Although I tried sneaking out into the dark at 4:30 a.m. on opening day of Wisconsin’s 1971 archery season, my mom must have heard me carrying my bowhunting gear to my awaiting bicycle.
She must have moved downstairs with stealth, because she startled me when asking, “Where you going?”
When I said “deer hunting,” she didn’t ask “where” a second time.
“What about your ankle?” she asked.
Patrick Durkin at age 19 with his first buck, taken in Iowa County in October 1975 during the archery season.
I assured her the swelling had eased in my week-old soccer injury, and I no longer needed the crutches beneath my bed.
“Well, be careful,” she said. She shook her head and returned upstairs.
I recalled that scene as Wisconsin’s 2011 archery season opened in September, my 40th anniversary as a bowhunter. So much has changed. For one, I doubt many 15-year-old bowhunters bicycled before dawn to woodlots six miles away to greet the opener.
A much older, and possibly wiser, Patrick Durkin in October 2004.
Most kids don’t ride alone into pre-dark darkness these days, at least not with “deer hunting” as the stated destination. Parents hover more today. Many plan their kids’ weekends for them, specifying activities and destinations by distinct categories. (In my mom’s defense, she had a general idea of my intended whereabouts. She just didn’t worry herself with specifics.)
Equipment has changed, too. My Bear Grizzly recurve bow tied nicely to a bicycle’s crossbar, and my hip quiver didn’t go anywhere once inside my bike’s newspaper-carrier rear baskets.
Although I began bowhunting in 1971, I didn’t get my first deer – an 18-month-old doe -- until two years later. I didn’t get my first buck, another yearling, until I was 19. By that year, 1975, I was shooting an Allen compound bow, with its revolutionary 20 percent let-off cams. Today, of course, 80 percent let-off is the norm.
Bowhunting has seen great change the past 40 years. Portable tree stands were rare in the early 1970s.
My old friend Vic Cunningham snapped a photo of me with my first buck the next afternoon. I feel a bit wistful whenever viewing the picture. I haven’t seen Cunningham for 35 years, nor hair atop my head for nearly 25.
Those changes, however, are small compared to the expectations now imposed on deer hunting. Wisconsin had 100,206 licensed bowhunters in 1971, not even near half the 254,446 we had in 2010.
When I arrowed my first whitetail in 1973, it was one of 8,456 deer that bowhunters killed that year. In 2010, bowhunters registered 83,833 deer; nearly 10 times as many deer with about 2.5 times more bowhunters.
And when I arrowed my first buck, it was one of 4,439 that bowhunters killed in 1975. In 2010, bowhunters registered 42,115 bucks, nearly 10 times as many bucks with 1.9 times more bowhunters. As an fyi, that 2010 total is the third largest archery buck kill in Wisconsin’s history.
Well-made ground blinds are far more available now than they were during the 1970s.
For further perspective, realize the annual archery buck kill has exceeded 40,000 only eight times, but all eight seasons were since 1998. In fact, the combined 1970-79 archery buck kill didn’t reach 40,000. But at 39,293, the decade’s total was close. Imagine that: an annual average of 3,930 bow-killed bucks.
And it’s not like we made up the difference with antlerless deer. From 1970 through 1979, the combined archery kill of bucks and does was 119,244; an annual average harvest of 11,924. In case you missed it, Wisconsin bowhunters twice surpassed 110,000 deer the past five seasons, registering 113,918 bucks and does in 2006, and 116,010 in 2007.
Not bad. Not bad at all, especially when you consider the gun deer-kill never reached 110,000 from 1969 through 1974. We could find worse six-year runs further back in time, but you get the point.
Or do we? Wisconsin bowhunters have never had it better. During the past 10 years, we’ve registered 381,528 adult bucks and 533,640 does and fawns; annual averages of 38,153 and 53,364, respectively.
And somewhere in all those numbers was lots of fun, excitement and high-5s as we pulled deer onto tailgates and admired them on buck-poles. We even tried capturing the moments forever with digital cameras, and then framing our favorites and viewing the rest on smart-phones, e-frames and screensavers.
Hunting photos are nice, no doubt. But the moments we best recall often occur when cameras are turned off, and anticipation heals sprains and worries better than faith itself.