Tradition upheld

OUGLAS COUNTY, Wis. -- Somewhere in the blackness of the bunkhouse, an alarm clanged. Nobody stirred to silence it, and it rattled until it was out of wind-up.

OUGLAS COUNTY, Wis. -- Somewhere in the blackness of the bunkhouse, an alarm clanged. Nobody stirred to silence it, and it rattled until it was out of wind-up.

The time was 4:50 a.m. Saturday, opening day of Wisconsin's gun deer season. Across the state, alarm clocks would be rousting 650,000 hunters for one of the state's most cherished rituals.

The bunkhouse at the Ronchi deer camp in rural Douglas County was still dark when Tony Ronchi opened the door at 5 a.m. and yelled, "Coffee's on."

That got the gang going. Soon the entire Ronchi clan --15 in all -- had gathered in the main shack. Ronchis have been coming to this piece of land to shoot whitetails since 1970.

Bob Ronchi, 68, of South Range is the patriarch of the camp. Brothers Buzz, 54, of Wentworth, and Tony, 50, of Iron River were at the big commercial stove, cooking omelets, hash browns and bacon. The fourth Ronchi brother, Randy, 43, of Maple, was stirring somewhere.


You would have to go some to find a deer camp with more tradition and more atmosphere than the Ronchi camp. The night before, the place was buzzing with Ronchis. Grant, 22, up from the University of Minnesota, had his i-Pod patched into the sound system. The four-room shack pulsed with Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Hank Jr. A poker game broke out in an alcove built just for that purpose.

The antlers of every buck taken at the camp since 1970 presided over the scene from the rafters. Each hunter is allotted one side of a rafter for his or her antlers. Count 'em if you want, or take the word of Bill Ronchi, 46, of Lake Nebagamon.

"I think we're going to shoot our 300th buck at the end of this year or early next year," said Bill, who's the son of Bob Ronchi.

Outside, next to the sauna, a big Pabst Blue Ribbon sign designated the parking area. Inside the shack, wooden signs spoke to camp traditions. One read, "Whitetail Bucks, Say Your Prayers." Another proclaimed, "The Stump Sitters Room: Where Only Buck Stories Are Told."


You wonder why it's hard for Wisconsin to get hunters to shoot does? Spend a night in Ronchi-ville.

If you want the complete history of this camp, just page through the camp scrapbook on the table. It's as thick as a Minneapolis phone book. Grant put it together a couple of years ago. It would take a top blue at the county fair -- maybe even at state. Every year is documented. Each hunter has written his or her own chapter. The photos take you back to the '58 Merc owned by Bob's dad, John Ronchi, with two bucks proudly draped over its hood. And don't miss 1989. That's the year of the big bucks -- a 12-pointer, an 11-pointer, a 10 and two nice 8s.

Few Ronchis would miss deer camp. Even those who hunt with other families come by on opener eve to tell stories and get in the mood.


"This is funner than Christmas," Randy Ronchi said.

This will be Bob Ronchi's 54th year of deer hunting. Ask him what deer camp means, and he'll start telling you about the grandkids who shot their first or biggest bucks while sitting with him. He recalled when Grant got his big one.

"He was tired, and he fell asleep," Bob said. "He was snoring. All of a sudden, two does came in. I said, 'Grant, c'mon. Wake up. It's prime time.' Here comes this big buck right up in there. He sticks his gun out there. He was breathing deep. I said, 'Shoot.' He dropped him right there. Nine points, 198 pounds. It was just phenomenal."

Waiting for big bucks

Now another opening day had rolled around. The hunters polished off Buzz and Tony's breakfast. One by one, the four-wheelers rumbled out of the Pabst parking lot.

Bob had a busy morning on his stand.

"I saw 11 deer," he would say later. "Two of them were spike bucks."

He didn't fire his rifle. Almost nobody in the Ronchi camp shoots a spike buck on opening day. The hunters' motto is embroidered on their blaze orange caps: "HAPPINESS IS BIG BUCKS."


Grant rode to the stand he helped his grandfather build 10 years ago. Walls. Roof. Sliding aluminum windows. Propane heater. A six-point buck ambled through about 8 a.m. Grant wasn't ready to shoot a six-pointer on opening morning. Remember the caps?

The day was overcast and the temperature around freezing. A slight wind. The conditions turned out just right for Matt Ronchi, 29, of Poplar. Matt (Buzz' son) took an eight-pointer about 8:30.

"I thought he was a lot bigger," Matt said, laughing. "I really had the fever going."

Eric Gucinski, 26, Tony Ronchi's stepson from Lake Nebagamon, shot a big-bodied six-pointer.

In camp at midday, Matt and Eric strung their bucks beneath their names on the game pole. Not everyone has a name on the pole. That honor goes only to the camp's charter members and those who have shot at least an eight-pointer.

It's another little tradition at the Ronchi deer camp.

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