How Deer Hunting Has Changed Over the Years

Nov 12, 2018

Deer hunting has a long and storied history in Wisconsin.

In today’s Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist recalls many of the changes that have occurred in his time deer hunting.

This year marks my 35th firearms deer season. Granted, for the last 20 years, deer season has been modified by my work as a wildlife biologist. I have had to work opening weekend, or the entire season, to collect data, manage public lands, dispatch injured animals, and monitor harvested deer for disease. I always manage to get out and do at least a little hunting during the season, though.

Deer hunting has changed a lot since I started in 1983. Firearms deer season was nine days long. We used back tags, a portion of which would be ripped off and attached to a harvested deer. If you were lucky enough to get drawn for a hunter’s choice permit, you got a special ugly stamp that you would affix to the center of your backtag. When your hunt was over, and camp was dismantled, you drove to a big game registration station where a clerk would have you fill out a registration slip while they put a metal carcass tag in the deer’s ear. As the years passed, I started to see some changes. An increase in antlerless tags, additional gun deer seasons, the T-zone, and a concerted effort to curb the growth of the deer herd in parts of the state. Today, some facets of the deer season have changed very little—for example, the nine-day firearms season still starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and you can still buy a deer license over the counter and hunt for a legal buck anywhere in the state, that being a deer with an antler of at least three inches on at least one side. However, the backtags are gone, the metal carcass tags are gone, and in person registration has gone totally digital.

Gear has changed drastically as well. In the ‘80s, the big deal was that people like my dad, uncles, and grandpa were still reeling from having to change from being able to wear red wool to needing to wear blaze orange above the waist. We wore steel shank rubber boots with cotton monkey socks on warm days and dad’s scratchy wool army socks on cold days, usually with bread bags in-between because the boots always seemed to leak. Our gloves were usually pretty beat up from doing chores by the time deer season came around, and were wrapped with duct tape to close the gaps. We wore cotton long johns under our jeans and flannel shirts to try to keep warm. Today, blaze pink has come on the scene, although I have to admit I haven’t seen any hunters in the woods wearing it yet. Hunters wear insulated synthetic blend socks and base layers beneath scent-blocking camouflage clothing, and you can buy gloves with special pockets for disposable handwarmers if you want to feel luxurious. As a kid, I remember hanging our blaze orange outside to air it out, but that was basically it for scent control. Today you can buy everything from cleansing wipes and deodorant to sprays, lotions, and even special chewing gum to make you smell exactly the way you think you should to bag a buck.

When I first started deer hunting, gun deer season was literally the only thing going on. All other seasons were suspended two days before opening day. You couldn’t legally sight in your rifle unless you were at a shooting range. You couldn’t archery hunt during the nine day either. All of that has changed. You can hunt and shoot to your heart’s content, including coyote and archery deer as well as all open small game species. And while, when I was a kid, your gun had to be fully enclosed in a case, today you can drive down the woods roads with your rifle or shotgun lying empty but uncased on the dashboard.

Looking forward as a twelve-year-old in the ‘80s, I doubt I would have seen any of those changes coming. The biggest change I have lived through, though, has got to be electronic devices. As a kid, we all carried a whistle, and we had a whistle blast system to communicate between party members. Then we got hand-held radios, although we had to be careful not to violate the law when using them to aid in hunting. Cell phones followed, and now today we all have smartphones. We can look at maps, satellite photos, up-to-the-minute spot weather forecasts—we can even buy a license if we somehow forgot to do it sooner.

You may be thinking to yourself, “why is he telling us all stuff we have lived through ourselves?” Sometimes it is important to look back at what has changed and why. History teaches important lessons. I assure you my boys have no idea what it was like when I was their age over a quarter century ago, and it is up to me to share our collective hunting history with them.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.