This past Saturday marked the start of the Wisconsin gun deer-hunting season; it was my 46st opener. There are lots of memories from those years but I will never forget opening day 30 years ago.
Deer hunters love a little snow for opening morning because it helps with visibility and for tracking deer. The chance of that this year was small thanks to the warm November we’ve experienced. That was not the case Nov. 23, 1991.
November 1991 started with an early blast of winter. The remnants of the Halloween Blizzard that caused massive ice accumulations across much of Iowa and Minnesota – there was $63 million in utility damage in Iowa alone and $5 million in crop damage – came Nov. 1 to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, area in the form of snow. Ten inches fell on La Crosse and about 4 inches fell on the family farm in Jackson County, Wisconsin. Two brothers who were duck hunting on Lake Onalaska lost their lives when their boat overturned.
It was worse in the Twin Cities, where 28.4 inches fell. Duluth had a whopping 36.9 inches of snow – the largest single-storm total in Minnesota history. More unusual than the early-season snow was that it stayed for a while. Temperatures fell to double-digits colder than zero a few days later. A mid-month warming of almost 60 degrees did melt the snow.
But that was a momentary reprieve. The snow was already coming down opening morning as I walked to my deer stand on the farm. There’s a silent sound to falling snow when you’re in the woods, a muffled sort of stillness. Daylight brought a beautiful winter scene.
But I was there to hunt. About 10 a.m. a lone doe walked across the valley in front of my stand; she fell with one shot. The deer was tagged and field-dressed – a successful hunt.
I sat back in my stand – a ground blind – and started a fire. The warmth was welcome as the temperature started to drop. The snow kept falling, with several inches on the ground by late morning. The wind started to pick up. Soon other hunters in the family were visiting my stand to warm by the fire. The deer activity slowed as they bedded down to wait out the storm.
It’s always best to dress in several layers, which I did on that day. But about 3 p.m. I started shivering. My fire had dwindled because my wood supply was running out, and the constant wet snow had finally soaked through my clothes.
I decided to head back to the house. When I left my valley I realized the storm was indeed more like a blizzard. The snow was more than 10 inches deep and was drifting. With a half-mile walk straight north into the wind, there were several times when I turned around and walked backward to protect my face from freezing.
It was probably a good thing I had not seen any deer for several hours because when I started to unload my rifle I found it was frozen solid. I could not even remove the clip.
The total snowfall was 13 inches, which is the eighth-most one-day total in La Crosse weather records. A few days later several more inches fell. The month’s total was 30.3 inches – the 10th-most monthly total and the only month in the top 10 that doesn’t include at least some winter. The second-most November is a paltry 15.8 inches that fell in 1934.
After warming and changing into dry clothing, we retrieved my doe with the help of a tractor and wagon. It was dark by the time we returned.
I’ve hunted on other snowy opening mornings, including the year when I shot my first buck in the late 1970s, but none compared to 30 years ago. With our recent warm Novembers, I’ll probably never see it again.
But to this day I hunt over an open fire and have plenty of wood – just in case.
Chris Hardie and his wife, Sherry, raise animals and crops on his great-grandparents’ Jackson County farm. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001, he’s a former member of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and past-president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Email email@example.com with comments.