LAKE TOMAHAWK - In the back room of Todd Ahrensdorf's butcher shop this week, you'll find him steadily cleaning deer. The Lake Tomahawk butcher has steady, but not overwhelming, business.
"Got enough work to keep us busy," Ahrensdorf said.
For nearly three decades, Ahrensdorf has ridden the wave every gun-deer season, processing anywhere from about 75 deer this year up to 500 in years past.
"Good year or bad year, [it all] depends on your perspective," Ahrensdorf said. "Some camps had real good luck; others didn't see a deer. Talked to a few hunters today that brought meat in, and they said the deer are all over the roads now that the season's over."
During banner years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Lake Tomahawk Meat Market storage shed was filled nearly to the roof with deer. This year, only about a dozen recent deposits sit in the space, waiting to be processed.
"You didn't see as many people in blaze orange in town as normal, but then again when you don't get a doe tag, that really affects the numbers of hunters that come in," Ahrensdorf said.
DNR Conservation Warden Dave Walz knows Northwoods hunters have struggled the last few years.
"It's not like 10 years ago where they basically saw a deer behind every tree," Walz said.
Oneida County registered 1,227 deer through the season's first eight days. Even with Sunday's additions, this season's total is likely to drop from 1,636 in 2014.
Through eight of the nine days, hunters in Vilas County tagged 893 deer (down from 1,286 in 2014), Lincoln saw 1,426 ( down from 1,449 in 2014) Forest had 759 (down from 1,191 in 2014) and Marathon County hunters notched 7,650 deer (down from 8,981 in 2014).
"They're frustrated that deer numbers are still down," Walz said. "But, surprisingly, they're positive because they are seeing more deer. Most all the hunters we saw, with the fresh snow, they saw a sign out there."
Walz thinks baiting and overfeeding Northwoods deer has kept them concentrated to small areas and closer to cities and towns, but he's hopeful next season will bring more antlerless tags.
It's a prediction Todd Ahrensdorf can get behind.
"There wasn't a lot of guys in the woods this year," Ahrensdorf said. "It'll come back. I think there's plenty of deer out there. If we have a mild winter, look out next year."
Ahrensdorf charges a flat fee—$99—to process a deer. It's a price he won't change this year, even with fewer deer out there to bring in.
The DNR expects to announce full deer hunting numbers for 2015 at some point this week.