Hunters will trek into the wild this weekend as the state’s 9-day Gun Deer Hunt kicks off Saturday. This year’s hunt also comes with new health safety measures from the state as hunters are preparing to gather at camp while COVID-19 cases are on the rise.

A large majority of annual deer harvests come during the Gun Deer Season. Of that, a majority of Gun Deer season harvests occur opening weekend.

Current hunting season harvest numbers, for both bucks and total deer kill for the 2020 archery, youth, and military/disabled hunts are well above the 2018 and 2019 paces, according to Josh Spiegel, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist.

“We are coasting out of the rut, but might have a trickle effect of buck activity during the gun deer season,” Spiegel said.

He added all indicators suggest a healthy deer population for the 2020 deer hunting seasons with a lightened 2019 gun deer harvest, mild winter, great growing season and increased deer observations. Fawn survival also appears to be good.

“With a mild winter last season, bucks came out in better condition thus allowing them to put more energy into antler growth versus recuperating their bodies. We should see nice antlered development among our bucks,” Spiegel said.

Weather predictions look to be decent during the hunt with forecasts calling for overnight temps below freezing with day time temps above freezing. There also appears to be limited precipitation forecasted, but Spiegel warned weather always can change.

As of the end of October, Gun Deer licenses were up about 11 percent, while bow hunting was up about 15 percent. Conservation patrons licenses were up about 6 percent. 

“Much like our other 2020 recreational seasons and activities which are seeing increased user activity, we expect the same from our Gun Deer Hunters,” Spiegel said. “Expect plenty of hunters in the woods.”

Along with more hunters in the woods, Spiegel reminds hunters about safety. 

“That is still a strong emphasis for firearm hunters,” Spiegel said.

Rusk County has 930 square miles of land with about 90 percent of this land considered deer range, according to Spiegel. The county features about 250 square miles of public land in state, county and local government ownership, as well as Forest Tax Law-Open land.

The county offers numerous opportunities for deer hunting.

“All is shaping up to be a good Gun Deer Season for Rusk County hunters,” Spiegel said.

As of Nov. 16, sales for gun, bow, crossbow, sports and patron licenses reached 591,689. Of that total, 343,627 are for gun privileges only.

Rusk County Coordinator Andy Albarado called the economic impact of the gun hunt “significant,” just as the bow and bear seasons are.

“We have a very solid reputation in the state for big game hunting providing a diversity of public and private land options, and trophy animals,” Albarado said. “It’s an important season for our area hospitality and retail business and to lose it would be a tremendous impact.  I think our area businesses did a great job adjusting and providing a safe environment during the summer tourism season and would encourage them to do the same now and into the winter.”

Albarado does not believe there should be any concern about getting out and doing some hunting and enjoying the outdoors in the county, adding it is actually a great way to isolate.

The county’s  COVID-19 case volume has grown exponentially and local health care resources are beyond stretched, according to Albarado. He encouraged everybody to do their part and take responsible actions and precautions.

“I don’t believe there should be any concern about getting out and doing some hunting and enjoying the outdoors in Rusk County,” Albarado said. “It’s actually a great way to isolate. However, everybody should do their part and determine how to make deer camp safe with their friends and family. Don’t be afraid to initiate a conversation about taking precautions like wearing a mask, not sharing utensils and reducing capacity. We also want hunters to support our local businesses, but consider only sending one person into stores, doing take-out and not spending extended periods in close contact with others inside.”

At the same time as hunters are being encouraged to participate in the annual deer hunt ritual, state health officials are warning hunters to make good decisions about health risks they might face.

“Each of us must do our part to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Wisconsin Department of Health Services Andrea Palm said. “Limiting your interactions with people outside your household is a key step, so we ask hunters to reduce their travel and to hunt with the people you live with.”

This year’s hunt looks to be a good one, according to Rusk County Deer Advisory Council Chairman Roger Roehl. He added there are no new changes in the regulations for Rusk County hunters.

“Deer numbers are looking good over the majority of the county,” Roehl said.

Long range weather forecasts show warming temperatures near 50 in the days before the hunt starts, so there may be  little or no snow cover by the Saturday opening 

“That will make it tougher to see deer,” Roehl said. “The weather looks to be mild first several days, and hopefully we will get some snow later on in the week. 

 The CDAC for Rusk County will have its first meeting for the next 3-year cycle on Dec. 15. This will be a virtual meeting that can be attended by everyone. Attendance information can be found at the DNR CDAC website.

The local CDAC committee still has vacancies for tourism, forestry and transportation seats. Anyone interested should contact Roehl at (715) 415-5129.

“I hope everyone has a safe and successful hunt,” Roehl said.

There are plenty of opportunities available to Rusk County hunters, according to local DNR Conservation Warden Dylan Belisle.

“There are still antlerless harvest authorizations available for Rusk County,” Belisle said.

As of early afternoon on Monday, Nov. 16, there were still available 520 public and 1,348 private tags.

At the same time, there are some opportunities off limits to hunters.

“There is elk on the landscape in Rusk County, so I would like to stress to be sure of your target and what is beyond,” Belisle said.

A hunting license is required to hunt. Licenses can be purchased any time through the hunter’s “Go Wild” account or at businesses that sell DNR licenses during their business hours.

Going on now through Dec. 31, the DNR will offer a temporary online-only hunter education course for students under the age of 18 with 100 percent online certification. There will not be an in-person field day requirement for those under the age of 18 who take the online-only hunter education course.   

The newly designed combined hunting regulation pamphlet can be found where licenses are sold and downloaded online at the WI DNR website.

Belisle reminds hunters of the four rules of firearm safety, often abbreviated as TABK.

— Treat every firearm as if it is loaded,

— Always point the muzzle in a safe direction, 

— Be sure of your target and what is beyond, and 

Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.

There are no major rule changes for 2020. There are three buck-only units this year: Forest County and the Northern Forest portions of Oconto and Marinette counties. No bonus antlerless deer harvest authorizations will be available for purchase in this unit.

The Muzzleloader hunt runs Nov. 30-Dec. 9.

The December 4-day firearm antlerless-only hunt (Dec. 10-13) will be offered statewide.  No bucks maybe harvested during this season with any weapon type.

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