Well, we rolled out of February with a very resounding “bang”. A record snowfall total for the month had a lot of us wondering if we were on a course to break the all-time record for snowfall for an entire winter. That record, set during the winter of 1996-97, saw us receive 89.3 inches of snow. As of right now, we’re sitting at 87.4 inches of snow for the winter of 2018-19. With March being one of those months that often produces at least a couple major winter storms, it’s very likely that we could end up with a new record for snowfall total.
As you might expect, the deep snows have resulted in some very tough ice fishing conditions. There’s close to a couple feet of snow on the ice now, with an additional 10-12 inch layer of slush under all that snow. So access onto our inland lakes has become extremely tough. It’s pretty much limited to snowmobiles or walk on only at this point. For those of you who do decide to walk on to our area lakes I’d strongly suggest using snowshoes. And then you’re still going to have a tough time of it.
But all this being said, the extra time and effort it takes to get onto some of our lakes right now might be well worth it, as the fish are biting. The inland game fish season season closed on March 3rd, but according to some reports I’ve received, the bluegills and crappies are still somewhat cooperative. And that bite should only continue to get better as we move further into the month. Along those lines, the extended weather forecast is calling for high daytime temps in the mid to upper 40’s for most of the upcoming week. So maybe we’ve turned the corner on the horrible winter of 2018-19…??
Turning Back The Clock
As usually happens anytime I’m forced to spend way more time than usual cooped up indoors, I find myself reminiscing about past fishing and hunting trips. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this winter. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about one of the freakiest and most physically demanding Wisconsin deer seasons I’ve ever experienced. It all started way back in late October of 1991.
I was employed as a union construction worker specializing as a concrete finisher back in those days. Luckily, our construction crew was already winding things down by the time the last week of October rolled around that year. And it’s a darn good thing we were, because as Halloween approached we started getting some very ominous weather reports for our area here in northern Wisconsin. The National Weather Service was predicting that, starting sometime early on Halloween Day, we could expect upwards of two feed of snow! Unbelievably, there also were reports that areas to the west and north of us could get more than 30 inches of snow!!
With my construction job coming to an abrupt end for the year, I did what any true blue bowhunter would do; I immediately headed for the woods. As luck would have it, my brother Jeff and I had a tract of primo bowhunting property in Eau Claire County, Wisconsin back in those days. Even better, that tract of land was only about 15 minutes from my construction job work shop. So just a half-hour after being officially “laid off” from my construction job on Halloween Day I was settled on a treestand in a 20 acre woodlot Jeff and I had affectionately nicknamed the “buck woods”. By then the snow was coming down so hard that I was completely covered after being on stand only a few minutes.
Now there’s no one who was more of a die hard hunter back in those days than me. But I must admit that just 20 minutes after getting settled on my stand I started having my doubts about being out there. Visibility was gradually getting worse and trying to keep the snow from piling up on me was a virtual impossibility. Even though the rut was just cranking up, I found it very difficult to keep thinking positive thoughts. In fact, I had just finished brushing off another couple inches of snow and was in the process of getting my gear organized to climb down when I noticed movement about 40 yards straight out in front of my stand. And then I made out the form of a big buck slowly walking straight toward me.
I immediately grabbed my bow, got into position for a shot and then took a closer look at the approaching deer. That one look confirmed something I’d suspected; I knew this buck! He was an old deer my brother Jeff and I had been watching on this farm for the past several years. Near as we could figure, he was most likely 5 1/2 years old. But while he possessed that huge, bull-like body typical of a mature whitetail, he was very much an underachiever in the antler department. At the most I suspect his 8-point rack might have gross scored somewhere around 130 inches. Not bad, but not even close to the size of some of the larger bucks we’d been seeing on the farm.
As if to entice me into changing my mind, the buck hit the furrow I’d left upon walking to my stand earlier and headed straight toward me. He continued until he was within just a few yards before stopping and looking up directly into my eyes. The old whitetail did a few head bobs in an attempt to get me to move, then turned and slowly walked back on his tracks. Several seconds later he was once again swallowed up by the white-out conditions. That’s when I decided it was probably a good lead to climb down and head for home.
Due to the horrid conditions brought about by that freak Halloween Day snowstorm, Jeff and I were unable to bowhunt our Eau Claire County property for several days. Making matters worse, the 30 inches of snow we’d received severely limited our ability to access the 220 acre farm we were hunting. Trust me when I say that we tried every conceivable method to solve the access problem, including wearing snowshoes to get to and from our stand sites. But in the end we were forced to admit that we were fighting a losing battle. What’s more, due to the deep snow, the bulk of our resident deer herd had relocated to other areas.
