By Brandi Makuski
Unseasonably mild temps didn’t stifle the excitement on Saturday for seven new hunters, who collectively saw plenty of deer action and bagged two.
Now in its second year, the Portage Co. Learn to Hunt program — open to males and females of all ages who have not previously purchased a hunting license — took the hunters, many of them youngsters, on a hunting excursion at Standing Rocks Park.
Jon Scharbarth, a conservation warden with the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources, said the program is a cooperative effort with the Portage Co. Parks Dept., Wis. DNR, Bill Cook Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, Almond Rod and Gun Club and the Student Law Enforcement Association at UWSP.
Funding is also provided by the Izaak Walton League and the Wis. Conservation Warden Association, which helps offset costs associated with the hunt, which included construction of deer blinds and lunch from Subway.
“There’s a lot of excitement obviously, everyone’s excited about being a part of the program,” said Scharbarth, adding last year’s inaugural Learn to Hunt program saw 13 newbies participate. “We’re not seeing as many people as last year, but it’s still working really well.”
Scharbarth said the program is designed to expose first-time hunters to a safe and successful hunting experience under the wing of a seasoned mentor — but often, that experience is entirely up to the deer.
“This is a good indication for them that this is what deer hunting is; you’ve got a to invest time and effort,” he said, “be in the right place at the right time.”
Hunters this year ranged in age from 10 to early 20’s. Last year, the oldest first-time hunter was in their 40’s.
“I shoot small game, but this is my first time for deer,” said Jared Polum, 11, who is a student at St. Peter’s Middle School. “It was cool. We saw one deer but by the time we got ready [to shoot], it was gone.
Polum’s advice for new hunters? “Just be patient.”
Another young hunter, 10-year-old Nathan Neilitz, was hunting with his dad, Mark. Unlike many of the other hunters in the program, Neilitz previously bagged himself a doe during the Youth Hunt with the help of his father.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “I shot it and helped my dad get the meat off the bones.
Neilitz, a student at Think Academy in Rudolph, said he and his dad saw a doe Saturday morning but it was out of range. He said the lessons he’s taking from his Learn to Hunt experience evolve around safety.
“If you’re in a ground blind make sure the terrain is right for you to shoot,” he said. “Let’s say you’re inexperienced; if you’re not with an experienced hunter, you could hurt yourself, damage your equipment or cause damage to the landscape.”
“Everyone saw plenty of deer so they were excited about that, so the goal of providing first time hunters a quality learning experience was fulfilled,” said Gary Speckmann, director of parks for Portage County. “The deer just weren’t moving much because of the warm weather.”
Speckmann also said the program only allows antler-less deer to be harvested — part of the program’s secondary goal of culling — which he said “greatly reduced” shooting opportunities.
“At least a dozen different antlered deer were seen in the park by hunters,” he said. “Last year’s hunt also put the natural fear and wariness back into the park’s deer herd and they were much more aware of hunters in the park this year.
But the hunting fun wasn’t just for the boys this weekend. One young lady explained that hunting is not a boys-only club.
“Girls can do this just like the boys,” said Stephanie Lieske, 10. “It doesn’t matter what your gender is.”
Lieske, who was hunting with her father, Don, said she liked sitting in the deer blind because it was quieter than at home, and she plans to continue hunting next year.
“You always like to see a deer, and the weather’s got a lot to do with it, but it’s a good experience for her,” said Dan Lieske. “To be able to show her that this is a lot of what hunting is, watching and waiting, and to bring her out here for the first time, it’s pretty awesome.”