Brule Valley bucks: For 60 years, Superior man and his family have hunted whitetails on Cedar Island
BRULE -- Sixty years now. That's how long Superior's Ralph Hammerbeck has been coming back to the Brule River valley for Wisconsin gun deer openers. Sixty years now, he's been hunting the rugged hills and ravines that flank the river. Sixty years...
BRULE - Sixty years now. That’s how long Superior’s Ralph Hammerbeck has been coming back to the Brule River valley for Wisconsin gun deer openers. Sixty years now, he’s been hunting the rugged hills and ravines that flank the river. Sixty years, first with his dad and now with his sons and his grandson, he has been privileged to hunt deer here.
Privileged, because his family is part of a small number of deer hunters who are permitted to range more than 3,000 acres of private land known as the Cedar Island Conservancy that borders both sides of this fabled trout stream. Yes, this is the same Cedar Island estate where President Calvin Coolidge spent the summer of 1928. Coolidge and his party caught plenty of the Brule River’s brown and rainbow trout, but apparently they didn’t stick around for the deer hunting come November.
On Saturday, 60 years since getting out of the Army in 1956, Hammerbeck gingerly climbed the three steps into his enclosed deer stand for another Wisconsin deer opener. This one came with a gusty northeasterly wind and about 4 inches of fresh snow. It finally felt like deer hunting in Northwestern Wisconsin.
Hammerbeck, 83, lit the little propane heater in the corner of the hut and settled into his office chair. He pulled his Thompson/Center Contender rifle from its case, the rifle for which he carved and shaped the elegant English walnut stock. In the woods not far away hunted the rest of the party: Ralph’s sons Keith, 57, of Altoona, Wis., and Tom, 55, from Rothschild, Wis.; grandson Adam Hammerbeck, 30, of Wauwatosa, Wis.; and Adam’s brother-in-law, Kevin Harrington, 31, of Eau Claire, Wis.
Ralph Hammerbeck settled back and waited for daylight.
The Cedar Island Conservancy is a private estate owned by shareholders in the Ordway and Irvine families. They are descendants of Jack Ordway, whose father was a founder of the 3M company. Jack Ordway bought the land from St. Louis oil baron Henry Clay Pierce in 1935.
Ralph Hammerbeck’s father, Howard Hammerbeck of Superior, was a friend of Cedar Island caretaker Harold Swanson in the early 1950s and hunted on the estate’s land as a guest of Swanson.
When Ralph returned to Superior from the Army in 1956, his dad asked if Ralph could join the hunting party. He hasn’t missed a year since. Sons Keith and Tom began hunting Cedar Island when they turned 12.
Blustery weather is typically not favorable for deer movement. I was sitting alongside Hammerbeck in his little hut along the Cedar Island airstrip, a couple of grass runways where small planes sometimes land. Not long after sunup, we watched two does amble across the strip. Ralph, due to a disability, had a permit to take a doe. His sons had encouraged him to do so, although the party generally tries to shoot eight-point bucks or larger.
Ralph watched the does but showed no interest in taking a shot. The light was low. The does were about 150 yards away. And I noticed that Ralph had not yet slipped a shell into his rifle. That didn’t seem to be an oversight.
Hammerbeck and his family do not take their Cedar Island hunting privileges for granted.
“It’s just awesome - the privacy,” he said. “Oh, my goodness, the Brule Valley, 3,000 acres.”
He last shot a buck here in 2014 and didn’t get a shot last year. But he was optimistic coming into this opener.
“I figure I might as well do it while I can,” he said. “I haven’t shot one for a couple of years. Seems funny not to see any meat in my freezer.”
Wind in the valley
The wind whipped up little snow tornadoes that twisted across the airstrip. The old Norway pines along the airstrip swayed in the wind. Hammerbeck’s son, Keith, sitting high in a maple elsewhere on Cedar Island property, would remark later about how much the tree moved in the wind.
“It’s not that big a maple,” Keith Hammerbeck said. “I thought to myself, ‘I hope if it goes down, it goes down slowly.’”
Ralph Hammerbeck, no doubt like most other northern Wisconsin deer hunters on Saturday, welcomed the fresh snow that had arrived on that wind.
“What’s nice about the snow,” he said, “is that if a buck steps out, there’s no doubt if it’s a buck or a doe.”
Some hunters might think that hunting Cedar Island - so much land and so few hunters - might be a big-buck bonanza. But hunting success on the estate tends to rise and fall with along with that across Northwestern Wisconsin.
Hunting has been tough in the Brule Valley the past few years, said Grant Henry, who has been caretaker of the Cedar Island estate since 2008. He attributes the decreased deer population to the DNR’s liberal issuing of antlerless deer permits before recent severe winters and to the presence of predators, including wolves and bears.
To improve deer habitat at Cedar Island, the Hammerbecks and Henry - with permission - have planted food plots on parts of the estate and pass up taking smaller bucks.
“Basically, we used to shoot any buck that had 3-inch horns or bigger,” Keith Hammerbeck had said in an earlier interview. “We’d shoot 20, 25 bucks down there.”
Hunting styles were different then. The Hammerbecks would join forces with other hunters who had permission to hunt at Cedar Island and make drives.
“All we did way back then was make drives,” Ralph Hammerbeck said. “There’d be 15, 20, 25 on the A team, and they’d drive to the B team. Now, there are no more drives. I couldn’t begin to walk on one of those drives, it’s so rugged out there.”
I asked Hammerbeck how many deer he thinks he has shot at Cedar Island in the past six decades.
“Boy,” he said.
He paused for a long time, as if playing a reel of all those hunts.
“I don’t know,” he said finally.
Only one of them hangs on a wall at his home. It’s a 10-pointer. If you look closely, you’ll see an 11th piece of antler. It protrudes from the buck’s neck, just as it did the day Hammerbeck shot the buck. It had been fighting with another buck, and a 9-inch antler segment from the second buck had broken off in its neck.
Word comes down
Not long after daybreak, Keith Hammerbeck sent a terse text with good news.
“Just shot,” he wrote. “Looks nice.”
Later, he sent photo by text.
It was nice. A handsome eight-pointer that apparently hadn’t gotten the word that deer don’t move on windy days. Hammerbeck had taken it at 160 yards.
Soon, another text arrived, in which brother Tom Hammerbeck used up his daily allotment of exclamation points.
“Big buck down!!!!”
Another eight-pointer, this one with lots of mass and height to its rack.
In time, both hunters stopped by Ralph’s trailer hut on the airstrip to show us their bucks and tell us their stories. They stretched the bucks out in the snow and knelt alongside them for photos.
“These are mature Cedar Island bucks,” Keith Hammerbeck said.
“I haven’t gotten this excited about a buck in 20 years,” Tom said. “When I saw those antlers, I started shaking.”
Ralph Hammerbeck looked on, smiling. How many times in the past 60 years must he have stood in the snow, admiring bucks - bucks that once roamed this storied valley where he has been fortunate to spend so many November days.