When it comes to deer hunting in Wisconsin, Waupaca County is apparently the right place to go.
The county led the state in deer harvested during the nine-day gun deer season that wrapped up Nov. 25, according to preliminary numbers from the state Department of Natural Resources.
Hunters harvested 4,164 bucks and 4,753 antlerless deer during the hunt. The total of 8,917 is the highest of any of the state’s 72 counties. Marathon County – twice the size of Waupaca County – had the second-highest total at 8,092.
Waupaca County’s buck and antlerless kills were up 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively, from 2011, when hunters harvested a state-high 8,532 deer, according to the DNR.
Total kills were also up in Waushara, Portage, Outagamie and Shawano counties, but down in Winnebago County.
Statewide, hunters registered 243,739 deer, the DNR reported.
“It’s great to see the level of hunter participation that we do in Wisconsin and equally as great to see that more hunters had success than last year,” DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said. “I’ve talked to several hunters that saw more deer than in past years in much of the state, but also to some who saw less. There are areas where deer observations were low, as we knew there would be. This sort of feedback, along with the harvest numbers, is important as we continue to work with hunters to best manage deer populations in the state.”
Preliminary harvest numbers are collected through a call-around survey of 600-plus deer registration stations all across Wisconsin and likely will increase when all registration tags are officially counted. This year’s totals are up 7.7 percent from 2011. Hunters harvested 114,822 bucks and 128,917 antlerless deer, compared to 2011 preliminary harvest figures of 102,837 bucks and 123,423 antlerless deer, 12- and 4-percent increases, respectively.
“Once again, Wisconsin was the deer hunting destination for hundreds of thousands of hunters,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said. “Hunting is about family, friends, fun and tradition. More than 600,000 people were out connecting with the land and in doing so renewed their commitment to sustaining our natural resources for generations to come.
Nearly 29,000 hunters purchased a license for the first time this year. New female hunters represented 33 percent of this total and another 33 percent of first-time buyers were ages 17 and under. Eighty first-time buyer licenses were also sold to hunters 80 and older.
“Seeing so many new buyers, along with some returning or new hunters over the age of 80, illustrates how deep our deer hunting heritage runs,” Stepp said. “Getting women and youth involved in hunting is essential for continuing our state’s hunting heritage. When women and moms are involved, the family follows.”
Hunters still have time to hit the woods, as the late archery season continues until Jan. 6; a four-day statewide antlerless hunt begins today (Thursday, Dec. 6); and a holiday hunt in the chronic wasting disease zones of south-central Wisconsin starts Dec. 24 and runs until Jan. 6.
The DNR received reports of seven shooting-related incidents, with one fatality.
“Any shooting-related fatality – or injury for that matter – is one too many,” Conservation Warden Jon King said. “However overall hunter safety has increased over the years. The total reported incidents for 2012 is below the 10-year average, which is nine.”
“Those numbers show it was a successful hunt,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which represents hunters, trappers and anglers. “The (deer) population has obviously rebuilt and is increasing.”
“Statistically, we have continued our safe hunting tradition, but for me to truly consider a deer season 100 percent successful, all hunters would have returned home unharmed,” Stepp said. “That’s a goal we all should continue to strive for.”
Wisconsin’s 161st gun deer season may be over, but sharing stories of the hunt keeps the memories going and builds the anticipation for the 2013 season. In addition to sharing stories with family and friends, hunters can share their stories with more than 9,000 friends on the DNR’s Facebook page.
The hunt took on a decidedly more relaxed tone this year after hunters spent most of the last decade complaining about how the DNR managed the herd. The agency has been working to appease hunters, dumping its much-maligned earn-a-buck program, which required hunters to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck, downplaying herd population estimates and launching a social media campaign focusing on the hunt’s traditions.
“It was just a different tone,” Meyer said. “It led to different attitudes from hunters. That’s something that’s very positive.”
• The state Department of Natural Resources and The Associated Press contributed to this report.