Nov 28, 2016

A Deer Camp Runs Through It

By Chad Cason

It is Thanksgiving Morning, in the middle of Wisconsin’s nine-day gun deer season, and I am sitting in a two-seater tree stand with my twelve year-old son, Zach.  It is four degrees above zero.  It is snowing and there is a stiff twenty mile per hour wind blowing out of the northeast.  Factoring in the wind chill, the temperature is minus…………well, too freaking cold to be sitting in a tree stand.  Still, there is no place I would rather be right now.

We are at deer camp at my in-law’s 170-acre land in the steep, forested hills of southwest Wisconsin.  Zach and I are a couple of shivering, blaze-orange lumps in a tree, but we are optimistic shivering, blaze- orange lumps.  We are overlooking a wooded point of land that juts out into a brushy ravine. Several does have been using the point as a bedding area.  There is also a line of antler rubs leading out onto the point.  The rubs are on eight-inch diameter trees, and I would desperately like to get a crack at the buck that made them.  If the does are still in heat, I am thinking the big boy ought to be cruising around to check them out.  Zach filled his buck tag with a nice eight-pointer on opening day, and now he is keeping me company because he has a couple of doe tags he would like to fill.

We glimpsed a couple of deer moving through the brush at the bottom of the ravine a first light, but they don’t come our way.  It has been quiet for the last couple of hours.  In order to take my mind off of the bitter cold, I begin to reflect on the deer camps I have been part of for the last 29 years.  As a teenager, I wanted desperately to be a deer hunter, but I did not grow up with a hunting tradition.  My Dad has always been an avid shooter, spending a lot of time at the trap and skeet club, or at the pistol range, but he was never very interested in hunting.  At my pleading, he did take me out deer hunting when I was a teenager though.  We would drive out to the nearest public hunting grounds, hike a couple hundred yards into the woods and park our butts on a log.  After a couple of days of seeing nothing but wandering blaze orange zombies, we would get discouraged and give up.  Neither of us had a clue what we were doing.

When I was twenty years old, and a college student majoring in biology, that all changed.  My Dad was on the Police and Fire Commission in Oshkosh, and he became friends with Cal Phillipps, the city Fire Chief.  Cal invited the two of us to his deer camp in the Northwoods.  That deer season, we joined a group of eight guys in a cramped cabin at the Four Seasons Resort east of Woodruff.  From there, we would travel into the woods south of Minocqua via logging roads, to our various deer stands.  We hunted paper company land that was open to public hunting.  We would spend all day in the woods.  At noon, we would meet back at the trucks and have lunch on a tailgate – sandwiches and chili heated on a camp stove. 

It happened at that location about four times during the next couple of deer seasons before the light bulb went off in my head.  We would be eating our tailgate lunch, talking about the morning’s hunt, when we would see deer moving along the ridge to the north.  It was right in the middle of the day, when the conventional wisdom of the time said that deer should all be bedded down, so the guys chalked it up to a fluke occurrence.  After the fourth time this happened, though, I told the guys that I wasn’t coming in for lunch the next day.  I was going to be sitting on a tree stand overlooking that ridge to the north.  The next day, while sitting on that ridge, I dropped a six-point buck with one shot from my lever-action 30-30 – my very first deer!

I was 22 years old when I shot that buck, and my desire to deer hunt grew into a passion.  In the 27 years since that first buck, I have harvested deer every single year - 71 deer in total with gun and bow – slightly more bucks that does.  I became that guy at deer camp “who always gets his buck.”  Deer camp became something that I looked forward to all year long.

I remember those first years at deer camp near Minocqua as being pretty rough.  The little cabin was extremely crowded, plus we had smokers back then.  The pall of cigarette smoke coupled with the airborne grease from frying food created quite the choking atmosphere.  I had to keep all of my hunting clothes outside to keep them from smelling like toxic waste.  After our evening meal, we had to go out and experience the nightlife of Minocqua too.  There were a lot of stories there as well – too many to recount. 

