Across Wisconsin, cabins have been cleaned out and hunters have returned home from the 2022 nine-day gun deer season.
The hunt represents another chapter in the rich, 171-year history of regulated deer hunting in the Badger State.
The stories from the season are now added to the ever-growing volume of our state's largest and most impactful hunting opportunity.
From a numbers standpoint, hunters registered 203,295 white-tailed deer, an increase of 14% from the previous year and 8% above the five-year average, according to a preliminary report issued Tuesday by the state Department of Natural Resources.
The 2022 kill included 98,397 bucks (up 15% from 2021) and 104,898 antlerless deer (up 14%).
All four deer management regions showed higher deer registrations, with the highest year-over-year increase in the central forest (up 31%), followed by the northern forest (19%), central farmland (14%) and southern farmland (10%).
The gun deer season ran Nov. 19-27.
Snowy conditions, earlier opening led to strong deer hunting season in Wisconsin
"In general everything was pointing in the right direction for hunters (this year)," said Jeff Pritzl, DNR deer program specialist.
The good conditions included snow cover over most of the state, an earlier opener and therefore more rut-related deer activity and, due in part to several consecutive mild winters, a robust deer herd.
The year-over-year deer registrations were higher in all Wisconsin counties but three — Kewaunee, Iowa and Outagamie.
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Hunters from all 50 states once again purchased licenses to hunt deer in Wisconsin, said Eric Lobner, DNR wildlife director. In addition, hunters from 21 foreign countries were represented on the license rolls, including from nations as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
Continuing a long-term trend, the number of gun deer licenses dipped in 2022.
The DNR reported 436,423 gun deer hunting licenses sold this year, down from 445,803 in 2021. When grouped with sports and patron licenses (which also include gun deer hunting privileges), the drop was to 554,898 this year from 564,440 in 2021. The lower license sales are attributed to hunters "aging out" and not being replaced.
But those are numbers. The season is also defined by stories. Here's a handful from the 2022 Wisconsin gun deer season.
All-terrain wheelchair provides an opportunity for one hunter
Dan Agen, a U.S. Marine veteran who lives in Palmyra, experienced a first this season: He used an all-terrain wheelchair to hunt. He checked the wheelchair out from its host site, A-Z Farms in Oregon.
The wheelchair is one of about two dozen spread out across the state in a program of Access Ability Wisconsin. It allows people with mobility challenges to use the tracked electric chairs for free.
The group's motto is "Outdoor Access 4 All." It strives to provide recreational opportunities for people with temporary and permanent physical challenges, including wheelchair users, who want to enjoy the great outdoors.
Agen, 64, served in the U.S. Marines from 1978 to 1982. He suffered a stroke in 2014 and has limited mobility.
But this deer season, with the help of his wife, Debbie, he checked out the treaded device hosted at A-Z and hunted in the Kettle Moraine State Forest - Southern Unit.
He did not get a deer. But Agen's experience proves that isn't the most important part of the hunt.
Following the season he wrote a letter of thanks to sponsors, donors, hosts and ambassadors of the wheelchair program.
"Without your help, I would not have enjoyed your awesome electric wheelchair," Agen wrote. "I got to spend more time in the woods with my grandson and get into areas I haven't been in many years."
The outing helped bring back "wonderful memories of hunting with my brothers and dad," Agen said.
He signed off "forever grateful."
Debbie passed along this heart-lifting note: "Friends have stated (they) haven't seen Dan this happy in a long time."
Minong camp sees spike in deer kill
Don Anderson, 85, of Cameron has only missed four Wisconsin deer hunting seasons since 1949. Those were the years "Uncle Sam had me" and he was serving in the U.S. Navy, he says.
But since then he has enjoyed a long run of uninterrupted seasons, including at the hunting camp he formed on 80 acres near Minong. This year the camp they call the Nut-Hut included Anderson, his son Dan Anderson as well as Dan Benard, Bill Halverson and Dave Halverson.
Their results are representative of the higher deer kill recorded this season in most of the state.
The Nut-Hut hunters tagged three adult bucks (a 9-pointer, an 8 and a spike), three does and a nub buck, or buck fawn. Last year they got two deer with the same number of hunters, Don Anderson said.
The Minong area had good snow cover and a bigger deer herd than last year, according to Anderson.
The group does its hunting on a mixture of the private property around their cabin and on public ground, mostly in the Washburn County Forest.
