How I bagged my first buck on a mentored hunt with Joel Kleefisch

By Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times 

On a fall afternoon in 1995, my mom asked me — like she did most days — what I’d learned in school.

“I learned that if you’re going into the woods in the fall, you need to wear blaze orange,” I told her.

She was horrified.

We had moved that summer from rural Iowa to Marinette, Wisconsin, a small northeastern town that serves as the state’s first line of defense against Upper Michigan. It's a place where hunting is as much a religion as what Catholics and Lutherans practice at church. I was in kindergarten and she wondered what our family had gotten into by moving to this far-flung corner of the state.

On a fall afternoon in 2017, I called my mom while driving home from a shooting range. I’d been practicing, I told her. I was going to go hunting.

She was horrified.

I wasn’t raised in a hunting family. My dad went a few times with his father as a young adult, but the only remnants of that tradition were the mounted buck heads I gawked at as a toddler in my grandparents' home. I didn’t fire a gun until I was in my mid-20s. Even then, I couldn’t imagine a life being extinguished by my hand.

But my respect for hunters and their tradition has grown over time. As a child, I watched with bemusement as my classmates took time off of school to go deer hunting. A middle school boyfriend tried to help me understand what hunting meant to him, and why he cared about it so — so, so, so — much. He was the first to show me it wasn’t the barbaric act I envisioned, and to lay the groundwork to help me understand and appreciate subsequent friends’ dedication to the November deer hunt.

Hunters I've met in the two decades since I acquired my blaze orange knowledge use words like “harvest” more than “kill,” and they hold a deep respect for the animals whose lives they take to feed their families and friends. I ate venison for the first time at the age of 27. I was no longer appalled by the thought of hunting. I started to respect it.

And then something funny happened. Two Thanksgivings ago, I wrote a story about a bipartisan turkey hunting adventure — state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, took state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and her son on their first hunt — and my curiosity was piqued. I said I wanted to go sometime.

And I kind of, sort of meant it.

Wisconsin has allowed mentored hunting since 2009. The law, designed to introduce more people to hunting, originally allowed novices age 10 and older to hunt without having taken a hunter’s safety class as long as their mentors — experienced hunters — stay within an arm’s length. That law also requires only one firearm or bow to be carried between the mentor and the mentee.

As of Sunday evening, the state Department of Natural Resources had sold 17,267 mentored licenses this year, said spokesman Andrew Savagian. That’s up from 16,139 at the same time in 2016.

Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point, went on a mentored hunt this year as part of the DNR’s “Learn to Hunt” program. In addition to the safety precautions and skills she learned through the four-week course, she said the most important thing her two mentors gave her was the confidence she needed to hunt successfully.

Shankland, 30, had always been interested in hunting, but like me, didn’t grow up in a hunting household. She bagged a 10-point buck within 12 minutes on her first day out and she can’t wait to share the experience with friends again next year.

“What I learned from hunting is every hunter — and I think this is true of every sportsman in Wisconsin — every hunter wants every other hunter to have an ideal experience, to be safe, to harvest well and to practice that good sportsman ethic,” Shankland said.

Gov. Scott Walker signed a controversial bill into law earlier this month that eliminates the age requirement for mentored hunting and drops the one-weapon restriction. My colleague Jason Stein at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a terrific column about those changes and his own experiences hunting as a child in Kansas.

Kleefisch, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, is an ebullient presence at the Capitol, eager to share his hunting stories to anyone in earshot and show off his trophy-filled office, which includes a bearskin, an alligator and a turkey, among others. He said he’s taken “well more than 30” new hunters out for their first time. On Monday, I became one of them.

“For me, introducing someone to hunting is 100 times more thrilling than hunting and harvesting myself,” Kleefisch said. “The excitement of watching someone see an animal in the wild and see the potential to take it from the field to the table is inexplicable.”

