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Hunters, take a bow
Wisconsin archers have enjoyed one of fall's most sporting challenges for more than 60 years.
The Vilas County forests were filled with red-coated hunters. Each was searching for a white-tailed buck and all carried modern firearms. All, that is, except an enthusiastic few who had slung homemade bows and arrows over their shoulders.
Not since the days of the Chippewa and Winnebago had archers stalked deer in Wisconsin's woodlands. But on that cold November day in 1931, the first deer legally harvested by an archer since statehood was brought down. It was a spike buck, killed by one homemade arrow shot from a 54-pound longbow.
Since that historic shot more than 60 years ago, Wisconsin archers have had unequaled opportunities to bowhunt whitetails, but we tend to take that privilege for granted. The sport had its growing pains and its critics, but I'm getting ahead of my story.
Much of Wisconsin's bowhunting history can be traced back to that first enthusiastic archer, Roy Case, dubbed by his peers as the Father of Wisconsin Bowhunting.
Prior to that first bow season, archery in Wisconsin focused entirely on target shooting and field competition. In the 1920s, groups of archers gathered for friendly competition at local archery clubs and field ranges. Archery shoots, scheduled almost every Saturday from spring through fall, were often day-long family affairs with picnics and children's games. Unlike gun hunting and turkey shoots, archery shoots were popular with all ages and both sexes.
As field archery grew in popularity, Case organized Wisconsin's first archery club at Racine in 1927. Two years later, he organized the Wisconsin Archery Association, and subsequently won its championship several times. His dedication to the sport eventually would gain Case national recognition and honors from the National Field Archery Association and others.
His skill as a field archer drew a crowd and provided an audience as Case talked up the dream of bowhunting for big game. The idea of taking game with the bow was not completely unheard of – magazines carried accounts of a few adventurous bowmen in the western states who had killed deer, black bear, and even moose and grizzly bear. However, game officials in Wisconsin were skeptical. The long bow was considered a primitive weapon, some questioned if archers would have the skill to get close enough to their prey, and many doubted an arrow would have the impact and stopping power to effectively harvest big game.
The archers persisted. Reluctantly, approval was granted so hunters could use archery gear during the 1931 gun deer season. The total bag for the season was Case's spike buck.
Still, his reputation proved to be the toehold that became a foothold to gain more bowhunting privileges. Shortly after bowhunting was legalized during the gun season, the deer committee of the Wisconsin Archery Association and influential archers such as Case, Larry Wiffen, and Aldo Leopold petitioned the State Conservation Commission to allow bowhunting in separate areas specifically set apart from gun hunting zones. As a result, Wisconsin became the first state in the country to establish an archery-only deer hunting season in 1934. The season was limited to just five days in Columbia and Sauk counties. The bag limit was one adult buck and a license cost one dollar. Forty hunters participated and the total take for the season was one buck, bagged by Mr. William Ostlund of Chicago, Illinois.
Rules of their own
During those first years of bowhunting, many of the hunting laws that applied to gun hunters were considered irrelevant for archers.
As interest in the sport grew, it became obvious that the ethical issues and safety requirements for bowhunting differed somewhat from gun-hunting. Bowhunters shot from much closer range and had to be more skilled to assure a clean kill. The increased challenges of a bow hunt warranted a longer season.
Again, Roy Case was up to the task. Under his leadership, the deer committee of the Wisconsin Archery Association organized the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association in 1941. This group gave bowhunters a stronger, unified voice in establishing new standards of conduct to promote safe, ethical bowhunting. New rules included a minimum poundage of bow pull, prohibited the use of crossbows and barred poisoned or explosive arrow tips.
By 1941, more than 2,000 archery deer hunting licenses were sold annually. During the mid-1940s, the popularity of archery hunting in Wisconsin gained momentum and the number of licenses sold often doubled from year to year, particularly in the years following the end of World War II. Outdoor recreation was revitalized in America and, just as women had opened up the workplace, they opened the door to outdoor experiences a little wider. More and more families could be seen setting up their hunting camps.
The fall bow season offered dyed-in-the-wool deer hunters an early opportunity to hit the woods when the fall colors were at their finest and the air was cool and crisp. It gave them a chance to hunt months before the annual gun season, and both women and children already had been more widely accepted as bowhunters. It was an opportunity that many simply couldn't pass up.
