It was late Friday afternoon, and the service counter at Kohnert and Scheppke in Melrose, Wis., was a busy place.
That was not unusual on payday at the general mercantile store that sold everything from groceries to hardware, but this was no ordinary Friday. It was Nov. 19, 1976, the day before the annual gun deer hunt opener in Wisconsin.
I tried to be patient as I stood in line with my brother Kevin and my dad, but I was too excited. We were waiting to buy our licenses for the next day. It was my first deer hunt. I could hardly wait.
I was less than a month shy of my 13th birthday. Two of my cousins who filled out the trio known in the family circles as the Terrible Three of ’63 were born earlier that year and were able to hunt in 1975 because they were already 12. I was extremely jealous that I was forced to wait another year.
It would not be my first time in the woods. I had sat with my dad and my grandfather in their stands at times, and we all helped with deer drives. But it would be the first time that I could shoot my own deer.
Finally the line moved and we stepped to the counter. The three of us completed our license information. We were issued our back tags and the corresponding numbered metal tags used when registering.
Blaze-orange clothing wasn’t required in those days; that didn’t come until 1980. Dad had a red-and-black hunter-plaid coat that he wore. The requirement to wear red was instituted in 1945 in Wisconsin.
I didn’t get a buck my first year, but Dad did, joining the 69,510 hunters who were successful in killing an antlered deer in 1976. But I was hooked on hunting. The next year Dad, Kevin, Grandpa and I applied for a party permit so between the four of us we could harvest a doe. I felt privileged to be able to wear the special blue armband.
This weekend will be my 42nd season of deer hunting. I’m a novice compared with the 68th season for Dad. He was mentored by his father and started hunting in the days when deer were scarce on our farm. Most deer hunting was on public land in the eastern Jackson County.
Times have certainly changed. Deer are plentiful now. No more standing in line at the store. This past week I bought my deer license online, although you can still buy them from retailers.
Back tags and metal tags are history. So is the process of tagging and registration. Hunters no longer need to physically tag the deer. Instead they can go online to register their deer by 5 p.m. the day after harvest. All hunters need to carry in the woods is a paper copy of the license, a driver’s license if used when buying the license or a digital copy. Yep, the license can be kept on a phone.
All of this would have been handy the year Dad couldn’t find his license and needed to go to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources office to get a duplicate. That didn’t sit well with Dad, who said: “No jury in Jackson County is going to convict a man for hunting on his own land” as he headed out the door.
He was probably right, but he got his duplicate license.
An enormous positive change in hunting is safety. In 1914 — when there were only 155,000 licenses sold for deer hunting — there were 24 hunters killed and 26 hunters injured during the gun season. In 2016 there were 598,867 licenses sold and five non-fatal injuries.
Thanks to requirements like gun hunter safety — which began in 1967 and became mandatory in 1973 — and blaze orange or fluorescent pink, fatalities and injuries are rare even with many more hunters in the woods.
What hasn’t changed is the tradition. While Grandpa and some other family members are no longer with us, they are remembered and join us in spirit.
And I’m still excited about opening day, just like that 12-year-old those many years ago.
Have a safe and memorable hunting season.