Deer hunting is mostly about the stories.
Here's what it's not. Hunting is not about efficiency. Nothing about the Wisconsin deer hunt is efficient. Pound for pound, honestly harvested venison is about the most expensive meat you can find.
We hunt because we like the taste, the leanness of the meat, and the pleasure of knowing not just where our food comes from but exactly where our food comes from. But even in years when I don't get a deer, I come back with stories from my camp-mates about the deer they saw and the ones they shot.
The Wisconsin deer hunt is fundamentally a social activity. Few people do it alone. For one thing, it's hard to drag and hang and move a 180-pound animal by yourself. For another, the experience is as much about the steak dinners and the card games and the Old Fashioneds as it is about the actual killing.
Which brings me to Wednesday's action by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to approve some recommendations of a Texas deer "expert" named James Kroll, who was responsible for a 2012 report on hunting in Wisconsin (see its executive summary and findings).
Among the most controversial policies to be implemented by the DNR is one that will require hunters to register their kills online or by phone, ending a century old tradition of having to produce the carcass at a registration station.
Those stations are usually located at local taverns or small roadside grocery stores. The one our camp uses in Richland County is a little store owned by a woman named Sharon. You go there to register your deer, and guys are milling around telling stories. You ask Sharon how it's going this year, and she fills you in on how the numbers compare to last year at this time. Maybe you pick up some beer or some chips. If you've done well, you might let that big buck linger in the back of the pickup awhile longer than it really needs to, just so that it can be admired by others stopping by the station.
One of the things that threatens the grand Wisconsin hunt in November is the loss of traditions that surround it. And those traditions are really about being a community of deer hunters. As more Wisconsin land is tied up by owners who can afford big acreages that get closed off to the general public, deer hunting becomes less social and more about the select few who can afford to buy their way into a club or camp or who, like me, are just lucky enough to have stumbled into one at a moment when standards for acceptance were at historically low levels.
Online registration takes away another one of those excuses to mix it up with other hunters, to tell stories and to strengthen the tribe. It's not surprising that the recommendation comes from Kroll, who was an exceedingly bad choice to be the state's "deer czar," particularly in the era of CWD. Kroll comes out of a Texas culture of huge, fenced-in game farms. He understood nothing of the Wisconsin deer camp culture, and that shows in his report.
For those who are all about the kill and about a big trophy buck, well, I guess this doesn't matter much. Just corral or bait the big one, shoot it and get a photo posing with it. Email that picture to the DNR, pack up, and head home with a stop at the taxidermists so that you can get the head mounted. Efficient, sure. But it's got nothing to do with what makes the hunt worthwhile.