Cal Phillipps was a great big man with a deep, booming voice.  He was not afraid of anyone or anything.  He enjoyed the nightlife, and I am pretty sure he enjoyed a little confrontation too.  Being an ex-Navy man, he had little use for men who were not clean-cut in their appearance.  He addressed every man who had hair down past his shoulders as “Ma’am,” giving his best impression that he truly thought they were a woman.  It was amazing how few men bothered to correct him too.  Cal had a particular thing for long-haired bikers.  I remember one evening when five of our deer camp crew went into this back-woods tavern.  There were half a dozen rough and tough looking characters, with long hair and leather biker jackets, sitting at the bar.  We sat down at a table and ordered some beers, and then Cal started in on them. 

“Look at those long-haired faggots at the bar,” he said in his big booming voice, loud enough for everyone in the place to hear.  “I bet they have fleas and lice, and probably even rats crawling around in that long, greasy hair,” he speculated.

At that point, the six bikers got up from their barstools.  I thought, “Oh no, here we go,” expecting some fists to be flying any second.  Instead, all six of them turned and high-tailed it right out of the bar.  Cal just chuckled to himself.   Even though he was well into his sixties at the time, Cal could be an intimidating figure.

I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression about Cal.  He was not a bad guy, this sort of thing was just his idea of a fun time.  In fact, Cal Phillipps was one of the most genuine and generous people I have ever met. He would help anyone in need and would be a friend to anyone who needed a friend.  At my wedding reception, he stood up and gave a fantastic speech.  He entertained the crowd with stories of our deer hunting adventures.  They were mostly humorous stories at my expense, but I loved it.  Cal carried around a video camera during the early years and filmed various aspects of deer camp.  Cal’s son, Kobi, had put together a clever video montage of my experiences at deer camp, and Cal played it for the wedding crowd too.  Cal really made me feel like someone who mattered that night.  Cal standing up there with a microphone, regaling our deer camp adventures, really made me feel like I was part of something – like I belonged.  I realized then that nothing had ever made me feel like I was part of something significant like our deer camp had.

In the eight or so years that we had our deer camp by Minocqua, we did manage to shoot some deer every year - usually a couple.  They were all bucks because they didn’t give out antlerless permits much back then.  The bucks were never very impressive – usually yearling forkhorns and six-pointers.  I remember Kobi shooting an eight-pointer with a 14-inch spread, that I thought was a monster.  The deer all had corn in their bellies too, from living off backyard feeders and bait piles in the area.

After those years of Deer Camp by Minocqua, Cal finally realized his dream of owning a cabin in the Northwoods.  He bought a place about 30 miles to the west toward Park Falls.  It was part of an old fishing camp that had been divided up. Cal actually bought two cabins, which gave us a lot more room, and allowed our deer camp count to hover around 12 to 14 members.  The hunting was different too.  The cabin was in the midst of the Chequamegon National Forest, near a non-motorized area.  This was big woods, and it was different hunting.  We hiked back into some pretty remote places to hunt.  It was not a casual type of hunting.  It took planning.  You had to be prepared with maps, GPS and a compass.  You needed to bring food, water and proper clothing.  Clothing had to be carried in a pack and put on when you got to your stand, or you would get dangerously sweat-soaked.   We would come up for scouting weekends to map out trails, take note of buck sign and build hunting blinds.

The deer we shot were different too.  They were often older and much bigger.  Their bellies were full of cedar and hemlock browse, not corn.  I personally took several mature bucks in the years that I hunted there.  My best was a six and a half year old, tall-tined eight pointer that hangs on my office wall today.  We didn’t shoot more deer.  Even though our camp swelled to a dozen or more members, we still would only take an average of two bucks per season.  Deer were definitely fewer and further between.  It was not uncommon for some of our deer camp to go the season without seeing a deer.  But that was alright in my book.  The lower deer density meant less competition and larger deer.

