Wisconsin is one of the best places to hunt whitetail deer in the United States. Wisconsin’s deer herd is healthy and growing and many states would be envious of Wisconsin’s five-year average annual whitetail harvest of 490,000 animals. Since the first Europeans arrived in Wisconsin, deer populations have increased dramatically. Although elk and moose populations suffered when new immigrants started logging, deer herds thrived.
Thick native timber inhibited new growth, but logging opened the forest to the sun, permitting browse and tender plants to grow. Farming practices have also benefited deer by providing additional food sources rich in vitamins and minerals. With the addition of good conservation practices enacted in the early 1900s, deer are flourishing and providing abundant recreational activities and food to all who enjoy hunting.
Wilderness Whitetails Hunting Preserve got started in early spring 1976 when a young doe crossing a busy rural road in central Wisconsin was struck and killed by a passing motorist. Her fawn, only a few days old, was found and cared for by a young mother from a nearby farm. Carol Flees had three young sons of her own and could not let the fawn starve and her sons eagerly accepted the deer as their pet.
Growing up with a deer as a family pet is an experience few people can imagine. The fawn soon became a playmate to the boys and the family dog. Buffy, as she was called, was free to roam a thousand acres. Each fall she would take to the woodlands to join wild deer on the farm, returning each spring to assume her life as the family pet. After a few short years, the Flees applied for a breeders permit to officially adopt Buffy. She lived a long and full life on the farm, dying in 1990 at the age of fourteen — old for a deer.
The nurturing of Buffy and her offspring kindled a keen interest in raising wild deer for Carol and her sons. The experience changed their lives from farmers to breeders of superior bucks and strong healthy does. In 1996, a young buck was born on the farm with exceptional genes. He proved to be a good breeder and readily passed his genes on to his sons and daughters. Bucky, as he was named, became the “breeding stock” foundation for Wilderness Whitetails Preserve. Soon, Bucky and his offspring were producing exceptional deer in both size and antler mass.
In 1999, Wilderness Whitetails Hunting Preserve offered its first public hunts. Carol and two sons, Greg and Shorty, run the family-owned operation. Under Carol’s watchful eye, they created food plots of corn, mustard, soybeans, chicory, clover, and alfalfa, and offer supplemental feeding of sunflower seeds, beet pulp, orchard apples, pumpkin, and peanuts. The Preserve is also blessed with an abundance of natural plants and browse favored by deer.
As a result of exceptional genetics, excellent natural habitat, and supplemental feeding, Carol, Greg, and Shorty are now producing some of the largest and highest scoring whitetail deer in the world. By the end of the hunting season in 2009, thirty-eight deer that were taken on the Preserve had scored more than 200 inches SCI. The deer with the largest rack scored 340 inches. Only one year later, they had their best year ever with one lucky hunter taking a giant buck that officially scored 444 6/8 inches. At this writing, it’s yet unofficial, but that monster buck may be the new Safari Club world record. That same year, after pursuing the buck for nine days, another fortunate hunter bagged an enormous whitetail that tipped the scales at 420 pounds. One day when all the genetics fall into place, it may be possible to bag a new “breed” of whitetail — the new “4X4” — a deer scoring more than 400 inches SCI and tipping the scales at more than 400 pounds, and it could happen at Wilderness Whitetails Preserve.
When I stopped by the booth of Wilderness Whitetails Preserve at the 2010 Safari Club Hunters’ Convention in Reno, I was impressed with the size of their deer mounts. Right away I knew I wanted to hunt with Wilderness Whitetails. Shorty explained, “All our hunts are guided one-on-one and non-hunting guests are welcome at no additional charge.” We arranged a hunt near the end of their season after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas holidays. Near the end of November, I flew from my home in sunny Tucson, Arizona, to the small airport at Mosinee, Wisconsin. I was greeted by Shorty, who looks as though he should be casually clothed in a JoS. A. Bank catalog. His brother, Greg, has the same good looks minus the well-trimmed beard.
The Flees have three hunting properties containing 800 acres and own an additional 1,000 acres where Carol resides. The hunting properties offer a variety of topography and vegetation. Deer, bobcat and wild turkey quickly disappear into thick cedar swamps that border poplar and birch tree low lands. Higher up, rolling ridges support large stands of pine, spruce, maple, and oak. The lodge where I would hunt is situated on the Wilderness North property, and is a large A-frame with additions containing kitchen, dining area, great room, card room, six bedrooms, and a bunk area above for guides. The lodge offers all the amenities of home and then some. Where else can you sit on your deck with binoculars in hand and watch 20 deer feeding in the fields beyond?
