Dec 10, 2018

Fringe Benefits

Backyard hunting helps make ends “meat” for many hunters across Wisconsin

By Tara Porter

All across the countryside, rustic and rickety little shacks on sticks hover over farm fields like prison watch towers, perfectly positioned and waiting patiently for the eminent escapee to emerge.

Surely anything living within a 20-mile radius knows it’s there, yet every year thousands of deer are shot from these out-in-the-open stands with often clear gun-holding silhouettes. Hunting from these stands is helpful for balancing the deer population, aids in crop damage control and offers the practical hunter an opportunity to fill the freezer.

I’ll admit that at times I feel a bit uneasy about some of the stand placements and their proximity to roadways, homes and people. I find one of the stands on our leased land near Black Creek, Wis. disturbingly close to a new home construction site and we can clearly hear the voices of hikers walking through the Fallen Timbers Nature Preserve.

I can also recall how uncomfortable I was when our village started to allow rifles for gun hunting season. From my stand I am able to see houses in town and passing cars on State Highway 55.

Safety near home

The proximity of many of these stands to people and roadways does not seem to be a problem. Wisconsin has a remarkably safe gun hunting history, with only seven non-fatal gun incidents reported in 2017, five of which were self inflicted. The 2016 season was even better, with only five non-fatal incidents. So though there’s no doubt it is a markedly different experience than setting up in the big woods Up North, hunting from a fixed stand is definitely a more convenient and efficient set-up for shooting deer and providing a sustainable and consistent supply of meat. 

I am always surprised by just how efficient this kind of hunting can be. Where it is legal, deer can be shot from a garage, a front porch, or even a sliding glass door in the dining room. This potentially makes one’s country home a deer, or goose, blind. We have our weaponry at the ready for any chance opportunity.

Numerous times I’ve woken up to a flock of honking geese and yells of “Geese, geese, geese!” At least we can hear them coming. The deer require a bit more vigilance. We are surrounded by corn and soybeans, so they can pop out any time.

A couple of years ago my husband, Mike, was working from home when he glanced up to see a nice eight-pointer walking across the front yard. He grabbed his bow and was able to sneak out to the attached garage, take aim and release an arrow.

Unfortunately, a cable on his bow snapped, the arrow hit the ground, and the buck ran off, but it was still an exciting opportunity and the encounter definitely made his day more interesting. As with most hunts, each deer taken is a different story, but many of the details involved in “home” hunts go beyond the usual sit in a stand, kill a deer, track the deer and drag it out story. 

Another example is the “side-yard double.” They were shot running across the field off of the deck one hour before the closing of the nine-day gun season. The four of us did not see a single deer all season long at our place or up on my folks’ land in Waushara County, but it had snowed the night before. When we got home, I decided to take a walk through the woods to see if there were any new tracks.

I didn’t really expect to see anything, but I flushed two deer out of the woods and straight into the field beside our house, where Mike was waiting on the deck in his long underwear with rifle in hand. Thankfully, we had meat in the freezer that year.

Holiday traditions

A family favorite is the Thanksgiving morning buck. We have our whole family over for the holiday, so there is always much to do. But one beautiful, crisp morning after it had just snowed, we went out.

I spotted the buck coming through my side of the woods but was unable to get a shot off. However, I was able to alert Mike to the deer’s presence just minutes before he emerged on his side of the woods not 20 feet from his blind and a mere 30 yards from the house. That deer could have been Mike’s daughter’s first deer, but she chose to sleep in, only to be awakened from her slumber by the sound of the rifle going off. She was not happy about her decision, but I get it. It’s easy to take for granted that we could just walk outside and hunt later.

Like last year, when it was my turn to sit in the “backyard” stand the afternoon of the gun hunting opener. I almost didn’t go out. I was pouting because it was my turn to sit in that stand, which is not as comfortable as the other one, and since a six-pointer had been shot at from that stand that morning, I figured it wouldn’t pay. But that plucky little six-pointer returned to the same exact spot he was shot at not six hours previously...not to be missed again.

Our friend who was stopping by to drop off his pontoon boat for storage didn’t know I had decided to hunt at the last minute, so just yards away, he had a bit of a startle and a nice tenderloin dinner.

Home field advantage

As lucrative as the gun hunting season can be when backyard hunting, however, I do prefer the intimacy and quiet of bow hunting and our land is really more suited to it. The earlier season and convenience of being able to time hunts according to optimal wind and weather conditions makes backyard bowhunting ideal for the food hunter. I don’t really have to plan to hunt – I just wake up or come home from work, look at the conditions and decide to hunt. It’s kind of like the “make or freeze today” meat section in the grocery store – you can’t really plan on what’s going to be there, but it’s awesome when you find steaks at 99 cents a pound.

