail deer have 297 million olfactory receptors, so whitetail deer hunters who want to get close are very, very careful about how they smell. For some, the hunt is far less about killing something than it is about learning to understand the natural world. I know hunters who spend a lot of time in their deer stands without ever picking up a bow or firearm, just exercising their six senses. For them, hunting is almost like a therapeutic technique called grounding that’s used to help relieve stress or anxiety. That might come as a surprise to people who imagine hunting is like some first-person shooter video game, where reflexes and reaction times are everything in the battle against digital zombies or aliens. Hunting in the real world is more about observation and awareness, stillness and deliberation, and often choosing not to shoot at all rather than risking a poor shot.
Hunting for food. It may be hard for some to imagine how much rural families rely on hunting for food. That might be easier if they imagine living where incomes are generally lower and a family’s food budget also has to cover fuel to travel more miles to and from a grocery store. I don’t get sticker shock at the meat counter because I generally don’t even look at the meat counter. My freezer is stocked with local beef, the chickens my neighbor raises, and fish and game my husband provides. Friends gift us game when they have more than they can store or afford to have processed. Other friends donate what they can’t use to a food pantry or a nearby wildlife rehabilitation center or use it to feed their dogs. The neighbor who doesn’t like dark meat takes the breast meat when he gets a wild turkey and brings the rest of the carcass to us. We don’t waste much.
There’s a plan. Some hunters will field-dress a deer and take it to a processor to make the transformation from carcass to neatly wrapped and labeled frozen meat. But for people hunting to feed a family, that gets pricey. So instead, many hunters do their own butchering. Often, that’s a family affair. One friend’s deer camp includes not only hunters but also a team that butchers, preps, and pressure cans the meat, which is then divided among the group. Other friends pool both labor and resources like ice chests, meat grinders, vacuum sealers, and dehydrators to get the job done. Even for game birds and small game, most hunters have a plan and supplies on hand ahead of time. Out here, there are no quick trips to town for what you forgot.
In town. However, the economic impact of hunting season is most definitely felt in town. I’m happy for the businesses that prosper, but try very hard to not get caught up in the chaos of hunters heading to deer camp. Don’t even try to get a grocery cart through the bread, snack, or liquor aisles at the supermarket, and forget about getting anything from the deli counter. If you’re less curmudgeonly than I am, that’s a great place to contemplate human behavior.
Community. Hunters – even solitary curmudgeonly ones – cherish community. Before it became possible to register harvests online, Deer/Turkey Registration Stations were the place to meet and greet other hunters. For many years, the closest registration station to us was the gas station owned by our neighbors. They weighed and sometimes measured game people brought in to register, listened to stories, snapped pictures, and kept a photo album. Sure, everyone wanted to see the trophy bucks. But the pictures they took also documented many kids’ first hunts, and their hunts over the years.
Hunter’s Ed. Many of the kids pictured in those albums knew our neighbor not just from the gas station, but also as their Hunter Safety instructor. He and other volunteers conducted classes and field training events that helped prepare new hunters to earn the safety certificate needed to purchase a Wisconsin hunting license. A few times I helped serve lunch on the last day of the course, and got to watch as kids tested at some of the stations. Those kids were expected to know everything from the correct type of ammunition for different firearms to the maximum projectile range for different calibers of rifles and shotguns. They could demonstrate how to load, unload, and safely carry a firearm, how to cross a fence, how to climb a tree stand – even how to ask a landowner for permission to hunt. The chronic shortage of volunteers now makes in-person Hunter Ed classes hard to find. It’s probably more convenient for busy families to have kids complete an online course and attend just one 6- to 8-hour in-person Field Day event. But it makes me sad to think of the memories not being made for kids who already spend a lot of time staring at screens.
Memories. I did not grow up in a hunting household. To be honest, there wasn’t much game to hunt when and where I grew up in central Indiana. So when I moved to rural northern Wisconsin, I had much to learn (and still do). But it became clear early on that hunting was about much more than shooting. I started by hiking along when my now-husband was hunting ruffed grouse, an upland game bird. There’s a difference between a walk in the woods and a walk where you’re watching a good hunting dog catch a scent and flush a bird. The smell of dry autumn leaves always reminds me of the first time Bill opened the crop on a bird he shot to see what it had been eating. Over the years I’ve listened and learned and made memories with him, even when I wasn’t hunting myself. I may tease him about scouting turkey movements with binoculars from the living room, or question why he needs to sit in a deer stand closer to the woods when the deer are eating windfall apples in our yard. But I appreciate how hunting connects us to the land we share with this wildlife and with the community of hunters.
Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. For an introduction to hunting education, see this free study guide.