Our hunting preparation began with some target practice. It turns out I'm not a bad shot. But the range can’t replicate what I would experience out in the woods.

We arrived at a property in Waukesha County by 5:30 a.m. Monday. Kleefisch scouts areas in several counties for turkey and waterfowl— on some days, putting 100 miles on his truck — and makes a note of where he sees deer. He chose this spot knowing it had not yet been hunted this year.

I had assembled a makeshift cold weather outfit from my wardrobe — mostly a lot of flannel — and added a blaze pink sweatshirt Kleefisch loaned me for the day. He was a lead author on a 2015 law allowing hunters to wear fluorescent pink, in addition to orange, for safety in the woods.

A blaze orange mink trapper hat completed the look.

In darkness and hushed tones, we climbed up a metal ladder and made our way into a blind built into an old windmill. Kleefisch brought everything he could to ensure my comfort, including a portable heater and hand warmers. Although the new law allowed him to bring a firearm for himself, he brought just one so he could focus on my mentored hunt.

And then we sat. I got too cold. I got too warm. I got tired. We waited for official daybreak at 6:26 a.m., when we could start shooting if we spotted something.

Around 7 a.m., I saw movement. Turkeys. A few minutes later, Kleefisch sprang into action. I followed his gaze and spotted a buck walking through the trees. He set up the shotgun — a Mossberg 12 gauge with a rifled barrel — and my hands and eyes found their way into place while we waited for the buck to walk into a clearing, about 70 yards away from us.

Kleefisch made a noise to get the buck's attention. I aimed and pulled the trigger. The slug flew over its back and I was sure I’d lost my chance. I fired again. Why wasn’t my aim as good as it had been at the range? One more. Another miss. And now the chamber was empty.

Kleefisch reloaded and dialed the scope to its highest magnification.

“Take your time,” he said, and I took a breath as I lined up the shot.

Then I did what Kleefisch said all new hunters do: I turned and looked at him in disbelief.

"You did it," he said.

My sense of achievement was soon interrupted as I watched the animal thrash on the ground for a few seconds as life left its body. There was nothing I could do to prepare for how it felt to see that, and I needed a few moments of reassurance to learn it had died quickly.

Kleefisch had prepared me for everything that happened next. My heart rattled my rib cage as adrenaline coursed through my body. At the same time, I was overwhelmed with sadness for the life I had taken. He reminded me to be careful exiting the blind, since I was still shaking.

We went over all of this before the hunt. In addition to going through safety protocol and the TAB-K formula, we talked about what I would feel in the hours to come — excitement, followed by unease, followed by a balancing out.

I also felt a strange combination of gratitude and sorrow as I approached the deer. When I knelt next to it, I felt a shift toward gratitude and accomplishment. We counted the points on his antler — six of them on the left, but his right antler had broken off.

Loading the carcass into the back of the truck required a complex series of maneuvers that included backing the truck onto a hill, fashioning a pulley system and getting blood on my Coach snow boots — which were probably not designed for hunting.

When it was time to field dress the deer, I left the difficult part to the expert. But I held its legs, watched and learned.

As soon as I got back in the car, I pulled out my phone and registered my harvest online. A provision in the 2017-19 state budget, inserted at Kleefisch’s request, eliminates the requirement to place a carcass tag on deer or turkeys killed by hunters. That move drew concerns from some who worried it would make it more difficult to track harvest data, but supporters argued all registration requirements remain the same.

The next stop was a processor — a small operation run by Rubicon farmer Terry Radschlag — and then to a DNR testing station to have it checked for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

By noon, it had sunk in. I had harvested a buck.

I won’t have venison in time for Thanksgiving dinner, but pending the results of the CWD test, I’ll have a freezer full of roasts and steaks to feed myself, my friends and family — and my venison-loving dog — for months to come.

I went into the woods hoping to better understand a Wisconsin tradition that had long eluded me. I came out with an appreciation far beyond anything I could have anticipated.