September 30, 2023

On the Hunt is a well-written and comprehensive history of deer hunting in Wisconsin. It is that rare treat, a factual, scholarly history combined with numerous anecdotal accounts and local histories integrated to make an easily readable, smooth-flowing, and factually loaded book.

It has about a hundred illustrations.  The illustrations and stories will appeal to a broad range of ages and interests. The book opens with a recounting of Robert C. Willging’s transformation from a Chicago city kid to a full-fledged Wisconsin deer hunter.

On the Hunt: The History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin by Robert C. Willging, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2008

This writer purchased On the Hunt for his brother as an adjunct to the long-term family tradition of deer hunting in northern Wisconsin.  The book is available from the Wisconsin Historical Society in oversized softcover for $25. Hardcover copies and digital copies are available online. [link above]

On the Hunt portrays pre-historical hunters as they populated the Great Lakes area with its retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. The Paleo-Indians were armed with the atlatl, or spear thrower, a device that significantly increased the range of a hunter’s reach. The atlatl stayed in use up to the discovery of the new world by early Renaissance Europeans. Its use by Aztec warriors was noted in the first-hand account of Bernal Diaz in his seminal work, the Discovery and Conquest of Mexico.

The atlatl is limited in effective range to about 30-40 yards. It requires a fairly open space to work. The next advance in hunting hardware was the bow and arrow, which became common in the Americas a few hundred years before the Europeans arrived in significant numbers. As an aside, the bow and arrow were not used, at least to any appreciable extent, in Australia, where the atlatl is known as the womera.  The bow became the principal device for hunting deer in the Americas until the introduction of firearms.

This correspondent grew up in the Wisconsin Northwoods and experienced a significant number of the events Willging writes about.

The book appears accurate in every significant detail. By necessity, the work concentrates on history from about 1850 onward. However, the pre-history from the discovery of the area by humans until the 1600s is as well done as can be expected.

The history from 1850 onward is the history of the enormous success of the European immigrants in taming the land and increasing agricultural productivity.  As the European immigrants did this, they realized whitetail deer was a resource that was being lost and required management. Starting in the late 1800s, management of the whitetail deer gradually changed from prohibitions on hunting during spring and early summer to the sophisticated system of licenses, permits, quotas, and limited hunting methods modern hunters are familiar with.

The number of whitetail deer in Wisconsin is much greater than it ever was before the entrance of Europeans on the scene.  Today the whitetail herd in Wisconsin is over one and a half million animals. Hundreds of thousands must be harvested every year to stave off overuse of the range and the inevitable winter starvation which follows. The effective application of the North American Wildlife Management model to deer herds stands out as a remarkable achievement of the wildlife conservation movement. The book is highly recommended for anyone who desires to understand the complex interaction of modern man and game animals.


The reason Wisconsin can support such an enormous increase in whitetail deer is the European immigrants, and their technology made the land far, far more productive than it was previously. Virgin Forest is not very productive. It produces a heavy biomass of wood, which few animals can use for food. Whitetail deer profited enormously from the cutting of the virgin forest in the north woods of Wisconsin.

The largest population and concentration of whitetail deer today is in the southern part of the state. In the petroleum age, fertilizers have made the land many times as productive as it used to be. The whitetail deer living in woodlots and feeding on the edges of cornfields benefit tremendously from the existence of this largess.

About Dean Weingarten:

Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.

Dean Weingarten

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