The Ghost of Wood County
September 22, 2010
It was opening day 1945. As usual, the five Haske brothers were ready for deer season in Wisconsin. Hardly had they begun the first drive of the day when Joe Haske downed one of Wisconsin's top typicals of all time!
If you happen to be one of those hunters who live and breathe chasing gnarly whitetails, you no doubt love listening to old-timers telling stories about hunts they enjoyed years ago. As I get older, almost all of my early grade-school memories have faded. However, the few memories of those days that still burn most vividly in my mind come from stories told when I was sitting at the foot of my grandfather's chair, totally mesmerized by his tales of deer hunting in Wisconsin's North Woods.
When my grandfather began cutting his teeth on deer hunting in the early 1900s, deer were virtually nonexistent in central and southern Wisconsin. But pheasants and cottontails ran the land in abundance. Even though my grandfather's farm was on the fringe of northern Wisconsin, if you wanted to shoot a deer back then you had to head to the "North Woods." Ironically, even though deer populations are now much higher in the central and southern portions of the state, the tradition of going north to rifle hunt is still practiced religiously by many Wisconsin hunters today.
A FAMILY OF HUNTERS
Joe Haske's family was one of those large Midwestern families that had its roots firmly planted in Wisconsin's hunting tradition. As Joe and his four brothers grew up in central Wisconsin in the 1920s and '30s, they didn't have any deer to chase on the family farm. So they did what any other "respectable" kids of their time did. They hunted small game with a vengeance!
"We loved hunting cottontails," says John Haske, the lone surviving Haske brother who now is in his 90s. "Back then, we believed that hunters who sat on stumps and waited for a beagle to chase the rabbit by weren't hunters at all. If you were a good hunter you went after them on foot.
"There were a lot of cottontails around in those days," John continues. "I remember going out hunting with two of my brothers one morning. In those days, the limit on rabbits was 10 apiece. Before noon we were back home with our 30 rabbits. That wasn't uncommon at all.
"And Mom made the best rabbit," John adds, almost salivating in his words. "She'd put 'em in a large cast-iron skillet and slow cook 'em until they almost fell apart on their own. Since it was winter, the ones we didn't eat on any given day would be frozen outside and eaten later. The Haskes always ate what they shot. We loved hunting everything we could and not a scrap of meat ever went to waste!"
AN EXPANDING RANGE
The winds of change were blowing strongly in Wisconsin in the 1940s. The whitetail's range had been expanding for years and viable hunting populations now covered most of the state. As one would suspect, central Wisconsin was well ahead of the southern areas. Due to close proximity to the North Woods, deer populations were becoming firmly entrenched on many of the Wood County farms that the Haske boys had access to while growing up.
By 1945, brothers Frank, Herman, Joe, John and William Haske were all serious and proficient deer hunters, most having hunted for a number of years in Wisconsin's North Woods. By now they were also married and owned farms of their own. As the deer population grew in central Wisconsin, the brothers started hunting closer to home. Just like they had done while rabbit hunting, they hunted on foot while pushing local woodlots. Like so many hunters of their era, they perfected the five- to six-man deer drive. One or two men would serve as standers while the others in the group pushed wooded areas. And just like their success with rabbits, they consistently filled their buck tags.
Though the driving force behind the hunt was still firmly rooted in providing food for their families, no one objected to seeing or shooting a buck that happened to possess some impressive headgear.
"I don't know why we wanted to shoot big bucks," John Haske admits. "Younger ones were so much better eating than those tough older bucks. We were always happy to shoot younger ones, but we really liked getting the big ones with big antlers, too."
A BUCK TO BEAT THE BAND
With that in mind, one can only imagine the excitement both John and Roger, Joe's then 17-year-old son, must have felt when they saw a magnificent buck in velvet during the late summer of 1945. In fact, that was a very historic summer for all Americans. In early August atomic bombs had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan had surrendered on Aug. 15, ending a long, gruesome war. It must have been a surreal time for the Haske family, and the prospects of the upcoming deer season must have been a pleasant distraction.
According to Marlin Laidlaw, a regional director with Whitetails Unlimited who lives in Marshfield, Wisconsin, and had much to do with collecting and documenting Joe Haske's story in the late 1980s, young Roger's mind was twice tricked into thinking the buck's huge rack was something altogether different because he didn't believe that any whitetail could grow such an enormous set of antlers.
"A lot of logging had taken place in the area during that time, and the roots of some of the large pine trees were the same color as a buck's velvet rack," Marlin explains. "Roger was out plinking one day when he saw the buck in the distance. At first, he thought the deer had a clump of pine roots stuck in his antlers. But when the buck turned his head, Roger realized that it was indeed the deer's rack! He couldn't wait for his father to come home from work so he could tell him about what he had seen!
"Roger next saw the buck as it was going through some woods," Marlin continues. "The buck was on the move, and at first Roger thought the now velvet-free rack was a flock of birds flying through the trees. It wasn't until he saw the deer's body that he realized the birds were instead a massive set of antlers!"
John Haske also saw the buck that summer and fall, as did Joe, while driving to work one day. According to John, one of their other brothers also saw the giant deer. Though they kept the buck a secret to the outside world, the deer was no secret to anyone in the Haske hunting party. The next sighting occurred on the night of Nov. 23, 1945.
"On the Friday night before the five-day season opened, everyone would gather at one of the brothers' homes and decide on where they'd go the next morning," explains Joy Bigelow, Joe's granddaughter. "It was just like holy week. Their minds were on nothing but deer hunting. It didn't do any good to ask them about anything else."