Of course once I realized that our Halloween Day storm had pretty much put an end to our 1991 archery season I began to have regrets about not shooting the old 8-point. And as if this wasn’t enough to deal with, I also had found out that the area in northwest Wisconsin where our gun hunting camp was located had actually received even more snow than we had. Reports of 34 to 36 inches were common for the area around our cabin, with amounts of 40 inches being talked about as well. Now I began to wonder if the 1991 Wisconsin gun season, which was scheduled to open in just under three weeks, was even going to be a reality for us.
A Gun Season For The Record Books
Fortunately, two weeks before opening day of gun season we were able to hire a dump truck contractor to plow out the driveway and parking area at our cabin in northern Burnett County. Then my long-time hunting partner Paul “Gabby” Gumness and I grabbed shovels and cleared a pathway to the front door of our cabin. We also cleared out enough snow from in front of our garage door to give us access to the huge supply of firewood we’d stored inside. But most importantly of all, we managed to get our water supply to the cabin up and operating in good order. Trust me when I say that having the luxury of indoor plumbing is a HUGE factor when you’re going to be spending nine days at a place with a half-dozen other grown men!
And then something amazing happened with our weather. Over the next week our daytime high temps creeped into the low 40’s. Of course, these warmer temps started thawing and settling some of the snow we’d received. But even after a week of thawing temps we were still looking at well over 20 inches of settled snow on the ground. Making matters even more interesting, during the final week leading up to our gun season opener the cold temps returned…and I’m talking bitterly cold temps here. In fact, it got so cold that the top several inches of our snow cover turned into a thick, concrete-like crust.
Even though I figured the thick crust wold bear my weight, I still decided to wear snowshoes to get to my opening day gun-deer stand. I quickly found out the snowshoes weren’t necessary. And after spending opening day perched on a treestand overlooking a huge two year-old clearcut, I also learned that the deer were having a very tough time of it. While the crust was thick enough to support me, the deer were breaking through with every step. Their small, sharp hoofs cut through the crust like a knife through soft butter.
To put things in perspective as to how bad the conditions really were for the deer, allow me to reflect back on my personal experiences from the first few days of the 1991 Wisconsin gun deer season. From my position 25 feet up in an ancient white pine I could see a good 400 yards in three directions. At any one time I could count at least 50 deer in the young poplar regrowth. Most of the deer feeding on poplar shoots, while others were either bedded or just standing around. None of the deer ever left the clearcut.
Though I did see several good sized bucks during the first two days of gun season, none of them ventured close enough for a shot. But then sometime around mid-afternoon on day three I spotted a wide and fairly heavy 8-point. The buck was close to 400 yards away when he first walked into view, but 30 minutes later he had browsed to within 150 yards. I had to wait until he’d separated himself from a couple dozen other deer before anchoring him with one shot from my .270. Amazingly, none of the other deer so much as flinched upon hearing the gunshot.
But even more unbelievable is the fact that the herd of whitetails barely moved as I walked up to the downed buck. In fact, some of them actually stood within 15 yards as I field dressed the 8-point. And they continued to browse as I dragged the buck past them to a nearby tote road. I must admit, the entire experience as a bit surreal.
In the end our group of seven hunters ended up going 100% on bucks during the 1991 Wisconsin gun deer season. Apparently, we did better than most north country hunting groups, and the state’s final harvest numbers bear me out on this. The Wisconsin DNR had estimated that as many as 370,000 deer would be taken during the 1991 gun season. However, the actual kill total for the season came in at 288,906 deer, which was well below the projected number.
But it’s what happened a couple years later that really puts things in perspective regarding just how many deer perished as a result of the severe winter of 1991-92. The total number of deer killed in the state two years later during the 1993 season dropped all the way down to 217,584. DNR wildlife biologists blamed the low 1993 harvest numbers in part to a significant decrease in “fawn recruitment” in 1992–which was a direct result of the severe winter of 1991-92.
Throughout the 50-plus years that I’ve been chasing whitetails here in Wisconsin I have never experienced anything like the 1991 gun season. The arrival of that major winter storm on Halloween Day literally shut down the rut. And I mean it really did shut down the rut!! Of course, this is a huge reason why our fawn crop was virtually non-existent in 1992.
I personally heard dozens of reports of people shooting antlerless deer during the 1991 gun season, only to discover upon recovering those deer they had actually killed bucks that had already shed their antlers. I also heard reports of people finding freshly shed antlers while hunting during the 1991 gun season. Even more troubling, I both heard about and personally witnessed instances of being able to walk to within just a few feet of bedded deer that were too exhausted and/or stressed to stand up, let alone run off. As I stated previously, it was a very surreal situation.
I can’t recall exactly how many deer the Wisconsin DNR estimated that we lost during the winter of 1991-92, but I do remember that it was tens of thousands. I also remember that it took many years for our northern deer herd to recover from that horrible winter. But I guess that’s what happens when a freakish Halloween Day snowstorm dumps 30-plus inches of snow in a 24 hour period. It certainly was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my lifetime. And I pray that I never experience it again.