Sep 10, 2016

Wisconsin Bowhunting History: A Primer

By: Bill McCrary 

            On a cold morning in December of 1930 Roy Case, of Racine, made modern bowhunting history. He was deer hunting in Vilas County and took the first whitetail buck to be harvested with a bow and arrow in the "modern era" of archery in Wisconsin.  His success initiated the sport of bowhunting in the Badger state and set the stage for untold thousands to follow in his footsteps. The result eventually became the bowhunting seasons we know today and a new outdoor pursuit offering almost limitless excitement afield.

            The story of this first hunt began when Case, along with his son, Roy Jr., petitioned the Wisconsin Conservation Department (WCD) in Madison to allow use of the bow and arrow for deer hunting during the 1930 season. At the time, it was only legal to deer hunt with a firearm discharged from the shoulder and special permission was needed to hunt with any other weapon. Eventually, permission was granted and it is believed Harley Mackenzie, the WCD Chief Game Warden in 1930, signed the letter of consent for Case and his companions.

            At that time, there was just the "deer season," there were no archery, crossbow, or muzzleloader seasons. Also, it's interesting to note that deer hunting was not allowed in odd numbered years. In 1925, the WCD had implemented an alternate year even year only deer season structure. Deer hunting in Wisconsin was suspended for odd numbered years to regrow the deer population to previous higher levels.

            The 1930 deer season opened December 1 and ran for ten days. Case and his hunting companions hunted in Vilas County, at the time a hotspot for deer activity. On the sixth day of the hunt, he made a successful 20 yard shot on a small buck that had run past him. His arrow took the buck from behind and traveled the length of the body to exit the front of the chest. In doing so it pierced the heart and the deer traveled just a few yards after being hit. The spike buck had a dressed weight of 112 pounds.

            The buck was taken with a 61-inch, 54 lb. Osage Orange straight bow of his own making. The port orford cedar arrow, also made by Case, featured a lemonwood footing and a Kiska model broadhead, the very first of the commercial designs he would market in later years. Case had proved that a deer could be successfully taken with a bow and arrow. In the 1932 firearms season, a small number of archers also bowhunted but were unsuccessful.

            Among the recreational, target archers of the day, there seemed to be a growing interest in this new activity of hunting deer with a bow. At the 1933 State Archery Championship Tournament in Ft. Atkinson, Case along with Otto Wilke, Larry Whiffen Sr., and well-known conservationist, Aldo Leopold, formed a small committee to petition the WCD to allow a bow and arrow only season in 1934. This season was completely separate from the firearms season and became the very first bow and arrow only season of any kind in the United States!

            The 1934 bow season opened November 24 and lasted for five days. Bowhunters were restricted to Sauk and Columbia Counties and were required to register with the WCD. By the end of the season only a single buck had been taken. Bill Ostlund, a non-resident hunter from the Lincoln Park Archery Club in Chicago, Illinois was the lucky hunter.

            Bowhunters took to the woods again in 1936 and, again, just a single buck was taken. The WCD rescinded the "alternate year only deer season structure" in 1937 and this allowed the third archery deer season to take place. Unfortunately, by the end of the season the 134 registered bowhunters had failed to take a single deer! This season, though, is notable because it did begin the tradition of consecutive archery deer seasons which continue to this day.

            As the years passed, an increasing number of advocates were taking up the bow and the annual harvests were growing. But, there were dark clouds gathering for bowhunting. Complaints about and objections to this new sport had been rising ever since Case took that first deer back in 1930. Some said bowhunting was the cruelest of the outdoor sports and should be banned forever. Others reported deer running around the woods looking like "pin-cushions" with arrows sticking out of them. They said the bow was an inefficient hunting tool. Many gun hunters objected to the bowhunters shooting "their" deer. Others argued the bow was a poacher's weapon due to its silence. Bowhunters were up against these and other criticisms and knew they had to band together to halt the negative images being created which threatened their sport.

            In March of 1941, Roy Case hosted a meeting of 140 bowhunters at the Lorraine Hotel in Madison to create the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association (WBH). The stated goal of the group was to promote the interests of the bowhunter.

            And the WBH has done just that!

            Over the years it has promoted, preserved and protected bowhunting in Wisconsin through the introduction of and support of legislation beneficial to the sport. The result is that all Wisconsin bowhunters now enjoy a "bowhunter friendly" environment, generous seasons and ample opportunities afield. Through the efforts of the WBH, bowhunters now can hunt from a tree stand, hunt bear with a bow, hunt in a post gun hunt late season, wear camouflage while afield, purchase their own hunting license, use archery tackle for virtually all legally hunted species, and obtain bonus and hunters choice tags for use during archery season; these activities were once illegal or unavailable to the bowhunter.

            This has led to success for the bowhunter. In the 1930s, less than five percent of the bowhunters got their deer. By 1975, there were 133,775 bowhunters in the state and 13,588 deer were taken, resulting in a success percentage of 10.1 %. In 2015, 209,981 bowhunters took 53,004 deer, resulting in a success percentage of 25.2 %.

            Clearly, bowhunting in Wisconsin has grown by leaps and bounds. From a handful of advocates taking a small number of deer, to hundreds of thousands of bowhunters taking over 50,000 deer annually, the sport has exploded onto the outdoor scene.

            As it became a popular and prominent Wisconsin outdoor activity, bowhunting created a rich legacy, which is being preserved at the Wisconsin Bowhunting Museum in Clintonville. The museum, at the headquarters of the WBH, is open five days a week during normal business hours and admission is free. The museum showcases archery and bowhunting tackle dating from the 1920's to the present. There are scores of bows of all types, a wide assortment of arrows and broadheads, plus a large variety of additional archery tackle on display. The museum highlights displays of personal bowhunting tackle from the seven members of the Wisconsin Bowhunting Hall Of Fame. In addition, the museum has the taxidermy mount of that spike buck Case took in 1930, along with the bow and arrow used to harvest the animal.

            More information and directions to the museum can be had by calling (715) 823-4670. We hope to see you there!