I pull gently on the Hayes Disc Brakes to slow my Schlick Northpaw as I pull up next to an idling four-wheeler along Masterson Fire Lane. “Any of your guys get anything this morning?” I ask?
“Stubby saw that five-pointer but he let it pass,” Buck Masterson said with the combination of disappointment and approval that only a deer hunter interested in Quality Deer Management can appreciate. “I saw some does.”
“I ran into old man Henke going in to his stand this morning,” I say. “He said his hunting buddy got that big fork we all had on camera.”
“Damn, that would have been a nice deer next year,” Buck responds through clenched teeth.
John Henke has been hunting on the four 40s across the fire lane from the Masterson land since 1967. He still wears the same pair of blaze orange wool hunting overalls he bought when they outlawed the red and black plaid in 1980. I like him for his frugality as well as for his timeless sense of hunting fashion. “Yeah, but you can’t tell those old timers to pass up a legal deer this late in the season,” I say.
“Well, it’s his land, but that would have been a nice deer next year,” Buck repeats. “All the other guys at my place are gone. Squirrel left Monday, so did Weasel. Josh left today.”
“What about Wildcat?” I ask.
“He didn’t come this year. I heard he was pissed the other guys gave him so much crap about shooting that little six in Canada he decided not to come,” Buck responded, referring to a recent similarly unsuccessful hunting trip for whitetail we all made to Manaki, Ontario. “I guess he was mad his own son was giving him the business about that pimped out Ford he bought too.”
“All right then, I’m going back out to the knob to sit, then I’m done. All I’ve seen is that same yearling and that doe. I gotta head home tomorrow.” Buck nods and we part ways as he takes his wheeler back into his stand to sit and I pedal my fatbike the mile or so out to my stand.
Neither one of us fired a shot that afternoon, and even though this was the first year in 13 seasons that nobody hunting on the Masterson land would tag a deer, neither of us was complaining. That’s deer hunting in the Northwoods.
I’ve only been hunting with the Masterson clan outside of Butternut in Unit 28A for the last five years or so. Before that I hunted alone and camped out in a tent on public land in Black River Falls State Forest or on a five acre chunk of land my parents used to own outside of Mauston.
Our deer camp consists of a $1,500 mobile home with no running water or electricity that sits on 40 acres of wooded land and swamp owned by my buddy Casey Masterson, who I met when he joined my bike team, Velo Trocadero. Casey’s 40 acres sit next to 140 acres his dad owns and another 20 owned by his older brother Ben. Casey’s uncle Tom “Buck” Masterson owns another 120 on the other side of the fire lane with a real nice cabin he built to host the 6 or so guys in his deer camp.
It might be hard for non-hunters to appreciate, but getting a deer is a bonus that every deer hunter hopes for but never expects. A big part of what I love about hunting is just sitting in the woods alone all day. If I was more “granola” I’d say it is my therapy to sit by myself and think while staring out into the woods and doing my best not to make even the slightest sound.
My mom is from Park Falls, and I don’t really feel like I am “Up North” until I am north of Highway 8. Once I begin to see those white picket signs along Hwy 13, my blood pressure drops and my mind is flooded with wonderful childhood memories from family vacations.
As much as I love getting there, I don’t really like driving much. I probably drive more miles going up to hunt for archery and rifle season than I do all year back down in Milwaukee. Adding the fatbike to my hunting routine has been a big bonus for me in that regard. It is also a much better way to get out to my stand without disturbing any deer on the way.
Deer don’t seem to be bothered by non-human noises. Even the engine noise from four-wheelers often won’t kick up a bedded whitetail, but the sound of even very quiet footsteps sends off an alarm through the forest that will push any deer within a hundred yards away. I have ridden past Casey, still sitting in the dark with a bunch of does and yearlings around his stand. He said none of them looked my way even as the fat tires of my Schlick Northpaw floated over the snow and down the logging road past him.
The other big benefit of hunting by bike is that I get to my stand a lot faster and warmer than if I had to walk. Even on the morning when it was eight-below zero when I headed out of the shack at 5 AM, I had to keep my orange unzipped to keep from overheating while I pedaled.
I also really love deer camp and the stories told over a beer while snacking on pickled gizzards, waiting for a big pot of venison chili to heat up on a hot wood stove at the end of a long day freezing in the woods. After five years, I am just beginning to be able to make the connections between the stories because so many of the characters have multiple nicknames. Just when I think I’ve got the Who’s Who of Peekesville down, I find out “Teeters” is actually Hobb’s given name!
As much as I love everything about deer hunting in Ashland County, I do hate coming home without anything to put in my chest freezer. I started hunting because I want to know where my meat comes from, not so much for a trophy. All the hunters in both Masterson Deer Camps follow the eight points or better to shoot rule. It is our attempt at helping more bigger bucks survive. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to tag Buckzilla, but I prefer to eat and it has been two years since I fired my 30-30 outside sighting it in at the range.
I hope that forty years from I am still hunting whitetail with the Masterson clan and some “young buck” will look at me in the same way I see Old Man Henke. In the meantime though, I got permission to hunt early archery season on another buddy’s land in Saukville! Now all I have to do is get a compound bow mount for my Northpaw! And maybe I need one of those camo Cogburns too…