By Brian E. Fraley for   Published Nov 08, 2005 at 5:26 AM

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, its advertisers or editorial staff.

{image1}In less than two weeks, nearly 100,000 Milwaukee-area men and women will engage in an annual rite involving firearms and family -- forgetting, if they even cared, about government, politics and the '06 election year. I will be proud to again be among them and pledge to be part of no press release issued during this hallowed time.

A week from this Thursday and Friday, Highway 41 and Interstates 43, 39, 90 and 94 will be packed with blaze orange-clad, rifle-toting friends and families heading north from southeast Wisconsin. For the yearly whitetail deer season is not only a tradition for rural Wisconsin, it's as much a part of the Milwaukee-area way of life as beer and brats.

Along with rooting for the Packers and the Badgers, the Deer Hunt is one of the few things that unite many of the folks in the "Big City" with their "Up Nort''' brethren. We can even find a common bond with folks in, of all places, Madison. In fact, of the 650,000 deer hunters who will take to the woods at sun-up on Saturday, Nov. 19, more of them are likely to be from Dane County than any other.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 29,989 gun deer licenses were issued last year in Dane County, topping the list. Brown (28,363); Waukesha (23,103); Marathon (22,977); Washington (22,306) and Outagamie Counties (21,189) were next and Milwaukee placed seventh with 19,754 deer hunters.

Most hunters are like my brothers, cousins and the rest of our hunting party at my uncle's cabin in Forest County (ok, it's not really a "cabin" anymore since the renovation; additional rooms, running hot water and satellite TV, but you get my point). We have this date set in stone for all eternity. The Saturday before Thanksgiving is held sacrosanct. Birthdays, work deadlines, anniversaries be damned. We've got Sheepshead, Euchre and Cribbage to think about. Oh, yeah, and the deer.

And each other.

The Wisconsin deer hunt is a cultural experience. Personally, I cherish the time with my relatives, including my three brothers, who congregate in the Northwoods from more than a dozen Wisconsin cities and towns. But these few days together go far beyond male bonding. It's about family and tradition. And memories.

I'm the odd duck in our hunting camp. I don't know how to play Sheepshead, have been blanked in my attempts to actually slay a deer, and I always wait until the last minute to purchase my license. While no one has ever lamented my not losing 75 cents to them in cards, and there's a mere rumbling about my streak of bad luck out in the woods, I actually think it's become a running joke to see how high the number on my back tag will be each year.

But procrastinating to buy a gun license continues to be a tradition for Wisconsin hunters. Again according to the DNR, 28 percent of all deer licenses issued in 2004 were sold within the last week before deer season and 9 percent were issued the Friday before the season opener. So it's nice to know I won't be alone in the next few days.

In so many ways, I'm not alone...

My father passed away a couple of years ago, just a month after my cousin succumbed following a valiant battle with brain cancer. The two of them used to be members of our hunting party, and their presence continues to be felt by us, especially during this time of year.

Remembering those who have gone before us...that's part of the tradition passed down from generation to generation of Wisconsinites -- be they from Wausau or Wauwatosa.

A specific tradition with the Fraley kids had it that for our first year deer hunting, we were not allowed to shoot. Instead, we "hunted" alongside our father, and we had the "privilege" of hauling his old shotgun, which weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 430 pounds.

I remember that first hunt; not only because of the sore muscles, but as the first time my father and I spoke to each other as peers. Fellow hunters. That weekend, now more than 20 years ago, he instilled in me the respect for my weapon and the reverence for the outdoors and the abundance of God's Earth that I carry to this day.

My late cousin Ken and I shared a birthday, although he was a year older. Besides being my friend, he was my hunting tutor. Every year I would watch him and learn. And at 5 a.m. or so on each opening Saturday, I'd follow him into the woods, where he would direct me to the place where I needed to veer off the fire lane ... where I'd follow the row of pine to the ridge where "my" tree stump was. Ken had a tree stand a few hundred yards behind me, and I always felt like he "had my back." I still do.

While the TV news and many pundits may focus on some tragic and/or sensational aspects of this tradition in the next few days (it is, after all, sweeps month), I and hundreds of thousands of my fellow hunters across Wisconsin will eagerly anticipate, then embrace, this year's hunt. Some are like me and trade in blue blazers for blaze orange for a few days. Others merely turn the cammo coat inside out.

But we're kindred spirits who share a love of the hunt.

Brian Fraley is the president of The Markesan Group, LLC, a national consulting firm located in downtown Milwaukee.

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