In my family, Thanksgiving was a victim of the traditional nine-day firearms season, not every year, but occasionally. On the years the stars aligned, Thanksgiving was a chance for our large family to come together. We would travel to the Mississippi bluff country in western Wisconsin and invade Uncle Don and Aunt Joan’s house. They only had one daughter, older than all of us, so having six little kids swarming in their home must have been a test of mental, physical and emotional strength. Their house was built into a hill, and there was a fast, clear stream running through the valley below. You can guess what kept us boys busy! In the evening, after rolling on the floor groaning about eating too much turkey, we would build with Erector sets or play a card game. Then we would all sleep on the living room floor while the parents talked, laughed and worked on emptying a big jug of wine. (Yes, Mom, we saw that.) Those were the best years.
I remember several years, though, where Thanksgiving played a pivotal role in our deer hunting year. Dad was relentless about going deer hunting, desperate enough to take all three of us older boys into the woods with him. Good health or bad, funded or not, we had to go out deer hunting. Dad would sell stuff if necessary to get gas money to drive our school bus, converted to a camper, up into the Langlade County Forest and stake our claim on a deer hunting spot. For over three decades, Dad never missed opening day.
Deer hunting during the second weekend was never a sure thing. Sometimes we would try to gain advance approval; other times we would bring it to Mom after returning from the opener. Dad was not good at effective communication with Mom, but he knew how to get what he wanted when it came to deer hunting. The requests had variable outcomes; sometimes we would go up after Thanksgiving dinner. Other times, we would get the three-day weekend. But there were a couple of times when we either got to go up on Wednesday or take the entire nine-day season in the woods.
Those were great Thanksgivings, too. I never asked what Mom and the girls did. We had a turkey in the gas oven, and we had football on a little black-and-white TV hooked up to the bus battery. We ate like kings, just Dad and the boys, sitting around in our long johns. We would hunt, if the weather cooperated, but days upon days of trudging through the snow would take its toll on our bodies and our enthusiasm. One might suspect that deer camp wasn’t strictly about how many deer you shot, or who shot the biggest buck. It was that one magical time of year when we got together as guys, heard the same hunting stories about Dad, Grandpa Deering and Uncle Ray. It was about having a little brandy lemonade to warm up before bed. It was about brothers being together in the woods, where blaze orange outfits and colorful back tags made us all equal. It was about heritage and tradition.
The DNR is promoting this deer season as having “a more traditional feel.” For me, that means trying to get my two older boys in the woods to see what deer hunting is about. Our Thanksgiving will be a special meal for the immediate family. The second weekend, I may hook up with a brother or two to fill what tags we can, and re-tell old hunting stories about Dad, Uncle Ray and the legendary Grandpa Deering. For you, it may mean hunting or not. It probably means travel to be with your family for the long holiday weekend. Whatever it means to you, enjoy the deer hunt and the Thanksgiving holiday.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.