With 800 acres of hunting preserve and two lodges, Wilderness Whitetails Preserve easily accommodates a party of 10 hunters as well as smaller groups of one or more. Hunting is with bow, muzzleloader or modern rifle. Hunts are conducted from ground blinds, tree stands or large tower stands strategically placed around the preserve. Four-wheel-drive Kawasaki Mules transport hunters around the property and through the cedar swamps.
My guide for two days was Tom Mocadlo who knows well the haunts of big bucks on the Preserve. Tom was aware I would be hunting with iron sights and a flintlock Kentucky rifle. He wanted to put me in a stand where I might get a close-in shot. I’ve been building and hunting with Kentucky rifles for three decades and this trip was no exception. I’m confident with a shot up to 80 yards, and with good daylight and a rest, I can reach out to 100 yards. Beyond that range, my eyes get a little fussy and the .54-caliber patched round ball loses velocity and quickly drops.
We saw more than 100 deer of all ages the first two days of our hunt, including some really good bucks, but none came in range of my Kentucky. On the third day, my guide was Joe Olszewski. Joe was the first guide hired by Wilderness Whitetails and knows the Preserve better than anyone else. Joe suggested we hunt a stand in the northwest corner where he had seen some big mature bucks.
The next morning as we drove the 4X4 Mule through the darkness, the temperature stood at a cool six degrees Fahrenheit. We saw several bucks, including one big four-year-old with a massive rack and body. He fed in dense red brush just beyond 100 yards and never offered a clear shot. I was a little relieved since that was outside my comfort zone with open sights, and near the limit of my rifle’s capability. That evening with the temperature at 17 degrees, we hunted a clover patch surrounded by dense hardwoods. We didn’t see any big bucks, but a bobcat and her cub graced us with their presence.
Back at the lodge after our hunt, Chef Randy Grezenski put rib eye steaks on the grill and served his special cheese potatoes, mushrooms and salad, all washed down with our favorite spirits. Randy informed us that the next evening, Carol, Greg and Shorty would join us for dinner. He promised to prepare his “fall off the bone” barbequed pork ribs — the guides got excited, so I knew I was in for a real treat.
I had two more days to hunt before my flight back to Tucson. The next morning, December 2, we awoke to a bone-chilling wind and blowing snow. The thermometer read seven degrees, and I was thankful for my felt-lined Sorel boots and belt hand warmer. Early on, we saw lots of does and several big bucks, but the wary bucks stayed well beyond 100 yards — too distant for my muzzleloader.
It was late morning and the chill was settling in my bones when Joe motioned to the back of our stand. Four bucks were coming over a slight ridge at not more than 80 yards. There were two small bucks, one three-year-old anyone would be proud to take, and a dominant four-year-old with a thick neck and heavy rack. By the time I got turned around, three of the bucks had moved out of sight, but the “big boy” was still there. Joe whispered, “You can wait for him to come around or take the shot.” I knew instinctively the big buck might not come in front of our stand and if he did, I’d have an awkward shot off my left shoulder (I shoot right). There really wasn’t any choice. While Joe whispered, I was slowly maneuvering the long barrel out the rear of our stand. I cautioned Joe to stay back away from the “flash in the pan” so he wouldn’t get a face full of burning blackpowder. Guessing the buck now at 45 yards, I held dead on his vitals. At the loud “Boom!” of my Kentucky, he buckled, taking a few tottering steps before faltering. I tried quickly reloading but frozen snow on the end of my barrel made it difficult to force the patched ball down. With a surge of adrenalin, I managed to seat the ball, but a second shot proved unnecessary.
Joe and I could see the buck thrashing in the snow, and were confident he was down for good, but we waited 20 minutes before approaching the now dead deer. This was my first opportunity to really examine his big symmetrical rack. He was by far the largest deer with the biggest rack I have taken in three decades of hunting. Joe took lots of photographs; we examined the buck and congratulated each other before calling for the Kawasaki Mule to haul the deer to the skinning shed. Days later, I learned my buck scored a remarkable 168 3/8 inches SCI. His meat will feed my family and friends this winter, and his heavy rack will assume a prominent place in my family room near “Sweet Sixteen,” the Kentucky rifle that has brought me so many pleasant memories. Thinking back over the experience, hunting Wilderness Whitetails Preserve was great, and will only get better.–K. L. Shelton