Robert C. Willging is a freelance outdoors writer whose work has appeared in such publications as "Boundary Waters Journal," "Deer and Deer Hunting," "High Country News," "Wisconsin Natural Resources," and "Wisconsin Outdoor News." A wildlife biologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an ardent sportsman, Willging has pursued Wisconsin whitetails since 1984. He lives in Rhinelander with his wife and two children.
Wisconsin Historical Society Press: What motivated you to write "On the Hunt"?
Robert Willging: My education and career paths have centered on wildlife biology and management but I think I'm a frustrated journalist, too. Way back in high school, science classes received equal attention with writing and journalism classes, but by graduation day my mind was set on a wildlife management degree. I began to plug away at freelance outdoor writing during and after college, whenever I had the time. It was after college that I began to develop a passion for U.S. history after a trapper I worked with in Texas signed me up in a history book club. After reading a few books from the club, I realized that history was a lot more interesting than what was taught in school. These three passions — wildlife, writing, and history — finally came together when Dean Bortz, editor of "Wisconsin Outdoor News," published an article I wrote about a Wisconsin Northwoods fur trapper who was murdered back in the 1930s. From there, I wrote a ten-article series, the genesis of "On the Hunt," which chronicled the Wisconsin deer hunt through the 20th century. The articles were a natural for me, as I had really been attracted to the early days of the Wisconsin Northwoods deer hunt and tried to envision what those early deer camps might have been like. The great information I compiled for the "Wisconsin Outdoor News" articles seemed worthy of a book and happily the Wisconsin Historical Society Press thought so, too.
WHS Press: Deer hunting is a popular outdoor activity throughout the United States. As some one who has hunted in other parts of the country, what is unique about deer hunting in Wisconsin?
RW: I've hunted deer in New Mexico and Texas. In fact, the first deer I ever killed were two does in hunts in Texas in the 1980s. Those southern hunts were interesting, educational, and rewarding, and there's no doubt that whitetail hunting in Texas is a very big deal. But even though I wasn't born and raised in Wisconsin, I had already been bitten by the Wisconsin deer hunting bug: my ideas of what deer hunting was all about were formed in Wisconsin. I believe deer hunting in the western Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota shares many characteristics, and in many ways the development of the deer hunt in these states was similar. These states have had a very traditional deer season framework. In Wisconsin the traditional nine day season, starting the Saturday before Thanksgiving, dates back to the 1940s and became the norm, with a few exceptions, since the early 1960s. This is unique to Wisconsin and really promotes the tradition of the hunt. With two weekends and a holiday thrown in, the framework really lends itself to closing up shop and taking the entire season off from work. While hunting camps are certainly popular in states with longer seasons, I feel the deer camp tradition is particularly strong in Wisconsin, maybe due in part to the shorter season. Also, since the season always coincides with Thanksgiving, a very family oriented holiday, deer hunting in Wisconsin is frequently a family affair.
WHS Press: How is deer hunting an important part of Wisconsin's history?
RW: Deer hunting is important because the whitetail has played such a significant role in the development of the state, more than most deer hunters realize. Deer were important providers of food and skins to the earliest inhabitants of the region, the people that arrived on the heels of the receding glaciers, and continued to be a critical source of meat and materials for the many groups of people that came after: the Ojibwe and Ho-Chunk, the French and English, the American and immigrant pioneers. During the market-hunting era the sale of deer skins and venison had a huge economic impact when Wisconsin's economy was small. Early conservation ideas that began to develop in the early 1900s were in part the result of alarm caused by a dwindling supply of deer, as well as other natural resources. More recently the deer hunt in Wisconsin has developed into a great tradition that is enjoyed by well over half a million people, an amazing fact when you consider Wisconsin's population is only about five and a half million. And, not insignificantly, deer hunting pumps many millions of dollars into the state's economy. The whitetail has been here as long as people have been here, and the interrelationship between people and deer through the centuries is a great Wisconsin history story.
WHS Press: What do you think Wisconsin deer hunters can learn from "On the Hunt?"
RW: I think the book can provide today's deer hunters with a deeper understanding and appreciation of their favorite activity. The book puts our current hunting routine in a broader context, it shows that hunters are involved in an ever-changing activity. However, "On the Hunt" also emphasizes that the core values of the hunt — the feeling we get when we're at deer camp, the joy of seeing deer while hunting, the elation of taking a nice deer during the season — have been common denominators through the years. Knowing the history of the hunt, how we got to where we are today, I feel is important. To face today's issues it always helps to take a look at the past. Despite dire warnings of the decline of hunting nationally and in the state, I'd like to paraphrase Mark Twain and say that the reports of deer hunting's death in Wisconsin have been greatly exaggerated.
WHS Press: In what ways do you think "On the Hunt" would appeal to non-hunters?
RW: I purposely tried to avoid making "On the Hunt" a treatise on deer management or simply a database filled with dry facts and figures. Although the development of scientific deer management, as well as the facts and figures, are important components in understanding the history of deer hunting in Wisconsin, I wanted to emphasize the unscientific human component. Many of my information sources are newspapers, and I quote editorials and articles from the late nineteenth century through today that give the reader an idea of the public attitudes towards deer hunting, for better or for worse and often conflicting, of a specific time period. There is real drama there, real anger and frustration, sometimes rage, more than an ample amount of politics, as well as great successes and accomplishments. The road from the earliest days of regulated sport hunting to where we are today is fascinating. There is so much more to the story than just how many deer were killed in a given season and I feel that anyone with an interest in Wisconsin history, hunter and non-hunter alike, would enjoy learning about it.
WHS Press: How did your experiences as a hunter influence the writing of "On the Hunt?"
RW: One goal of mine while writing this book was to put in one place as much information as possible about Wisconsin deer hunting through the years in order to serve as a handy reference for years to come. While "On the Hunt" contains a great amount of information and data related to the Wisconsin deer hunt — things that I found in reports, newspapers, magazines, and other documents — another perhaps greater goal of mine was to communicate the feeling of the deer hunt: the emotional component. What drives a normally sane person to sit in a tree stand for hours on end or to trudge for miles through knee-high snow when the temperature is well below freezing? Why are hunters so emotional about changes to season structure and regulations? I think it would have been impossible to write a book that seeks to capture that emotional drive that deer hunters possess, the very essence of the hunt, without being a passionate deer hunter myself. When hunters talk about the eve of opening day as excitedly as children on Christmas Eve, I know exactly how they feel. So in several places in the book, some obvious and some less so, I interject my own personal experiences, and I am hopeful that I was able to succeed in some way in communicating not just the facts, but the emotional connection between people and the deer hunt as well.
WHS Press: What is it about deer hunting that appeals so strongly to people in Wisconsin and elsewhere?
RW: Certainly it is a combination of many things, some easy to communicate and some more intangible. The animal itself, the whitetail, is incredible: an abundant big game animal that can be exciting and challenging to hunt. Deer hunting can be an exceptional hunting experience right here in the state, no need to travel west or to Canada. The Wisconsin landscape itself is also a big component of the appeal: the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the diversity and beauty of southern and central Wisconsin and the wildness of the Northwoods. Wisconsin's great deer hunting traditions, the very family friendly nature of the hunt, also add to the appeal. Overall the deer hunt can be an extremely rewarding experience, whether you get your deer or not.
WHS Press: And finally, where is your favorite place in Wisconsin to go hunting?
RW: While I enjoy hunting the oak ridges and steep ravines near Bayfield, I'd have to say the Chequamegon region surrounding Clam Lake, with its wilderness appeal, is still one of my favorite deer hunting areas.