Wolves often start hanging around recent logging operations in the Northwoods because prey animals like deer and rabbits go there seeking the buds and soft bark of freshly felled treetops. / Patrick Durkin/Press-Gazette Media correspondent
MEDFORD — A dogwood branch bent backward against my truck’s windshield as I rolled slowly down a two-track in the Chequamegon National Forest and then sprung loose, slapping my cheek through the open window.
Served me right, I guess. I saw at a glance those weren’t wolf tracks in the 4-inch snow nearby, but I leaned out anyway for a closer look and never saw the slap coming.
Call that branch slap a reality check. Just because I had been lucky enough to draw a wolf tag for Wisconsin’s first regulated wolf season, there’s no guarantee my luck would hold once I started hunting and setting traps for them.
Then again, maybe my hopes were inflated by all the tavern talk about underestimated wolf numbers, wolf tracks outnumbering deer tracks and wolves replacing whitetails on every trail camera photo from the Northwoods.
Based on what I’ve seen during eight days of deer hunting in Wolf Zone 1, one day of wolf hunting in Zone 3 and two days of wolf hunting in Zone 3, Wisconsin should appoint a wolf czar. This wolf hunting business isn’t easy. So far, at least, I’ve found far more deer tracks and buck pellets than wolf tracks and “Canis Lupus” poop wherever I’ve traipsed and driven in Ashland, Taylor, Adams and Price counties.
That’s why I can’t help but admire the success many hunters and trappers have had since wolf season opened Oct. 15. As of Dec. 21, they’ve filled 96.5 percent of the 116 wolf quota. At this rate, I’ll be lucky to get up north again before my competition fills the final four tags of the quota.
It’s not like I’ve been hunting poor areas for wolves, or received no help the past month. The landowner I contacted to hunt and trap in Adams County welcomed me instantly, and told me where he and his family were seeing wolves and wolf sign.
Sure enough, when I went there to check it out in early December with my friend Mike Wilhite of Scandinavia, we found fresh wolf tracks easily enough. As we prepared to return and set traps a couple of days later, we learned the season in Zone 5 would close the next day. Scratch that trip.
A few days later, I pulled into the Department of Natural Resources office in Medford, and asked the local conservation warden, Nick Nice, for directions to the nearest wolf. He circled a couple of areas on a map, and advised me to look for fresh tracks by slowly cruising roads and trails in the vast public forests northwest of town.
“There’s still some bowhunters out there, and you’ll see the hound guys running bobcats,” Nice said. “If you see anyone hanging around their trucks, ask them about wolves. They’ll help you.”
Over the next two days I had no trouble finding tracks made by deer, bobcats, coyotes, weasels, beavers, rabbits, red squirrels and snowshoe hares. Not once, though, did I cut wolf tracks in the days-old snow. Neither did I inspire any wolf howls when stopping to make coyote yips and barks with my mouth call.
At dusk the first day, however, I thought I might have something when spotting unusual tracks trotting through powdery snow along a road edge. I pulled off to the side, turned on my flashlight and walked over to investigate.
Hmm. Canid tracks, no doubt, but probably too small for a wolf. Still, I followed them a hundred yards or so before noticing other similar-sized tracks merging onto the road. Boot prints soon joined the parade, and then they massed before disappearing.
They hadn’t vanished, of course. These were hounds making tracks, and the owners had simply stopped, opened their kennels and loaded the dogs back into their trucks.
Meanwhile, hunters I met along the roads and trails proved as helpful as Warden Nice predicted. Unfortunately, a trio of late-season bowhunters saw neither tracks nor heard howling. A couple of houndsmen saw nothing either. Each apologized, saying they wished they could be more helpful.
Why did I trust their word? Because they also wished me luck with heartfelt enthusiasm. “I hope you shoot one!”
Eventually, I crossed paths with a logger who steered me to a just-completed clearcut about five miles away. He marked the spot on my map and said he had seen two sets of wolf tracks in the cut two days earlier. “Deer are in there eating buds off the cut branches,” he said. “That’s probably why the wolves are hanging around.”
I found the spot, parked my truck and hiked the clearcut’s perimeter over the next few hours. Whenever finding a high spot with long views across the cut, I attached my rifle’s bipod, dropped a seat-cushion, sat down and tried calling. When my loop returned me to the truck, I reluctantly drove home while making tentative plans to return after Christmas.
Time and distance, I’m finding, are probably wolf hunting’s biggest challenges for “downstate” hunters like me. Unlike deer and small game, wolves simply aren’t numerous enough to provide convenient day trips and weekend getaways from distant homes.
It won’t get any easier, I’d guess. Once wolves realize they’re being hunted and trapped, they’ll likely become even tougher to trick. But that’s not a bad deal for wolves or people. The warier wolves become of humans, the more wild and better off they’ll be.