I have hunted public land my entire life with only a few instances when I ventured on to private land. Deer hunting in northern Wisconsin on abundant public land is not the same as sitting over a corn or alfalfa field in central or southern Wisconsin. You actually have to do some scouting to find the preferred food sources for the deer which changes throughout the seasons. The deer are not distributed equally throughout the north but I can assure you there are plenty of deer in northern Wisconsin. I routinely would see 40-70 deer in a 5 mile loop in the spring when deer are concentrated along the highway.
There are many limits to the growth of the deer population in northern Wisconsin and wolves are just one of several factors. Coyotes, bears, bobcats, deep snow and cold temperatures in winter and vehicle collisions all account for a large chunk of the deer population. Deer are very resilient and adapt to these dangers. My son recently shot a deer that we saw last December that had completely broken it's leg 4 inches above it's back hoof. It's foot was dangling as the deer struggled to move. We had it on trail cam a few weeks later and it was still favoring that leg. When he shot it , a large bone callus had developed around the break about the size of a softball and the hoof was straight. We have at least 3 wolves in the immediate area of where this deer was harvested as I have seen them and tracked them throughout the area I hunt. How this deer survived the wolves and more populous coyote population I do not know.
Deer hunting in northern Wisconsin draws fewer hunters now than it did in the late 90's when the deer herd was huge and unsustainable. The reason many people are not successful deer hunting in northern Wisconsin is that they don’t put in the time to get to know what the population is doing. Most people do very little scouting to determine deer patterns and instead go to a convenient spot , drop a bag of corn and sit in a stand. Deer quickly figure out they can eat safely at night and they become nocturnal. No one makes drives anymore so they are at the mercy of natural movement. If the gun season is late then all rut movement is gone and big bucks don't move much until after dark.
The social dynamics of hunting has changed so much since I started hunting 50 years ago. It used to be a family tradition where all relatives gather together, sat the first couple mornings but then they made drives or walked around to move the deer to different escape routes where the rest of the party was sitting. Nowadays, it seems like everyone buys a small pot of land, makes a food plot or throws out some bait and expects the deer to come to them. In agricultural land, deer have a static food source almost year-round in the alfalfa, soy beans, or corn that is grown predominantly in whitetail territory. Mixtures of other grasses, weeds and root crops are planted in food plots that are in one location. The hunter sits in an established blind or elevated stand and waits for the deer to come to them. That is fine for when the deer are feeding on those crops or food plots, but a deer normally has seasonal food preferences. In the central forest of Wisconsin and in northern Wisconsin deer travel to different areas at different times of the year to take advantage of those food sources. While baiting or food plots may drive them during some parts of the year, that is not always the case. For instance, when acorns fall in the Northwoods, virtually every deer moves into the oak flats, and other areas that are producing acorns. These deer will frequent those areas for as long as the oaks are producing acorns. They also share those areas with turkeys and bears along with the squirrels that are feeding on acorns too. In early spring, they can be found along the edges of roads because that’s where the snow first melts and the green grass and weeds are growing so they can be seen morning and evening feeding on that food source. During the winter they are provide primarily browsers, eating the tips off of Maple, dogwood, and, if they can find it, balsam and arborvitae trees. During their summer, their diet is quite varied, and they take advantage of anything that is green, and they will also feed on berries, soft mast and raspberry bushes, which they seem to enjoy when they’re young.
Many people complain that the deer population has decreased over time, but what really happens is the population of the trees on their land have matured to the point where there is no longer any good habitat or deer food in that area. Large mature trees shade the undergrowth and don’t allow anything to grow. Deer don’t spend time in mature forest because there isn’t a lot of food for them, except during the time when acorns fall. In order to keep deer in your area, you would have to selectively cut some of the large, older, mature trees to allow sunlight to hit the ground. There are seeds that are in the ground that have blown there or fallen over the years and sometimes saplings grow from the base of maple trees. There are also several things that you could do to hold whitetails in your area. If you set aside a small section of heavy cover as a sanctuary and don’t enter that area you create a magnet for mature deer. My brother-in-law was very successful on his 40 acre plot in the middle of agricultural land because they set aside a 10 acre section as a sanctuary. The big bucks felt secure in that area that wasn’t disturbed and they would feel comfortable in that area and would spend a lot of time in there. They were always careful when approaching their stands as their scent would not blow into the sanctuary.
When I hunt public land, that is heavily forested, I will utilize aerial photography to determine escape routes, clear cuts, and possibly even areas of oak trees. It takes a little practice, but the shape of the oak trees can be determined with some practice from the overhead photo. The second step is to actually go into those areas and find trails, fresh sign in the form of tracks or scat and places where trails intersect. The shape of a at will tell you what deer are feeding on. When setting up a stand, I like to have at least two major trails intersecting within range of whatever weapon I’m using and I like these trails to be between bedding areas and feeding areas. During the rut, I look for rubs in a line that show the direction of travel and areas like ridge intersections and I find scrapes in areas of ridge intersections or openings in the forest. These openings can be man made or natural. Scrapes that are visited will always have an overhead branch because the deer will always rub their preorbital gland as a way of communicating with other deer. I find in northern Wisconsin many more scrapes are utilized year-round than I did in central Wisconsin when I hunted in the central forests of Wisconsin however I find fewer scrapes up north. Every scrape I’ve ever found was on solid ground without very moist soil.
Deer in northern Wisconsin have adapted to living close to humans. There are fewer predators and a source of food in plants around homes and in corn that is still fed to deer in many areas. The deer have also found ways to raid bird feeders.
Over the last 20 years, fewer and fewer people venture to the north woods to deer hunt. People who use the same tactics they did 20-25 years ago get frustrated easily and end up blaming the DNR or wolves for a low deer population. You need only refer back to one of my earlier statements. “Deer are not distributed evenly across northern Wisconsin”. You need to find the sources of food to be successful. The nice thing about hunting north woods deer is that I have an even chance of shooting a buck on the last day as the first. There is so little hunter movement that deer are not pressured at all. That wasn’t the case when we hunted central Wisconsin public land forests 30 years ago when 90% of the bucks were shot the first two days.
Large bucks are scarce in northern Wisconsin recently . The reason is simple. Large mature bucks run themselves ragged during the rut. They enter winter with virtually no fat reserves. My son shot a mature 10 pointer a few years ago and it had no fat on its body. These deer simply cannot survive the winter when they are restricted by heavy snow. Corn put out by residents provide calories but deer need more than that to survive winters which last 5 months. A few years ago I was at an Ontario outpost camp and marveled at the massive racks of whitetails shot in the bush. I did not know that Ontario produced such big bucks. The outfitter said that in order for those bucks to achieve that size they needed 4-5 mild winters before they showed their true genetics. That seems to be the case in northern Wisconsin. The area can produce big bucks but the last several winter have lasted 6 months with heavy to record snow fall. I also feel the mature bucks don’t spend much time around homes unless that home is isolated.
Hopefully this article makes you think a bit how you can change your tactics to be a more successful hunter. I am not a whitetail expert but I have spent the last 50 years hunting them in a variety of habitats. Tactics that worked in one don’t always work in another.