The big woods wildlife was more exciting too.  We would commonly see fisher and bobcat tracks.  In more recent years, wolf tracks were a common sighting.  I remember when one of the guys climbed over a deadfall and nearly stepped on a hibernating bear.  The most exciting sighting though, was when Cal and Kobi had a mountain lion cross the road in front of their truck.  That year at deer camp, a number of the guys were afraid to hike to their stands in the dark.

The biggest change in deer camp however, was the change in our behavior at the end of the hunting day.  Being 30 miles from town meant that it was too inconvenient to experience the deer season nightlife.  The guys were getting older and started bringing their sons to deer camp too.  The forays to strip clubs came to an end, and the cigars and whiskey bottles disappeared from camp.  We started spending our evenings playing cards and drinking caffeine-free Diet Coke.  This was more than fine with me.  I had enough of the sheer exhaustion that would result after several days of hunting all day, staying out half the night and living off three to four hours of sleep.  As I got older, that lifestyle was beginning to affect my ability to effectively deer hunt.  And I wanted to deer hunt!

About the time we started having deer camp in the Chequamegon National Forest, I ended up getting married.  Not only did I find a wife who was tolerant of my hunting adventures, I found a wife with a family that owned some hunting land – the land I am hunting on today.  I began to hunt at two deer camps.  I would spend the first half of the season up north with the guys hunting the big woods.  Then I would drive 300 miles to southwest Wisconsin to join my family and my in-laws to hunt the last half of the season.  I enjoyed the changes of scenery: trading the black spruce and balsam fir swamps of the north for the oak and hickory ridges of the south.  Often times the snow would be fairly deep in the northern part of the state, but non-existent in the southern.

At our southwest Wisconsin Deer Camp, I would hunt with my father-in-law and my two sons, when they got old enough.  My wife and mother-in-law would stay at the old farmhouse and cook.  We would celebrate Thanksgiving and enjoy some awesome home cooking.  The deer density was much higher in this part of the state, and even with far less land to roam, the hunting was much better. I could usually count on getting a buck or doe here.

………Well at least somebody could get a deer.  My older son, Sam, sends me a text at 9 am saying that he just shot a doe over on the next ridge.  I ask if he needs help dragging it.  “No” is the only response I get.  At sixteen, Sam is already an accomplished hunter.  This doe will be his tenth deer. His ninth was shot last night, shortly after we arrived.  He saw a six-pointer feeding in a distant field and belly-crawled within range before shooting it.  He tagged it, gutted it, and dragged it back to camp all by himself.

It makes me very proud to see my boys growing up to be such good deer hunters.  We have spent a lot of time together over the years scouting, setting up stands and practicing with our guns and bows.  When they were little I would put them to bed with stories of my hunting adventures.  I had always hoped that someday I would bring my sons to the Northwoods deer camp.  I did bring Sam one year, but then three years ago I quit going.  There were several reasons for this.  A big reason what that Cal died.  Cal had been an important part of my life in the 26 years I had known him.  His absence at deer camp would have been difficult for me.  My Dad had also quit going to deer camp several years earlier due to health reasons.  The other reasons I quit going had to do with hunting.

The deer herd had been decimated in many parts of northern Wisconsin in recent years.  Most people blamed the DNR for issuing too many antlerless tags.  Some blamed the increasing wolf and bear population. Others blamed the tribal harvest.  Whatever the reason, there were definitely fewer deer in our hunting area.  During my last deer season there, I remember hiking in the snow for two miles through what was once prime deer habitat without cutting a single deer track – and it hadn’t snowed in two weeks.  During my second to last Northwoods deer camp, I had won the big buck contest with a yearling spike.  I won the contest because it was the only deer taken by our group of twelve for the entire nine-day season.  During my last Northwoods deer camp with Sam, we had only seen a single doe in four days of hunting.  I was afraid that my sons would not become too interested in deer hunting after several seasons of not seeing or shooting deer.

