Sunday, November 20, 2005

‘04 killings failto thwart spirit

RICE LAKE, Wis. — The air was still and the woods were quiet as mother and daughter, decked out in blaze orange, made their way along a snowy road deep in the rolling countryside.

Day One of Wisconsin’s firearms deer opener was only a few hours old, but Monique Stertz and her daughter, Rebekah, 10, of Chetek, Wis., already were getting antsy. They had seen a few deer against the snow and gray of this November morning, but none was close enough to shoot.

Now, as gunshots began to echo across the hillside far away, they worked to reposition themselves in hopes of bagging a buck.

“My freezer is empty,” Mrs. Stertz said, explaining why she turned out in the dark of morning to stake out a spot in the cold, damp brush.

All across Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands of hunters were hoping to restock their freezers. But here in the northwest part of the state, not far from the spot where six local hunters were fatally shot last November, getting back to the woods seemed more important than before.

Donning blaze orange caps and vests and carrying shotguns and rifles, thousands of hunters took to the countryside Saturday in hopes of bringing home a deer or two while renewing family traditions, celebrating friendships and soothing a heartache of a season lost to tragedy.

“It’s like most things — you’re not going to just quit because of one incident of terror or fright,” said Mrs. Stertz’s husband, Dereck, 44. “It just wouldn’t be any fun if you stopped after one sorry incident like that.”

For the most part, opening day was quiet and uneventful. By midafternoon, Mike Bartz, the regional warden for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Spooner, said there had been no reports of tension or trouble.

“It has been a good day,” he said. “I’ve been really tickled.”

But a few hours later, the day turned tragic when a 66-year-old man was shot by accident by someone in his hunting party in Webb Lake Township near Danbury. The Burnett County Sheriff’s Office and the DNR had no other details Saturday night.

How much of a factor last year’s killings — in which Chai Soua Vang, a Hmong truck driver from St. Paul, shot eight hunters from the Rice Lake area, killing six — will have on hunter turnout for Wisconsin’s firearms season is difficult to know.

As of Friday, 631,919 hunters — nearly as many as the year before — had obtained licenses to hunt deer during the state’s nine-day firearms season, which ends next Sunday.

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