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The Hunters’ Reunion

By Patrick DurkinNovember 14, 2022

My compound bow’s 20-yard sight-pin wavered low on the 8-point buck’s chest as I held at full draw, my index finger hesitating over the trigger release.

Only five minutes had passed since I climbed into Kurt Welke’s ladder stand on his property near Gays Mills in southwestern Wisconsin. But now I had milliseconds to decide whether to release my arrow. Had Welke suggested we shoot only antlerless deer, or specified antler standards for his 90-acre woodlands in Crawford County?

No. I didn’t recall any house rules from his emails or conversations. Still, my doubts endured, given that I don’t always read or listen carefully.

The Hunters' Reunion
The sun rises Nov. 2 over the Kickapoo River valley in southwestern Wisconsin.

An instant later, my doubts vanished. I reminded myself this was Kurt Welke, a man I’ve known since grade school. Why would he set high standards for deer when setting few for the company he keeps? I mean, we’ve known each other since the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, and yet we remain friends a half-century later. If I don’t know his preferences by now, when would I?

Thus assured, I pressed the trigger. The buck bounded downhill, my arrow’s orange and white fletchings staked deeply behind its right shoulder. Seconds later and 15 yards shy of Welke’s walking trail, the buck stopped, braced itself, quivered and collapsed. The arrow’s 3-blade expandable broadhead had pierced both lungs, the heart and liver while quartering through the buck.

The Hunters' Reunion
Patrick Durkin arrowed this 8-point buck Oct. 31 five minutes after climbing into his treestand.

Welke and I field-dressed the 2.5-year-old deer and hung it from his camp’s buckpole before dark, making us damned-near giddy when our longtime friends Mike Foy and Joe “Duffy” Brungardt returned from their hunts at dark.

Our group’s hunting reunion was off to a fast start. Foy, Welke and I lived in the Crestwood neighborhood on the far west side of Madison, the state capital, during our single-digit years, and we met Brungardt soon after in junior high. We hunted and fished often as youths — sometimes together, but more often not — and routinely studied Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines more than textbooks in our high school’s library.

And thanks to Brungardt’s dad, who owned 400 acres in nearby Iowa County, Foy and I hunted deer regularly after getting our driver’s licenses. In fact, I arrowed my first two bow-kills on Brungardt’s land during my late teens.

We drifted in and out of each other’s lives and Wisconsin after graduating high school in 1974, but remained loosely tethered because of the outdoors. I joined the Navy before 1976; while the others waited until after college to depart; Brungardt to Idaho, Foy to Texas, and Welke to Utah, Oregon and Colorado. Only Brungardt, however, failed to re-establish Wisconsin residency. Foy and Welke even ended up sharing an office in Fitchburg for much of their careers as Department of Natural Resources biologists.

During our decades of college and careers, however, we rarely saw each other socially or afield. My friends shed those restraints when retiring recently, and so it was that Welke invited us to his cabin in the bluffs near the Mississippi River.

And there we gathered the afternoon of Oct. 31 to hunt deer and squirrels for a couple of days. After sending Brungardt off with his .22 rifle, Welke led Foy and me westward up his property’s main trail, dropping me off downhill of his two-person treestand, and Foy farther up the valley near a walnut grove.

The Hunters' Reunion
Kurt Welke, left foreground, field dresses the forkhorn buck he arrowed Nov. 1 on his property in Crawford County.

Roughly 15 minutes after my buck died that evening, Foy saw a 13-point buck stop 20 yards from his left shoulder to assess things. If Foy were right-handed, the buck might have died there of a broadhead puncture. But Foy is a lefty, which left him trapped in his ground seat, unable to even lift his compound bow for fear of spooking the buck. With his neck craned, strained and cramping, Foy futilely tried to wish the buck forward to where he could draw and shoot.

When wishing didn’t work, Foy tried coaxing the buck forward with rattling sticks, and then with grunt and bleat calls. Those efforts only deepened the buck’s suspicions, and it vanished back into the hills.

The next morning we slept till daylight, and then Welke went south while I went north to try again. Though dry leaves coated the hills and crunched like crackers underfoot, we still-hunted slowly in opposite directions. Welke must be more patient and quiet than me because he slipped into sight of three turkeys about 10 a.m., and watched them walk away in no great rush.

Soon after, he heard leaves crunching from the same direction beyond the knoll. He shouldered his crossbow as a yearling buck crossed into view 15 yards uphill. Welke shot when the forkhorn stopped to look him over. His buck joined mine on the camp’s buckpole before noon.

After lunch our group skinned, quartered and boned out the bucks while sweating in the 70-degree heat. When Foy resumed hunting after our workday ended, Welke drove me and Brungardt into Gays Mills to buy ice to cool our venison.

After returning, the three of us breaded a batch of Welke’s panfish fillets for the evening meal. Welke prepared dinner after Foy returned after dark to report no deer nearby.

Come to think about it, we spent little time discussing deer activity, hunting strategies or tips for skinning bucks. Such topics bore old friends, I think, even in deer camp. Instead, we shared tales about our fathers and families, high-school teachers we once feared, female classmates we still revere, and long-dead friends we forever grieve.

The Hunters' Reunion
Patrick Durkin, Duffy Brungardt, Mike Foy and Kurt Welke pose with two bucks that Durkin and Welke arrowed during a recent bowhunt in Crawford County.

Still, our conversations were more appreciative than maudlin. We’ve enjoyed good health for nearly seven decades while living in a unique time and place. Our age-group, after all, was too young for Korea or Vietnam, and too old for the Gulf wars.

And as Wisconsin hunters, we’ve witnessed a booming deer herd, the restoration of elk and wild turkeys, the rebound of wolves and waterfowl, and the growing threat to whitetails from chronic wasting disease.

As we broke camp while sweeping fresh dirt and half-dead Japanese beetles from Welke’s cabin, we promised to meet there again soon to hunt or fish. That’s our hope and intention, anyway.

The older we grow, the easier it is to make vows than fulfill them.

 

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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