WAUPACA — There may have been no better place in Wisconsin to score a scented candle, crocheted scarf or handmade Christmas ornament.
Whether you visited the old Riverside Elementary School, Waupaca Ale House, Park Vista Retirement Living or one of several other spots around this city of 6,069 people, your odds of finding a holiday gift at a decent price at one of the many craft sales were pretty good.
Those dressed in blaze orange picked a pretty good spot to hang out, too.
On the opener Saturday of the traditional nine-day gun deer season, hunters hit the cornfields of Iowa County, bluffs along the Mississippi River and the bottoms of the Kickapoo River Valley. Deer stands could be found in urban counties like Waukesha and Dane, while other hunters chose the Up North solitude of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.(tncms-asset)ac64dfa0-b920-5fd7-bbc5-6859eb6ac7b7(/tncms-asset)
But in terms of sheer numbers, there is no better place in the state to find a deer than Waupaca County, according to data from the state Department of Natural Resources. And that’s what helps draw thousands of hunters to this region — located about 118 miles north and slightly east of Madison — known for its “Chain O’ Lakes” and the historic Indian Crossing Casino dance hall.
Roger Elandt, 41, of Waupaca, wasted little time Saturday. He bagged his buck 6 miles northeast of Waupaca just before 7 a.m. on a food plot.
“It walked out and I shot it,” said Elandt, who works at Waupaca Foundry. “It was like going to the grocery store. But besides me, no one else in our hunting party has gotten anything.”
Waupaca County has an estimated population of 59,300 deer, the most in the state. The number of deer harvested Saturday won’t be known for a few days but in 2016, hunters registered 7,509 deer during the nine-day season. That ranks second in the state only to Marathon County, where 7,822 deer were harvested.(tncms-asset)37c8ded7-22ab-52af-b010-3cab14988e4f(/tncms-asset)
Chronic wasting disease has been detected in wild deer in 38 Wisconsin counties. But so far, no wild deer in Waupaca County have tested positive. However, those concerns were heightened in October when state officials announced that two captive bucks in a private deer ranch in the county had tested positive for the disease. That prompted the DNR to set up self-service kiosks that allow hunters to drop off deer heads for testing at Hartman Creek State Park and Sandbur Corners, a gas station and sports shop in Ogdensburg.
Deer hunting in this county is big business and part of the culture.
The number of deer taken in Waupaca County in 2016 was nearly as many as the entire Central Forest deer management zone that totaled 8,215 deer from Eau Claire, Adams, Clark, Jackson, Juneau, Monroe and Wood counties. The DNR estimates there are about 7,000 more deer than permanent residents in Waupaca County. And if all the deer in the county created their own city, it would rank 12th in the state, just below West Allis (population 60,411) and above La Crosse (population 51,320). Dane County, by comparison, has an estimated deer population of 23,300.
“It’s simply a reflection of the perfect matrix in terms of landscapes and land use between forest and farmlands and open space and woods,” said Jeff Pritzel, a DNR deer policy program manager based in Green Bay who oversees the northeastern part of the state, including Waupaca County. “It’s just the right composition but it’s a challenge for the hunters to keep up with the productivity of the herd.”(tncms-asset)b2bc7572-5117-54ea-914d-a697e024a6e6(/tncms-asset)
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That’s why when hunters in Waupaca County bag a buck, they can then shoot three antlerless deer. In 2016, hunters registered 3,107 deer with antlers and 4,402 anterless deer. But the big numbers don’t guarantee success in the county’s defined deer range of 480 square miles that in 2016 hosted 27.8 hunters per square mile, down significantly from the 41.3 hunters per square mile in 2015.
“The landscape is quite diverse and the population is diverse,” said Pritzel. “You’ve got pockets of very high deer density, but you can still find 40 (acre) and 80 (acre) and half sections that are not the greatest deer habitat and so your personal experience could reflect that.”