Another factor was that I had finally realized my dream of owning some hunting land.  It isn’t much land, but it is close to home and it is good hunting land.  My boys and I have taken some nice bucks off of it already, including the eight-pointer that Zach shot on opening morning.  Venison has been the main source of protein for my family for many years.  With two growing boys, I soon found that I needed a lot more protein.  The last factor in my decision to quit the Northwoods deer camp was that I desperately needed to put more meat in the freezer!

It appears that the option of going to the Northwoods deer camp is coming to an end.  Kobi had emailed me last week to see if I would come to deer camp one last time.  He said they were going to have to put the cabin on the market.  He just couldn’t afford the taxes and upkeep since inheriting the place.  I couldn’t pry the boys away from hunting on our land – they wanted to shoot some deer – so I told Kobi we couldn’t make it.

It also appears that our Southwest Wisconsin deer camp is coming to an end.  My in-laws had told me last night that they thought this would be our last deer camp down here.  They are in their late seventies, and even though my father-in-law still climbs the hills with his deer rifle, I can tell that staying here is pretty difficult for both of them. The old farmhouse we have shared so many Thanksgivings in has gotten to be in pretty rough shape.  The paint is peeling and the floors are sagging.  The fieldstone foundation leaks, which leads to mold and mildew problems.  Ladybugs and boxelder bugs infest the house in fall, and the mice get into everything.  My wife and I and other family members have tried to get the place fixed up, but her parents have thwarted every effort.  Perhaps they just see things in a different perspective at their age, but it seems to us younger generation that they are just having trouble making good decisions.  They don’t want anyone to paint the place because they worry that someone will fall off a ladder and sue them.  They don’t want to bring in a contractor for fear that they will contact the county to have the place condemned.  So a big question mark hangs over our future deer camps here simply from the fact that the place may not be habitable in another year or two.

I told my boys that grandma and grandpa said this might be our last deer camp together, but I don’t think it sinks in.  I don’t think they could understand that the times I have spent here with my wife’s family have meant more to me than the actual deer hunting – that I longed for this kind of family closeness in my own family while growing up.  They have been part of this tradition since they were toddlers – ambling about the yard in their oversized blaze-orange hats, admiring the big deer that Da Da shot.  They just can’t imagine this not happening.

Having been so firmly entrenched into the deer hunting tradition from an early age, my sons could probably not comprehend what it meant to me back in my twenties to finally become part of a deer camp – to be part of something that I desperately wanted to be part of; what it meant to my self-esteem during a challenging time of my life.  They have taken it all for granted, but I guess that is alright.  That is what I have wanted for them.

…………The snow is coming down harder now, and the wind has picked up a notch.  It is getting very difficult to keep sitting in this tree stand.  After four hours we finally glimpse some more deer. Three does are moving below the crest of the ridge.  We just see their ears and the tops of their heads.  They bed below the crest of the ridge to avoid the wind.  I am hoping a buck will be in pursuit, and sure enough, ten minutes later, a buck comes along their trail.  Only this time, the buck comes right on top of the ridge offering us a clear shot.  We both scope the buck, but I see through the snowflakes that it is just a forkhorn – not the buck I am after.  Zach would like me to shoot it, I can tell, but he is beginning to understand.  “It will grow into a nice buck in another couple of years,” he whispers.

That forkhorn will end up being the only opportunity I will have to shoot a deer during the entire nine day season.  Frustrating? Yes, but I would gladly spend another week hunting deer in the snow and cold, and so would my boys.  I know, because they keep telling me this on our drive home. 

I don’t know what will become of deer camp, but I do know this: we are deer hunters – all three of us – and we will find a way to keep deer hunting.  I pray that a deer camp will be part of that tradition too, and that my boys will someday recognize the value of it, and bring their own children into the tradition.