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Taking a look at my early hunting experiences

April 6, 2018 GMT

When the early settlers came to Nebraska, Big Game animals had sizeable populations throughout the state. Buffalo, elk, deer, antelope and turkeys roamed the prairie.

The Homestead Act was passed in 1862, giving homesteaders 160 acres of land and prompting the frontier population to increase rapidly. Nebraska’s first census count came in 1860, prior to the Civil War and when the state was still considered a territory, finding 28,841 residents. By 1870 the population had increased to nearly 123,000 and it stood above 450,000 in 1880.

Wild game was a primary source of food on the frontier and none of the prairie animals were exempt from being targeted as the next meal. While game was plentiful, the increased human presence began to put pressure on wildlife populations. There were few laws controlling hunting practices and settlers nearly shot out the deer population in much of Nebraska.

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After the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission was established it started placing seasons on game. Game wardens were hired and fines were enforced for anyone breaking the game laws. Getting caught poaching a deer was expensive; $300 for liquidation damages and a $100 fine in the early 1960s.

I saw my first deer in 1948 near Genoa. The deer population was able to rebound, and by 1960 there were enough deer in the area to open a deer rifle hunting season with limited permits. My buddy Frank Czapla and I started hunting in 1962 with rifles and bows. Sears was selling old World War I rifles for $37.50 (about $320 in today’s dollars). I bought a 6.5 X 55 Swedish Mouser. Frank bought a 30.06 Springfield. Both were bolt action with open sights.

Hunter orange was not required at that time and no one really knew how to hunt deer at first. Many people road hunted, especially in bad weather. It wasn’t legal, but it could be productive. Some hunters would try to stalk the deer, but this was not an effective way to hunt. We soon learned that hunting from a tree stand and having the deer come to us was much easier as well as a more productive way to hunt. The stands we built were simple, typically just a platform with a chair. Today’s hunters often build very large stands; many are portable and have heaters, comfortable seats, and cooking equipment.

Before the season started we would meet at the bar to strategize. When opening day came we would usually start early in the morning, sitting on a bale pile or on the ground until we got cold. At a set time a crew of other hunters would join us and we would start walking the canyons with others blocking the animal’s escape path at the opposite end. This worked quite well but was hard work. At the end of the day we’d again meet at the bar to discuss the day’s events, who saw what and where, toast anyone’s success, brag a little, and plan for the next day.

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The first few years we hunted it was a five-day season, bucks only. There weren’t many deer around then and our success depended largely on luck. Later it was a nine-day season. Later still it was changed so that every fifth permit was for a deer of either sex.

The game commission tries to maintain a balance of the deer population, so it’s stable and thriving but not a danger with too many deer leading to accidents on the roadways. Too many deer can also damage farmers’ crops badly. When the deer population becomes too large, they become more prone to disease, a natural culling. One dry year in the seventies and again in the drought of 2012 we lost a great number of deer to chronic wasting disease or what was known as blue tongue.

I taught my boys, one daughter and a daughter-in-law the skills and thrills of deer hunting. It was a good, yearly family affair. I enjoyed rifle hunting and bow hunting equally. At times, either style could get old just sitting there, especially if you didn’t see anything to shoot at or the weather was bad. I heard the kids utter the phrase “Let’s go home,” on several occasions, but now when we get together we enjoy reminiscing about all the adventures we experienced. Of course there were always pictures taken to record the trophies. One trick when taking pictures was to hold the antlers out away from you so they looked bigger and more impressive.

Processing the deer involved the whole family together with our hunting partners. Sometimes this was more fun than the hunt itself. It gave us additional opportunities to discuss the hunt and spend time together. Young hunters were taught how to process the meat, a task that started immediately after the kill. The deer was field dressed, and then once transported home, skinned for better cooling. It was important to remove all the blood, hair, gristle and fat. We’d portion the deer into the various cuts of meat and debone and grind the rest for hamburger. Venison is very lean, and typically we’d mix beef tallow with it to increase its fat content and make the hamburger less dry. The loins and round steaks are delicious, and scoring them makes them tender. Deer meat was a staple for our family of ten, whether fresh, frozen, canned or made into jerky.

I was bow hunting the morning my wife went into labor with our first child. I was usually only gone 2-3 hours at a time and was always home by 10:00 a.m. to check in (no cell phones in those days.) When I got home, she was ready to head to the hospital and later that day Christine was born. On the morning my fourth son was born I’d shot a buck. I suggested we name the new baby Buck, but that idea was vetoed and he was named Ken. It seemed like Teresa was always pregnant during deer season!

One very cold, snowy morning it was too cold to sit in our deer stands so Brother Bob and I went road hunting. As we came over a hill and were looking down into the valley we saw a buck run into a cornfield. I shot and could tell I hit him but he was still moving, so I shot again and my bullet accidently cut the telephone line. When Bob asked what I did that for I told him it was so no one would call Wilkenson, the game warden.

I remember a lot of good times from my hunting days. I last hunted deer when I was 80 years old. I was able to get a permit that allowed for two deer and got a buck and a doe the same morning. Since then I’ve given my hunting rifles away. Now when it’s 4:30 in the morning on the first day of the season it’s nice just to sleep in and dream of the big bucks just waiting out there.

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