That was the case Saturday morning for Phil Muenster. The 60-year-old Waupaca man recently retired from nursing at the Wisconsin Veterans Home in nearby King and spent three hours in his tree stand on his 40-acre piece of land along Golke Road in the town of Farmington. He saw one buck but it was out of range. The wind was stiff and the temperature in the mid-30s with no precipitation.
“I’ve harvested many deer, some pretty nice, over the years but it’s been hard lately,” said Muenster, who wore blaze orange camouflage with a Green Bay Packers turtle neck underneath. “It’s pretty unusual. I’ve always had really good success.”(tncms-asset)81b05670-0a1a-5226-bcdd-f76af7ba0fae(/tncms-asset)
Over on Emmons Creek Road in Hartman Creek State Park, Abby Wara, 16, wore blaze orange bibs and was trying to entice a herd of cows on an adjacent farm to eat freshly picked prairie grass from her hand. She was with her father, Bill Wara, 37, of Oshkosh, and his friend, Don Blackwell, 49, of Oshkosh. Abby’s brother, Billy, 14, stood at the tailgate of a Chevy Silverado pickup truck munching on a sandwich made from a spread of ground bologna, pickles, onions and mayonnaise. The group had been out since before sunrise but hadn’t seen a deer and was preparing to move to another spot.
“This actually isn’t bad weather. I wish there was actually a little snow,” said Bill Wara, who wore a more than 45-year-old hunting hat and showed off his father’s buck knife, which was even older.(tncms-asset)bf758c73-ae5e-5b1e-9084-3104fd53088e(/tncms-asset)
By noon, harvested deer began to fill the backroom of Niemuth’s Steak & Chop Shop in Waupaca. One was hit by a car on Highway 10 by the Waupaca River bridge near Fremont and another was a bow kill, but the remainder were taken Saturday morning, including a massive 10-pointer. Dale Kettlewell, 46, and his son, Gavain, 9, wore white aprons smeared with blood, rubber boots and gloves as they checked in deer and conversed with hunters.(tncms-asset)0c4570cc-864d-5987-8371-21a44d1816e7(/tncms-asset)
“This is the first year I’ve gotten to cut,” said Gavain, who had an orange-handled butcher knife tucked in a plastic sheath attached to his waist. “I like that I get to use a knife.”
Among those dropping off a deer was Coby Spindler, 46, of Weyauwega. He had been in a ladder stand in a more than 100-year-old white pine in the town of Sharon in nearby Portage County and saw 10 deer in the opening hours of the season before shooting a buck.
“I didn’t think I was going to get a shot because there was so many trees,” Spindler said. “And then I took a shot and missed and then he ran about 15 feet and stopped dead. He just stopped there and I was like, ‘Perfect. Bang.’ It was good.”(tncms-asset)ed511ada-5244-59fb-8d37-9bc9d3ed3724(/tncms-asset)
Roger Niemuth’s father opened the meat processing facility and butcher shop in 1957. The facility primarily butchers beef and swine but at this time of the year, venison takes precedent. The bow season accounts for about 200 deer while the nine-day gun season can bring in another 400 deer. Niemuth, 57, and his now-late brother bought the business from their father in the mid-1990s. The shop has two large smokehouses, one that can handle about 1,000 pounds of sausage, another with a 500-pound capacity. Venison processing accounts for between 10 percent and 15 percent of his annual revenues.
“It’s a good business,” said Niemuth, who has worked at the family business for more than 40 years. “We make a lot of sausage. We stay running here pretty good.”
“I didn’t think I was going to get a shot because there was so many trees. And then
I took a shot and missed and then he ran about 15 feet and stopped dead. He just stopped there and I
was like, ‘Perfect. Bang.’ It was good.”(tncms-asset)ed511ada-5244-59fb-8d37-9bc9d3ed3724(/tncms-asset) Coby Spindler, of Weyauwega
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at email@example.com.