MINONG, Wis. — Dawn came dimly to the north woods, muffled by a gray, woolen sky.
By noon the air swirled with snow. And as cedar boughs bent under inches of accumulation in late afternoon, the day had passed without a single appearance by the sun.
There was no shortage of orange, though, in the forests and swamps of Washburn County.
The color that blazed here and elsewhere Saturday across Wisconsin marked the opening of the 2011 gun deer hunting season.
“This is feeling right,” said Don Anderson, 74, as he slung a rifle over his shoulder and started a pre-dawn hike to his stand near Minong.
Anderson and his camp of six were part of an estimated 600,000 hunters who helped usher in the state’s 161st regulated deer hunting season.
The hunt has been called Wisconsin’s “largest simultaneous participatory event.”
Whatever you call it, deer hunting is critical to Wisconsin wildlife management, helping control an iconic species that can damage habitat and crops while generating revenue for a wide range of programs.
And with an estimated $1billion annual economic impact, deer hunting is big business in Wisconsin.
But such statistics fade in importance to hunters such as Anderson.
“This is our favorite time of year,” Anderson said, putting a log in the wood stove at his cabin outside Minong. “Deer hunting for us is about family and tradition.”
The 2011 group includes Don’s son Dan Anderson, 47, of Prior Lake, Minn.; his son-in-law Dave Halverson, 48, of Princeton, Minn.; Dave’s brother Bill Halvorson, 52, of De Pere, Wis., and Greg Sachs, 42, a friend of Dan’s from Rogers, Minn.
The camp is set on 80 acres outside Minong that Don purchased in 1988.
“The only reason Dad bought the land is to put up a deer hunting cabin,” Dan said.
The cabin has no electricity and no water. Two outhouses stand outside — the pink one is for women.
The cabin was built by hand, the family using popples cut on the parcel to form its “cord wood” walls.
The front porch serves as the refrigerator and the wood pile.
The inside of the 24-by-24 foot building is the original “open concept.” Six bunks line one wall opposite a wood stove. Couches, chairs and a donated kitchen set fill the rest.
Don Anderson named the camp the “Nut-Hut.”
The name evokes a zeal common to many in the state’s hunting community.
It has been said Wisconsin has two religions: Green Bay Packers football and deer hunting.
With one of the nation’s largest deer populations, Wisconsin has long been a mecca for hunting.
The state is noted for setting the national record with 618,274 deer harvested in 2000 and for having the most trophy bucks listed on the Boone and Crockett record books.
The season draws hunters from the 49 other states and 20 foreign countries to Wisconsin each year.
But in recent years, some hunters have opposed regulations introduced by the Department of Natural Resources to curb a burgeoning deer population.
And the 2002 finding of chronic wasting disease in wild deer near Mount Horeb created uncertainty among hunters.
The drop in deer hunting license sales over the last decade is concern for all.
The DNR sold 11 percent fewer gun deer licenses in 2010 than in 2000.
Deer hunting licenses and permits generated $22.7 million in revenue for the DNR in 2010, representing about 75 percent of all hunting program revenue, said Bill Vander Zouwen, DNR section chief.
Deer hunting is often likened to the varsity football program at NCAA Division I universities.
“It pays the bills,” said Ralph Fritsch, a director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
An excise tax on hunting and shooting equipment provides an additional $10 million most years to Wisconsin for wildlife management. The benefits extend beyond programs for deer and other game species.
In 2010 those funds contributed $400,000 to a study of the Wisconsin bat population, significant work to prepare for the likely arrival of a deadly bat disease.
“There’s no more important species on the landscape than deer,” Fritsch said. “From the value of hunting to the costs of car collisions and crop damage, it’s king.”
Deer hunting became a plank in Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign when, seizing on hunter dissatisfaction and anti-DNR sentiment, he pledged to appoint a “white-tailed deer trustee” if elected.
Walker kept his promise, and a three-member panel, led by James Kroll of Nacogdoches, Texas, has begun an “independent, science-based review” of Wisconsin’s deer management program.
The importance of hunting is felt from corporations such as Matthews Archery, a leading bow manufacturer in Sparta, to gas stations, hotels and small sporting-goods stores.
“The day before the gun deer season is one of our three biggest days of the year,” said Becky Waggoner of Hayward, who owns and operates Sportsmans Headquarters in Minong with her husband, John.
The other two? Memorial Day and Fourth of July.
Deer hunting rises to the level of patriotism at the Nut-Hut.
Don Anderson has missed only four deer hunting seasons since he turned 12 in 1949.
“Uncle Sam had me,” Anderson said. “But as soon as I got out of the Navy, I was back. I try to enjoy each one.”
The hunters at Anderson’s camp split up before dawn. The first shots echoed through the adjacent Washburn County Forest about 6:50 a.m.
Sporadic shots continued for the next hour, then tapered off.
One report came from Dan Anderson. A veteran of 30 hunting seasons near Minong, he had scouted a ridge leading from a cedar swamp and toward a popple cutover in the public forest.
He carried a portable stand to the site Saturday morning. At 7:15, he spotted a brown form moving through the underbrush.
Moments later he saw antlers. Seconds later a nine-point buck was in his sights.
Anderson has taken dozens of deer from the woods near Minong, including several trophy bucks.
But as he tagged and dragged the buck Saturday, his emotions ran unusually high. Anderson reflected on the central role deer hunting had played in his life.
He is introducing his twin 11-year-old daughters to hunting. And his family, including his wife and mother, will gather at the Nut-Hut for Thanksgiving dinner.
He wondered aloud, though, how many more seasons he and his father would get to hunt together.
“This is just a bonus,” Anderson said, one hand on the buck’s antler. “For us, the hunting season is about family and friends.”
Filling his buck tag on the first morning of the nine-day hunt, too, was bittersweet.
“I enjoy the experience so much that I just want it to last,” Anderson said. “But I’ve still got a doe tag. And eight days to help Dad get his buck.”