By Brandi Makuski
More than 20 deer were harvested last weekend at Standing Rocks Park- but this wasn’t your average hunt.
The Learn to Hunt program has been in existence throughout the state for more than a decade, but only just came to Portage Co. this year. If the excitement garnered Nov. 7 and 8 is any indication, it could become a public relations beacon for the county parks system and the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources.
“It’s a beautiful weekend, the kids are excited, the adults are excited- it’s really a great way to learn about Wisconsin’s hunting culture, help cull the herd and maybe take home some stew meat,” said Jon Scharbarth, a conservation warden with the DNR.
Scharbarth said new hunters- those who’ve never hunted with a license- are paired up with mentors- those with at least five years experience hunting deer- for the weekend. The group had prepared for the hunt two week prior with classes on hunter’s safety, deer biology and proper firing techniques during classes held at the Izaak Walton League. Licenses for the hunt were provided by the DNR.
“More than just learning to hunt, this is also a herd- reduction,” Scharbarth said. “That was one of the driving forces to being able to do this hunt. The deer herd has gotten a little too big for its britches here and there’s some issues with forest regeneration, so the time was right to come in an reduce the herd.”
New hunters were chosen to participate based on a lottery draw by the Portage Co. Parks Department in early fall. More than 50 hunters initially signed up.
Jacob Spoelstra, 10, was the youngest hunter in the program. He bagged a doe on Saturday, and said he now plans to go hunting every year with his family.
Mentor Ron MacDonald pointed to Spoelstra and a group of young men gathered around the trailer filled with harvested deer, who were excitedly sharing their stories of both evasion and capture.
“See how they’re so excited? This is like Nintendo for them,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald later made an impromptu presentation of McDonald’s gift certificates to Mason Jelinski, his 12-year-old apprentice hunter who he called “swimmer man”, stemming from an incident earlier in the day when a deer fell into a stream after being shot. Jelinski had eagerly volunteered to retrieve it, MacDonald said.
Jelinski, 12, bagged two bucks and a doe during the two-day hunt.
“The first one I hit in the lung, then it went dashing into a tree,” a breathless and excited Jelinski described. “Another one I hit just spun around and went straight down.”
When asked what his family was going to do with the venison, Jelinski said, “We’re going to eat it. I’m definitely going hunting next year…I’m hooked.”
Jelinski’s mother Heidi, of Plover, participated in the program with her son. She took a hunter’s safety class during the summer with Mason when she first heard about the Learn to Hunt program.
“My husband’s family hunts and my grandpa hunted, but by the time I got old enough, my grandpa didn’t hunt anymore,” Heidi Jelinski said. “So when [Mason] was old enough to take hunter’s safety, I said if he was going to do it, I would do it too because I’d probably have to go with him at some point. My husband told me this was a chance of a lifetime, so I knew this was the right move.”
The Jelinski Family now has four deer to take home. Heidi Jelinski said a family member would use the hides to make a blanket for Mason, then laughed and added it was a “good thing” the family owned a chest freezer to store the meat.
Scharbarth said the hunt was a cooperative effort between the DNR, Portage Co. Parks, the Bill Cook Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, the Almond Rod and Gun Club and UWSP Student Law Enforcement. Some of the mentors, he said,were UWSP students.
Assemblywoman Katrina Shankland also stopped by the park for a visit, citing a chance to “get an inside look” at the Learn to Hunt program.
“I wanted a chance to see how parents can get their kids into the beautiful outdoors,” she said. “This is a part of Wisconsin’s culture.”
Shankland, who’s never hunted before, said she’s received some good-natured ribbing from fellow representatives in Madison, some of whom have offered to teach her.
Shankland serves on the state’s Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee. When asked her parting thoughts after listening to the excitement from the all-ages hunters, she said, “Hunting brings everyone together and espouses a lot of pride.”