BARRONETT, Wis. — A restaurant in this small village offers excellent table fare and good cheer, not least the night before Wisconsin’s deer hunting season begins. Such was the case Friday, as nearly a score of us gathered at Bistro 63 on the eve of what for many in this state is an experience as cathartic as a Packers victory.
Time was in Barronett when the word “bistro” didn’t get bandied about much. Mark’s was the name previously given this eating establishment, and before that, Spanky’s. Back then on the cusp of deer hunting, the joint was often filled with blaze orange-clad patrons, and a country crooner might be wailing away in a corner. Matters are more gentrified now, and the food is better.
You could call our pre-hunt gathering a celebration, and it is that. Norb Berg, the patriarch of the bunch, started deer hunting in these parts in the 1960s. Whitetails were scarce then, and only the optimistic believed they’d ever be otherwise. Now Norb, his four sons, Kevin, Mitch, Tony and Paul, together with their sons and others, try to shoot only mature deer, picking as they do from oftentimes multiple sightings of lesser animals.
We split up after dinner, with the others headed for a makeshift old barn, and I for a shack on a back 80 the Bergs own as a separate parcel. My boys grew up hunting here. Now they’re in Montana and I headquarter the place alone. Arriving, I lit a fire in its wood-burning stove and put a match to the gas lights. I thought: It’d be good to kill a buck in the morning, and I crawled into my sleeping bag.
Like a lot of conservation-minded people, the Bergs have turned deer hunting into a year-round pastime that borders on lifestyle. Habitat is managed, and stands are strategically placed. The kick here is less to preordain a hefty meat pole than to enjoy the woods. Aldo Leopold had it right when he said, “Poets sing and hunters scale the mountains for one and the same reason — the thrill to beauty.”
I awoke at 4:30 the next morning with the shack still warm from the previous night’s fire. Earlier in the week I had visited the property to throw up a ground blind in the same spot where I killed a good buck a year ago. Ground blinds aren’t the be-all and end-all for deer hunting. But their portability allows for surprise placement, and I figured I’d go to the well one more time to see what happens.
A half-mile separates the shack from my blind, and I walked the distance in the pre-dawn dark following a headlamp’s beacon. Wolves inhabit this country, and Dave Berg, Norb’s brother, saw four on this property a few weeks back. On most days in these parts they’re the apex predator. This morning I’d be throwing my hat in that ring, too.
I reached the blind, and not long afterward, shots rang out in the distance. I would learn, as the morning unfolded, that Dillon Donovan, Kevin Berg’s son-in-law, cracked off a round, early on, felling an 11-pointer. Also, Rick Battis dropped a 9-pointer, Mitch Berg drew down on a 5-pointer and Charley Thornton, Tony’s son-in-law, bagged a doe.
From my blind placed along a neck of solid ground that wove among three swamps, I saw my first deer, a doe, about 7:15. But she spooked before coming into full view.
Not long afterward, another doe showed herself, traveling from an opposite direction. Tiptoeing only 10 yards from me a few long minutes, the deer eventually dissolved into the woods beyond.
This was just before a third doe came into view along the two-track I followed to the blind from the shack. Soon, she, too, moseyed along.
Minutes later on the same two-track, the outline of a good buck took form. This was a mature animal, his rack wide and multipronged.
Some deer are determined as they walk, head down, one step after another, almost marching. This buck was a prancer, and a slow one, his head darting side to side as he picked his way along, his antlers swinging as if on a gimbal.
The buck I killed last opening morning at this same spot came from an opposite direction and was about 30 yards out. A thicket of saplings and somewhat larger trees surrounds the blind, and to kill that deer I knew I had to stop him momentarily by grunting, so I could target his vitals. This works sometimes. But not always. I gave it a whirl, and when the buck stopped, I anchored him.
Now it was Saturday morning, 8:15 or so, and this most recent good buck was showing itself evermore. Nervy, his cadence suggested coiled muscles and a ticket on the next flight out.
Shouldering my .270, I made a plan: When the buck stepped into the next clearing, I would grunt softly, stopping him. Then I would squeeze the trigger.
From above, where ravens had flown all morning, and higher still, Canada geese arrowing south, the buck could have been seen inching hesitantly into my shooting lane.
Perhaps the birds high overhead even heard me grunt.
Surely the buck heard me.
But instead of fully stepping into the sight lane and stopping upon hearing my plaintive groan, he wheeled instantaneously on his rear legs and reversed course, using up country in a blur.
Sometimes grunting works. But not always.
Like a lot of conservation-minded people, the Bergs have turned deer hunting into a year-round pastime that borders on lifestyle.