By Gary Nski
As I watch the last sunset of the last day of the last of Wisconsin’s deer gun seasons for 2019, I was remembering, joyfully, my future daughter-in-law Jess’s phone call three years ago.
“Hey, Gary, I just got a call from my uncle. My grandfather left me all of his deer rifles, shotguns and a .22-caliber Winchester. Would you please teach me how to use them and how to hunt with them?” The words hadn’t even left her lips before I exclaimed, “Let’s do this!” and I thought this is a perfect match for what the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s +ONESM Movement initiative is all about. My father mentored me, and if I could mentor Jess and my daughter, Elizabeth, by introducing them to the sports I love, a life’s mission would be achieved.
Before we could move forward, I advised Jess she first needed to get a Wisconsin Hunter’s Safety Certificate. While she was working on completing that, I started scouring topo maps of northwestern Wisconsin to zero in on deer habitat like my dad and I had done five decades ago.
My late father, Henry, started teaching me at the age of five about what would become my life’s passions of hunting and fishing. On fall Sunday afternoons in the 1960s, we’d cruise the fire lanes of Wisconsin’s rural Clark county in the emerald-green, 1952 two-door Pontiac he’d purchased with savings from his combat duty pay in the Korean War. He also used those savings to purchase a Mossberg semi-auto .22-caliber rifle, a Winchester model 94 .32 Win. Spec. rifle and a Winchester Model 12 12-gauge shotgun. We’d explore those back country roads, fire lanes and forests, foraging for edible oak stump mushrooms, hunting for ruffed grouse, gray squirrels and fox squirrels and scouting for whitetail deer sign before the upcoming Wisconsin deer seasons while listening to veteran football announcer Ray Scott call the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packer games on the old Pontiac’s radio.
I cherish those memories with Dad, and I wanted to pay forward the gift of the outdoors he gave me to Jess and Elizabeth. Jess passed her required hunter’s safety course, and in early fall of 2017, I ventured north to the twin ports of Duluth Minnesota and Superior Wisconsin and the public hunting lands of Douglas County to meet up with her and Elizabeth.
That trip had a dual purpose. I wanted to spend time inventorying the inherited guns, but I also needed to teach the girls safe firearms handling and how to sight in a rifle before we took to the woods to scout for whitetail sign.
I was fortunate to grow up in a small Wisconsin farming community with an active hunting and angling tradition fostered by our local scout troops and a sportsmen’s club. Once a month, we’d gather at a local tavern for a wild game feed. On some nights, we’d have a reel-to-reel movie about hunting moose or grizzlies in Alaska or fishing for huge northern pike and lake trout in Canada. The club raised funds through a variety of raffles, bratwurst feeds and donations from organizations like the NRA and local and state government agencies to build a state-of-the-art shooting range. That rifle range is where many, including myself, learn how to safely and accurately shoot our guns at an early age.
Jess and I started sighting in our rifles at the 25-yard line at the George Constance Sr. Memorial Range and completed our sight-in at the 100-yard lanes, satisfied with our accuracy. That’s when Elizabeth asked to shoot one of my rifles.
I was surprised. When Elizabeth was growing up on our farm, she’d embraced the outdoors at a very early age, chasing frogs, riding and showing our horses, fishing and occasionally hanging out in a deer blind with me and now and then field-dressing a deer. But she’d never asked to shoot or actually hunt, and I’d never pushed either on her. But it turns out that Elizabeth, now 28, had learned how to shoot with friends.
I asked her which of my two .30-06s she wanted to try. She chose the Browning A-bolt. We loaded her choice and I stood back with the spotting scope to watch the distant target. I had to rub my eyes after she squeezed off her first round: At 100 yards, she’d hit the one-inch bull’s-eye. And there was more, for her next three shots produced a three-inch group.
She ejected the last round, laid the A-Bolt down, chamber open, on the bench and looked up at me with a Cheshire cat smile. “Dad, it’s all about the breathing,” to which I replied, “Okay, you two Annie Oakleys, there’s a bit of a different breathing pattern shooting at paper target verses shooting at one with hair. Let’s see what happens when deer season opens in a couple weeks.”
Wisconsin’s deer hunting traditions, management and future are currently at a major crossroads, just as they are in many areas of the country. In 2019, Wisconsin deer hunting license purchases were down over 15,000. Deer in 50 of our 72 counties have tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), that after a nearly 20-year attempt to control the disease. There’s even bickering amongst us about the firearms we choose to hunt deer with. All of these things, and a lack of seasoned hunters ushering in a new generation to our traditions, threaten the future of hunting.
Still, I remain optimistic because of the time I’ve spent with Jess and Elizabeth over the past three hunting seasons. Together we’ve put venison in the freezer each year, including the first season after I taught them to sight in their rifles and took them scouting. Best of all, I’ve learned as much mentoring them as they hopefully have learned from me.
The importance of safe gun handling both in and out of the field.
The skill of not just hiking but slowing way down to track, hunt and, if lucky, harvest.
That your heart rate will indeed greatly differ between a paper target versus one with hair or feathers; Jess learned that after she failed to take her safety off when a deer was standing just 30 yards away.
The importance of taking care of your game once killed with proper field-dressing in the woods and processing the meat once back at camp.
And, finally, taking these lessons of the guns and of the hunt and becoming mentors themselves. That’s how NSSF’s +ONE Movement is intended to work. That’s how we keep hunting alive.
Have you ever considered expanding your hunting party and family with a hunting dog? A four-legged partner is the perfect hunting +ONE to make your trips afield more memorable.