And while the chance encounters and surprises are great, I really enjoy the scouting. We are always scouting. We have binoculars and a spotting scope on our dining room table so we are ready for that “oh look, there’s a deer” moment. There have been times when one of us went out to hunt in a stand and saw nothing while those who stayed in saw deer from the house blind. The deer are used to us, so we can even go in and out of the house or can be sitting on the deck with the dogs and they just go about their business. Having horses on the property has also added more deer traffic. Since deer and horses are both prey animals, they seem to enjoy one another’s’ presence.

Two years ago I noticed three does walk right across our front field and across our driveway several times a week as I was leaving for work. So when setting up for the season, I chose to place a blind 10 yards off the driveway in the tree line where they would disappear. Sure enough, not even a week into the season and a couple of well-planned sits later, we had our first deer in the freezer. It takes at least three deer and optimally six – depending on the size – to feed our family and friends for a year, so a successful early hunt is always a relief.

Odds in favor

The patterns and the deer are different every season, but with so few possibilities for how and where deer can move on a smaller property, taking them becomes not only about chance but about probability. Most of the deer we see are “eaters,” and we do not take every one we see, but since our primary goal is to obtain meat, we will take a deer that many hunters would pass on. I believe it’s a good practice, not only for the food, but to help keep the deer ratio in balance.

I realize for some this may seem barbaric and may not meet their concept of “fair chase,” but we are hunting for food and honestly the younger bucks and does are the tastiest. They are corn and soy fed and have plenty of habitat here on which to thrive. We do not have a deer population shortage here where I live, and according to Wisconsin DNR deer metrics, after a slight drop in 2014, there has been a fairly steady rise in the deer population across the state.

So, while the number of deer may not be dropping, many hunters complain the number of deer seen seems to have dropped, which is why backyard hunting makes sense. As the deer evolve, so must we. Some choose to do it with cutting-edge hunting gear, food plots and baiting practices, quality deer management, or guided services on prime hunting land or in high-fence enclosures. We simply choose to use our resources here at home.

We also have nice, mature bucks come through our property regularly, but our primary goal is to obtain meat, not a trophy. Last year, I saw the biggest buck I have ever seen in a field 150 yards from my stand, and the rut is just as exciting in our backyard as anywhere. As a nature nut, I am acutely aware this kind of hunting is less peaceful and rugged than hunting the big woods, but with all the crop damage tags and abundance of farmland to hunt, few who engage in this kind of hunting have an empty freezer by the end of the gun hunting season.

Cherished lifestyle

This idyllic lifestyle – one where you can walk out your door and pick some veggies for the stir fry you are making out of the venison you shot in your back woods the previous fall – should be cherished and appreciated. It may not embody the solitude and wildness of big woods, but it still holds a church-like reverence and serenity that can also provide an escape from the world around the fringes. Birds provide the choir, the trees are the congregation, and the sermon is the deepest thoughts in one’s mind.

For most of us “backyard hunters,” the ingredients – a love of the outdoors, curiosity, fascination with animal natures, patience and resourcefulness – are about respect, not an “if it’s brown it’s down” mentality. I see these same ingredients in a lot of people moving to the country and trying hunting later in life. Wisconsin’s DNR offers “Learn to Hunt For Food” courses geared toward adults either with the resources necessary to hunt for food or those interested in finding ways to do so. What’s nice about these programs and others like Wisconsin Outdoor Women and Whitetails Unlimited is that they offer exposure to resources – like land and mentors that can help – if you don’t live in the country or didn’t come from a hunting family.

Hunting is a heavily marketed industry. My mom just rolls her eyes every time my dad reads his Bowhunting magazine and decides that if only he had this one gadget, or this one scent spray, or this one particular boot, or this crossbow, or this doe scent, he will surely have a successful hunt. We’ve all been there. But the media is also flooded with images of big game hunts and trophy animals and it seems the majority of hunters are after the horns and that wall-hanger that will provide proof of their prowess. Entire television stations are dedicated to perpetuating an image of what you must have in order to have a successful hunt.

Backyard hunting simply provides an alternative, less consumer-driven approach to hunting that has a more practical purpose of sustenance. It’s a nice option to balance out the game farms, out-West outfitters, and expensive hunting property leases. And while a lot of these kinds of trophy opportunities are limiting – financially and logistically – hunting in your backyard or on leased farm plots is a much more economical and sustainable way to consistently fill the freezer.

Ultimately, this is not just about hunting. Having the space at home to grow and harvest food for yourself and friends is a healthier way to eat and it’s a fair alternative to just going to the grocery store and being dependent on profit-driven consumerism. This may be what’s driving many people to the rural life, homesteading and hobby farms as they seek out ways to move off the grid and become more independent.