Well, I'm back from my annual deer hunting trip. As with every year, I'm feeling recharged by my long quiet hours in the woods, fields and swamps of western and northern Wisconsin. I'm grateful for the camaraderie of deer camp and all that goes with it.
This was my twentieth year of deer hunting. Over all of those seasons, I've been a guest at the Jordahl family camp in Richland County. And for the last two seasons, Jordy Jordahl and I have tacked on two extra days up at Rob Gottschalk's Medicine Brook deer camp near Crivitz.
They're both classic Wisconsin deer camps, but each reflects its part of the state. The Jordahl place is made up of steep hills and no wetlands. The deer are big, plentiful and corn fed. Camp Medicine Brook is flat country, with more pine trees and a big cedar swamp on the property. The deer are harder to find in that area of the state, but things seem to be changing a bit this year, with the harvest up 43% in Marinette County over the first days of the hunt.
A big part of deer camp is eating well. I've learned to throw together a good venison dinner with only six ingredients: venison (of course), potatoes, onions, good olive oil, and coarse ground salt and pepper.
Here's the simple recipe: Start by cutting up some potatoes into one inch cubes (skins on), toss them in the olive oil and salt and pepper concoction, and start them roasting in the oven at 400. Get in there and shake the pan a couple of times while they roast for about 40 minutes. Next, start sautéing some thin-sliced onions, ideally in a cast iron pan if you have one. Same deal. Olive oil. Salt. Pepper. Sauté them for about ten minutes, flipping them in the pan occasionally. Finally, briefly marinate the steaks in the olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and pepper, then place on a hot grill for three minutes a side. Venison is very lean, so it has to be eaten rare. If you don't like rare meat, don't eat venison.
You could try lots of different beers or red wines with this meal. I like Central Waters Satin Solstice Imperial Stout. The bottle even comes with a little bit of inspiring prose: "The smooth creamy stout and a crackling fireplace are the perfect answer to a wintry evening in Wisconsin. The rich coffee flavor compliments the 'warm, fuzzy feeling' you get from the abundant alcohol. Enjoy in moderation." I did.
The steaks were from a doe I shot last year up on the Endicot field at the Jordahl Farm. I shot it, dragged it and gutted it, then took it into Richland Center to be butchered by our favorite part-time butcher, Rhonda. Within a few hours I had a cooler full of venison steaks and roasts neatly wrapped in white butchers paper and ready for my freezer. Talk about knowing where your food comes from.
This year, I had the same opportunity in the same spot on opening morning. A nice doe stepped into my shooting lane about fifty yards to my right. I steadied my rifle on the lip of the stand and got my crosshairs on her shoulder. I just looked at her for a few seconds, considering what to do. Then I watched as she passed silently into the woods. A moment later a fawn trailed her. I was glad I hadn't pulled the trigger and happy for the thrill of the moment. I have noticed that as I get older, I am starting to see deer hunting as a big game of tag. It's enough to know you out-smarted the deer. You don't need to press the point by actually, you know, killing it.
And, frankly, I had just been told the previous evening that scarce Cieslewicz family freezer space was needed for holiday baking season anyway. So, letting the doe pass had its practical domestic political benefits as well. I traded good venison for good cookies. I'm not losing on either side of that equation.
Then again, I thought I'd get more opportunities. The next day, on another part of the farm, I had a good size buck trot within thirty yards of my stand. But I was too exposed, and when I lifted my rifle he saw me immediately and took off before I could so much as switch off my safety. But the rest of the Jordahl camp had some success, taking two does and an eight-point buck.
On Sunday night, Jordy and I packed up and headed for Crivitz. Soon after settling in at Camp Medicine Brook, I discovered a bottle of scotch right where you'd want to find it -- deep in the back of a well-used liquor cabinet and covered with a good coating of dust, suggesting that the bottle, already twelve years old when it arrived, may well be old enough now to drink itself. I poured myself a small glass, and sat down with the boys for some hands of Sheepshead, the classic card game of the Wisconsin deer camp.
The next night, after a long, cold day in the woods, our dinner was lamb in a brown curry sauce over rice with steamed broccoli. Okay, that's not the classic dinner of the Wisconsin deer camp, but it was really good.
Over two days of hard hunting (out all day except for lunch) at Camp Medicine Brook I didn't see or hear a deer. And you know what? I couldn't care less. Oh, sure, I'd like to see more deer, and if a big buck had come wandering past my stand and the shot was a good one I would have taken it. But those hunters who complain about not seeing enough deer need to consider the value of a day spent in the crisp Wisconsin air alone with nothing but your own thoughts, followed by an evening of good food and good company and maybe a sip or two of somebody's forgotten Scotch while playing a few hands of an obscure German card game.
Deer hunting is about a lot more than killing deer. It's a big part of the cultural life of Wisconsin and I'm grateful that I get a chance to be part of it every year.