In these early decades of Wisconsin's bowhunting history, two areas stand out as the most popular destinations for archers. The first was a 54-square-mile tract of Juneau County that comprises the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge; special archery hunts were often hosted there. The second, Vilas County, was the stomping grounds of the sport's first advocates.
On Opening Day in 1948, bowhunters notched a new benchmark: More than 3,000 hunters participated in the archery-only deer hunt. For the times, that was considered phenomenal interest and clear proof of the growing popularity of the sport.
To respond to a vocal group of skeptics, the Necedah game managers conducted some of the first studies to gauge whether archers wounded or effectively killed deer. By the close of the hunting season, the results showed a surprisingly high percentage of deer shot by bowhunters were cleanly shot and recovered. Those studies gave bowhunters credibility and support for more liberal future hunting seasons.
Vilas County and the surrounding lakes country boomed in bowhunting popularity from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Deer populations were much higher than in southern and central counties of the state. Moreover, the region was already a popular vacation and resort destination. The sight of lots of deer in the North during summer visits drew many archers back to the area in the fall. And the resorts were well-placed to provide plentiful accommodations for the traveling hunter.
Many hunters spent their time under the guidance of Art Laha, who ran a large deer hunting camp in the Town of Winchester. Laha would often have as many as 100 bowhunters in his camp each week, and in some years accounted for more than half of the total archery deer kill for the county. In 1949, some 266 of the statewide archery harvest of 551 deer were taken in Vilas County.
Many archers enjoyed both of these bowhunting hot spots by starting the opening weekend at Necedah and spending the rest of the season making weekend trips to Vilas County. The combined annual archery deer harvest for Vilas and Juneau counties often accounted for more than half of the statewide kill through the mid-1960s.
The 1950s, '60s, and '70s brought many more changes for Wisconsin bowhunters. Full camouflage clothing, allowed for the first time in 1951, freed bowhunters from wearing the traditional red hunting clothes required of gun hunters. Of course, we later learned of the safety in wearing blaze orange. A late December archery-only season opened in 1953. Hunting from a tree stand was banned in 1966, then reinstated in 1971. For years, the practice remained a very controversial topic among hunters.
Local bowhunting clubs grew into national bowhunting organizations. Personalities like Fred Bear and Ben Pearson made bowhunting movies to further promote the sport and their lines of archery equipment. By 1967, over 100,000 archery deer hunting licenses were being sold annually in Wisconsin.
In the 1970s the face of archery was changed forever with the invention of the compound bow, which uses pulleys to dramatically increase the pull archers can comfortably draw and hold. Many hunters put away their traditional longbows and recurves in favor of this new fast and powerful weapon.
Today, bowhunting in Wisconsin is more popular than ever. The state typically ranks in the top five nationwide in the number of hunters, as well as in number of deer harvested. This year, over 230,000 archery licenses were sold in Wisconsin and, following a decade of mild winters through 1995, another record harvest was set with the harvest of almost 70,000 deer.
Bowhunters currently enjoy the most liberal bag limits in the history of the sport, a trend expected to continue.
Technology and aggressive marketing have a way of complicating the simplest things in life. Space-age materials used to manufacture bows, arrows, hunting clothes, and much more have changed the tools, but not the nature of the bowhunting experience. Bow sights, finger-tip releases and stabilizers certainly make bowhunting easier and more precise.
Perhaps as a reaction, many archers have been drawn back to traditional longbows and recurves to recapture the simplicity and romance of archery's earlier days. The challenge of getting within a stone's throw of game continues to be the big draw for bowhunters.
Despite the liberal seasons, only three out of every ten bowhunters will bag a deer, but all find plenty of reasons to stick with their sport. Like the archers during that first early bow season in 1934, today's bowhunters still find satisfaction in spending a day in the autumn woods: the smell of aspen leaves, the honk of a goose overhead, time with family and friends in camp at the end of the day's hunt. And for those successful few who carry a little luck in their pocket, a hard-earned deer more often than not means succulent steaks on the grill and stories that last a lifetime.
Kevin Wallenfang is an avid bow hunter and DNR's Assistant Deer and Bear Ecologist.