"We never did much shining, but I suppose we decided to go out that night because we knew the big buck was out there so
mewhere," John adds. "So we all piled into an old Model A Coup. We didn't have one of those fancy spotlights like some guys have today. Instead we had a 5-cell flashlight. He was easy to see, though. We found him standing on the edge of a field, not very far from the road. We figured he'd still be in the area the next day, so we planned to work that whole section."
A SPECIAL NOVEMBER HUNT
Joe's wife, Goldie, put the following entry in her diary about the next morning's history-making activities:
"Sat. Nov. 24 -- Got up 4:30. Men cleaned barn, left for deer hunting little before 6. I milked; they hunted around home. Joe got his (a big one -- 16 pt.). 7:25 a.m. Roger, Will & Frank got there's (sic). Will dragged his from across the road & hung it in the shed'¦."
The first drive of the day was to be conducted on a neighbor's woodlot. John, Herman, William, Joe and Joe's son Roger already had a game plan as to how they would proceed with the push. Joe was to make a long trip around the woods in order to get into his position as one of the three standers. Amazingly savvy for their time, the group realized that if Joe took the shorter route the wind would alert any deer that might be in the woods.
During the walk to his stand Joe ran into his neighbor, Joe Becker. The neighbor was out hunting himself, so Joe did the neighborly thing and stopped to talk for a few minutes. Before long, he excused himself and resumed his trek.
Just shy of reaching his position on top of Speed Hill, a hill named for the speed in which the deer blew across it when pushed, the combination of a big breakfast and long walk became too much. Joe had no choice but to stop again and heed nature's call.
By this time Joe's younger brother, John, unaware of Joe's unavoidable delays, was well into his part of what was supposed to be a synchronized drive.
"I wasn't far away from coming out near the spot where Joe was supposed to be when I saw a deer slip under a branch in front of me," John reveals. "It wasn't more than a couple seconds later when I heard a bang."
A BUCK FOR THE AGES
Having finished tending to business, Joe was just cresting a hill when he saw the huge buck. Momentarily frozen in place, both hunter and hunted stood motionless in a stare down.
"As the buck twirled to run, Joe shouldered his Savage .30-30 and made a hurried shot," John continues. "He hit it squarely in the hindquarters. It didn't go far before another round finished it off. If he'd been even a minute later, Joe never would have seen the deer.
"We knew the buck had a big rack, but we didn't know he was that big! We had shot a lot of deer in our time and to tell you the truth, we weren't that hepped up about the deer. We had a lot more hunting to do."
Rather than sit back and relish the moment, as any modern-day hunter might do after bagging a world-class buck, the hunt continued, and three more deer were taken that day as recorded by Goldie in her diary. Another fell the next day.
No, a great celebration was not in the cards. As Marlin Laidlaw remembers, "I was told that Joe was in a bad mood for the rest of the day. Those guys were serious hunters and he was very upset that he'd hit his buck in the hindquarters. Apparently, he complained about the shot he made for the rest of the day."
A MONUMENT TO THE TIME
"Joe wasn't even planning to get the buck mounted," Joy Bigelow reveals. "He already had one nice buck mounted and thought it would cost too much money to mount a second. But his brothers convinced him that he needed to get it done. They each chipped in a dollar to help cover the cost."
With that decided, the head was transported from Joe Haske's Wood County home to Medford, Wisconsin. There, taxidermist Ewald Lindow performed what must have been true art for him at the time. Today, some 62 years later, if you care to examine his handiwork you'll no doubt agree that his work on the Haske buck is by far the best $15 mount you'll ever see. His craftsmanship truly has stood the test of time.
For years the big buck hung on Joe's wall. In addition to capturing the memory, whenever guests came into Joe's home they would stand in awe with dropped jaws as they gaped at the magnificent buck. Over the years the Wisconsin giant also served another important purpose.
"For all of Joe's grandchildren the big thing was petting the mount," Joe's granddaughter Joy Bigelow explains. "Joe would always lift all the little kids up to pet the deer."
As the years passed, Joe continued to hunt whitetails. In 1978, at the age of 75, Joe grabbed his Remington .30-06 Model 760 and headed for the woods for one last time. No longer able to make deer drives, he'd shifted to stand-hunting. As usual, it was a fruitful trip. He bagged his buck.
The following year (1979), before another deer season could come, Joe Haske passed away from an aneurism in his leg.
A TRUE WISCONSIN GIANT
The story may have ended there if it weren't for Joy's husband, Archie Bigelow. Some 42 years after Joe shot the giant, Archie's stories of this huge buck inspired Whitetails Unlimited member Marlin Laidlaw. Since the massive rack had never been measured, Marlin arranged to have it officially scored by a local B&C measurer, Peter Haupt, in early 1987.
Peter's entry score credited the main-frame 7x6 rack with a gross typical score of 213 2/8 and a net of 204 2/8. At the time it was scored this would have ranked the Haske buck No. 5 in the world in the typical division.
Later, however, at the Boone and Crockett Club's 20th Big Game Awards in 1989, the rack was panel-scored by a group of B&C judges and the final net typical score was determined to be 197 5/8 points. Apparently several of the original measurements had been a little too generous and the revised score reflected the corrected measurements.
In the tradition of so many great world-class bucks that have come from the upper Midwest like the Jordan and Breen trophies, Joe Haske's vintage buck still ranks within the top 35 typical whitetails of all-time.
In researching and writing this story, I couldn't help but admire the Haske brothers. To this day, 88-year-old John Haske still reads hunting magazines and he gave me numerous insightful comments on the current state of deer hunting. Also to this day, if alive I'm sure that Joe would still be kicking himself for the snapshot he made from his iron-sighted Savage .30-30 and for not smashing the boiler room of that gigantic buck with his first shot. That speaks volumes on how seriously the Haskes took their deer hunting and the ethics they clung to!