(MCT) — RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. — One moment, the coulee was filled with sparkling late afternoon light.
The next, as the sun dropped behind MacDaddy Ridge, a new movement spilled into the agricultural bottomland.
Four does and fawns streamed down the wooded hillside and into the field. The animals pawed through 12 inches of snow to feed on clover and turnips.
Minutes later, another, larger deer moved into a back corner of the field.
This animal bore a rack. Similar bucks in past years had given the ridge its name.
Payton Purnell, 11, was watching it all. Seated in a blind next to her father, Mike, she leveled her rifle at the deer and squeezed off a shot. As the report echoed through the valley, the antlerless deer ran out of the field.
Payton ran, too — to tag the first buck of her life. The 11-pointer had handsome headgear and weighed about 190 pounds. It will be mounted and provide meat for the table.
The outing was part of the late deer season known as the Holiday Hunt in Wisconsin’s Chronic Wasting Disease Management Zone. The hunt was instituted by the Department of Natural Resources in the last decade to increase hunting opportunity and kill more deer in an area of the state with high deer numbers. The hope, too, is that the additional harvest will slow the spread of CWD, the deer disease found in Wisconsin since 2002.
This year the Holiday Hunt ran Dec. 24-Jan. 6.
Mike Purnell of Oconomowoc and his brother Lloyd Jr. of Pewaukee hosted a group of hunters in late December on property they own in Richland County. We gathered between Christmas and New Year’s Day in the rural camp called The Roost. The crew included Lloyd Jr. and daughter Phelan (14); Mike and Payton; Eric McMillan, 30, Jim Smukowski, 43, Jesse Spanaus, 33, and me.
The Purnells’ mother, Billie, grew up in Richland County, and the boys have been coming back to hunt the area for four decades. It began with squirrel hunting outings led by their father, Lloyd Sr. At the time, no one would have contemplated a gun deer season that stretched into January with the goal of reducing deer numbers.
“We used to dream about seeing a buck,” said Lloyd Jr., 59.
The Purnell brothers purchased their first chunk of land in Richland County in 1987. Like many hunter/land owners, they’ve managed the property to benefit wildlife, including selective timber cuts and planting food plots.
The deer population in the rich, rolling Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin is among the highest in the state. Here in Deer Management Unit 71 CWD, the fall population was estimated at 55 deer per square mile of deer range, according to a 2011 DNR report.
It can be hard to wrap your mind around deer densities of 30, 50 or even 100 per square mile. But in winter, it becomes much easier. With snow on the landscape, the deer stand out like neon. And with food resources at an annual low, the animals are concentrated.
The Purnells planted turnips and clover in several fields. They also paid a farmer to plant corn and leave some unharvested.
By late December, the ears had been picked clean of kernels.
On the second night of the hunt, Mike Purnell and I watched 18 deer move into a field that included several rows of corn stalks.
In keeping with the Purnells’ wishes, I shot two antlerless deer, an adult doe and a doe fawn, out of the group. I missed another when my bullet hit a low-hanging branch (my story).
The next afternoon, Smukowski killed an adult doe on a different part of the property. On the fourth day, Spanaus also tagged an adult doe. And on the fifth day, the group conducted a drive and pushed two deer past Smukowski. He killed an antlerless deer with one shot but missed a buck.
The Holiday Hunt has evolved into one of the highest-quality deer hunts of the season, Mike Purnell said.
“There is much less hunting pressure,” he said. “And it gives us a better feel for how many deer we have on the property and what we need to do to manage it.”
Our group savored Smukowski’s home-cooked soup and stew on midday breaks and evening meals, watched spellbound as deer flooded into the fields after dark, were visited by bald eagles and red-bellied woodpeckers, and burned calories “hutching” up and down ridges through snow. The girls also enjoyed sliding down hillsides on our plastic deer-hauling sled.
The Purnells keep the same traditions and goals in place from the early archery season, through the nine-day gun hunt and to the end of the Holiday Hunt.
Their primary emphasis is on passing on and sharing the hunting tradition. New hunters are encouraged to shoot any deer they feel they can make a clean, killing shot on. If experienced hunters see the buck of a lifetime, they should try for it. At all times, the harvest of female deer is encouraged.
And if a hunter happens to miss a deer, they enter the “Skunk Hall of Shame.” Smukowski and I joined the class of 2012. Our photographs, wearing a skunk-skin cap, will join others on the walls of The Roost.
The Holiday Hunt put the 2012 season total to 35 deer killed, including seven during the October youth hunt, on about 600 acres surrounding The Roost. Past experience shows next season will be another year of plenty, Lloyd Purnell Jr. said.
“It’s bittersweet now, at the end of our deer hunting for the year,” he said. “But this (Holiday Hunt) always ends the season on a high note.”