- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Wisconsin tradition appeared to get off to a safe start Saturday as Department of Natural Resources officials said they had received no immediate reports of accidental shootings or other injuries on the opening day of the state’s nine-day gun deer hunt.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp told reporters on a conference call that officials have been hearing “lots of good reports from the field,” although her own hunting party hadn’t seen many deer.

“Being the eternal optimist that I am, I’m very confident that plenty of folks in our hunting party are going to have some successful harvests to report by the end of the season,” Stepp said.

Mild, if locally rainy or foggy weather generally made it a pleasant day for hunting. But conditions varied across the state, with the snow disappearing in southern Wisconsin, central Wisconsin enjoying enough snow to make tracking deer easier, and much deeper snow in northern Wisconsin. Rain in Sunday’s forecast could put a damper on hunting, though.

Wildlife managers expect a smaller harvest this year in northern Wisconsin, where two consecutive harsh winters have depleted the herd. The agency bared hunters in 19 northern counties in whole or in part from taking antlerless deer this year.

Kevin Wallenfang, the DNR big game ecologist, said the stress from last winter also took its toll on antler development. He said he expects many bucks registered in the north will have just small “spike” antlers, and he said the aftereffects are even being seen in some southern counties.

“Some of the older-age bucks that should be carrying much better antlers seem to have been impacted by the harsh conditions,” Wallenfang said. “After a harsh winter, their first obligation to themselves is to pack on body weight, and then (grow) their antlers.”

The DNR sold nearly 590,000 gun-hunting licenses by late Friday, down 4 percent from the same point last year, said Diane Brookbank, the DNR’s director of customer and outreach services.

But Stepp said she was encouraged by the growing numbers of female and young hunters. Women and girls have accounted for about a third of new buyers of deer licenses this year.

“Personally I think I’ve checked eight to 10 different hunting parties with new hunters or female hunters,” said Todd Schaller, the DNR’s chief warden. “All with smiles, some with bigger smiles based on their success in harvesting a deer.”

Wallenfang said there had been no major glitches with the state’s new electronic deer registration system. He said hunters had registered about 280 deer online or by phone as of mid-afternoon. Figures on total registrations were not available Saturday, but the DNR expects to release opening weekend statistics on Monday, he said.

Calling in from a foggy ridge top in rural Richland County, Tom Hauge, administrator of the DNR’s bureau of wildlife, said his nephew successfully registered a buck on his phone from his tree stand.

The season runs through Nov. 30.

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