Anderson said the gun deer hunt remains one of his favorite times of the year. Although he has lost some mobility over the years and now uses a cane, he can still get in the stand his family made for him.
"I got the nubbin so I can still shoot even at 85," Anderson wrote in an email. "I plan on going next year if everything works out. They all take good care of me."
Grafton man gets a deer before his hunt even begins
Some hunts start out with a bang. Literally. And the meat pole can get heavy even before the season. Legally.
Jim Henning of Grafton proved both points but not on purpose. He was prepared to hunt in his customary spot near Montello and on the night of Nov. 18, the eve of the gun deer season, he made a run for pizzas.
The order ended up heavy on the meat.
Henning struck a 10-point buck while on his way back from the restaurant. He called authorities and, as allowed by state law, kept the deer. It turned out to be the only deer he got during the season.
"Amazingly there was no damage to the meat," Henning said.
His pickup truck sustained minor body damage. Henning said he was going about 35 miles per hour or things "might have been different."
Deerless in Florence County for this trio
It's simple math: Even in years of higher deer kills, most hunters don't tag a deer.
This year there were about 555,000 hunters with gun deer hunting privileges and, although it's not possible to know how many went afield, the 203,000 deer registered comes out to roughly one per every three hunters.
Thomas Marach of Grafton and two others were among the deerless this year. They hunted in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Florence County, an area they know well. They've been going there every season for the last 45 years, Marach said.
"My group of three hunted seven full days in Florence County along the Brule River, or 'the big woods' as I call it," Marach wrote in an email. "This year for all of the seven days we did not see a single deer of any kind! Neither did we see one deer traveling the 8 miles to and from our area."
The registration data show others had better luck. The DNR 2022 preliminary gun deer season report shows hunters in Florence County registered 1,327 deer, a 43% increase from 2021.
That is little consolation to Marach. He called the season "extremely disappointing."
"There has been a steady decline up there starting approximately 10 years ago," Marach wrote. "But this year was beyond belief. I guess our honey hole from past years failed us miserably."
A Portage teen's buck of a lifetime was stolen but then recovered
Garrett Diehm, 15, of Portage had a dream start to his opening day of the season. Hunting on land near Portage owned by his grandparents, Diehm shot and killed the first buck of his life.
And it was no ordinary buck — the deer sported a large, non-typical rack with 22 points. After he shot it, Garrett's mother, Sarah Diehm, met him and made a short video of the buck. The duo then went back to his grandparents' house to show pictures of the big buck and gather supplies to field dress the animal.
It was not destined to be a normal story, either. When Garrett and Sarah returned to the field to work on the buck, the animal was gone.
“I was just amazed and really mad," Garrett told Channel 3000 News. "I did not think that would happen to us back on our own property way back in the woods where there’s like nobody back there.”
But Sarah was determined to get it back. That afternoon she made a Facebook post explaining what had happened; the post went viral, with more than 4,000 people sharing it before the day was done.
She also filed a report with the DNR and the local sheriff’s office, and they began a joint investigation that day.
It worked on all levels. By the next morning the guilty party returned the buck's head and cape and left it on a vehicle at Garrett's grandparents' house. The DNR warden and sheriff’s deputy returned to the scene, unwrapped the head and found it had a hunter’s registration number tagged to it.
The violator then came back to admit to the illegal acts.
“The guy came back and confessed,” Sarah said. “He thought someone lost the deer while tracking it. The deer was about 80 feet from the stand it was shot from. He did not try to find the owner of the deer. Instead, he tagged the deer in his name and took it to a butcher to be processed. He did apologize to my son and myself. He also said he will pay the butcher’s processing fee.”
The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office said the man who confessed to taking the deer was charged with theft and trespassing. They credited Sarah’s original Facebook post for helping fast-track their investigation.
“A big thank you to the Facebook sleuths and for everyone who shared the story,” the sheriff’s office wrote in a Facebook post. “Without that, this quick outcome would not have been possible.”
If you hunted, I hope you had a safe and successful season. If you didn't bring a deer home or are looking to add more to your game pole, remember opportunities remain for gun hunters, including the four-day antlerless hunt later this week and the Holiday Hunt in many counties from Dec. 24 to Jan. 1, as well as bow seasons through the end of January in many counties.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 2022 Wisconsin gun deer hunting season offers many noteworthy stories