Noll Camp A Real Grind
Wisconsin family teaming up for hunts, sausage since '40s
When the Noll Family begins making sausage and you enter the barn, this is a common scene. (Steve Bowman photo)
ALMA, Wis. -- If Andy Noll had known he was going to start such a regal tradition, he might have picked a different deer to kick it off.
Noll, 85, is the patriarch of the annual deer hunt the Noll family has taken part in for more than 60 years in Wisconsin.
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“There were only three of us,” Noll said in a shaky voice, recalling that first hunt in the late 1940s. “Me and a guy named Bill Patterson were hunting the 80; all at once a deer jumped up, runs down the hill and stopped. My single shot worked perfect.”
A smile creased his lips and only got bigger when a nephew shouted across the room, “A classic kill, huh?”
“It laid right down,” Noll replied.
“Was it a buck?” he was asked.
“No, a fawn,” Noll said strongly. “And I didn’t give a damn what it was. It was a deer.”
The response created enough laughter to spill out of the room. The whole exchange is a perfect metaphor for the deer hunt in Alma, Wis., that has become a Noll Family Reunion.
Every season since Andy Noll laid down that first deer, this family has been gathering to take part in this tradition that includes not only hunting deer, but the time-honored German tradition of making smoked-linked sausage from their kill and, of course, telling and re-telling stories from the past.
For the outsider, it’s an experience like no other, with as many as four generations of hunters gathering under the same roof, all of them looking forward to the work of making sausage and telling stories as they are the hunting.
While there are many examples of how special the week is, two are unique moments worth highlighting.
Picture if you will a barn. During most of the year it is headquarters for the dairy farm that sits around it, where tractors are worked on and equipment stored. During deer season, it becomes a butcher shop.
The first things you see when you walk into this barn is two picnic tables in the middle of the room, with women, men and children sitting and taking part in a meal. Scattered around their ankles and knees are about a two-dozen dead deer.
If you weren’t accustomed to deer season, it would be a scene that might surprise you, something straight out of a Wes Craven flick.
After the meal, these deer will begin to be processed.
The men will lay the deer in a harness, cutting the hide, then hanging the deer on hooks for the young boys to pull the hide from the meat. When that’s done, the skinned deer is wheeled into the freezer and the process starts over on the next one.
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During this another unique moment took place. With men standing over a carcass and doing their knife work, the sound of music filtered through the air. In this case it was Charlie Rich, singing a hit song from 1973, “The Most Beautiful Girl.”
The chorus became a rallying point:
Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful girl in the world?
And if you did, was she crying, crying?
Hey, if you happen to see the most beautiful girl that walked out on me
Tell her, "I'm sorry."
The men slicing never checked up, singing every word, every phrase perfectly without taking their eyes off their work.
By the second chorus, the words were changed this way.
Hey, did you happen to see the most beautiful buck in the world?
The young boys pulling the hide just rolled their eyes and kept on pulling. In a room off to the side, the elder statesmen of the Noll family, led by Andy Noll, re-lived moments from years past, catching up with relatives they hadn’t seen since last season.
Stories ranged from what the kids have been doing to the year when they didn’t kill many deer and had to buy a hog to make up for the shortfall of meat for sausage.
The hog was delivered alive in the back of Andy Noll’s pick-up truck. And by the time Tim Noll had dispatched it, there were more holes in the truck than the pig.
Part of the tradition is to set up drives around the farm, with elder hunters standing on one end, and younger hunters making a push from the other. The memories include remembering what yell they would make as they pushed through the woods.
Depending on the generation, it could have been the words to “Kung Fu Fighting” or a rendition of “Come on down” from Bob Barker’s “The Price is Right.” The deer on the Noll Farm have heard just about everything.
The same goes for the deer on the surrounding property, when the drive would often spill out onto their neighbor’s land.
“Nobody gave a hoot in hell whether we were there or not,’’ Andy Noll said.
Things have changed greatly over time. The old-style hunting technique of a drive, though, still produces, but had yet to take place this season.
Once the hunting is over, the family, all dressed in hunter orange, gathers in the front yard under a big oak tree and poses for a photo. Behind them deer are strung up on a limb that is still strong and mighty after more than 60 years and 1,000 deer in that time.
The photos are an enduring legacy of the hunt. They started when only black and white film was available. Only a few years during that span has “the photo” not taken place. This would be one of those years.
The weather didn’t cooperate. They endured two of the coldest days for an opener any of them could remember. On day one it was 3 degrees, by day two it had fallen to -1. Not the perfect conditions to stand under a tree and say “cheese.”
The first two days were a lot like those from Andy Noll’s first hunt. As Tracy Noll likes to say, “If it’s brown it’s down.” By day three there is very little hunting going on, all hands are on deck cutting and grinding meat for the sausage, made from a family recipe that was once held under lock and key.
Andy Noll checks some of the sausage rings as they cure in the smokehouse.
(Courtesy the Noll Family)
“We all pitch in,’’ Tracy Noll said. “Everyone wants to make sure they get their share of sausage.”
Once that’s done, though, hunting around here takes a serious turn. Alma is the county seat for Buffalo County, the United States’ No. 1 county for producing Boone and Crockett bucks. Deer hunting in this part of the world is fun, but serious at the same time.
“I’ve never seen so many people who were disappointed when they pulled up with a 130-inch deer,’’ said George Mayfield, a long-time guide in Alabama, who could only dream of such things in the south.
For a big part of the Noll Family, their hunting revolves around archery season, when the big bucks are decidedly in the pre-rut stage. And they take great care in picking the right deer before ever laying it on the ground.
In the same farmhouse where the Nolls butcher deer and tell stories, there are newspaper clippings from local newspapers on the annual hunt. Some of those espouse the virtues of quality deer management even though they date back to more than 20 years ago.
“We’ve always been on the front end of things,’’ Tracy Noll said, pointing to the fact their club only uses copper bullets during the season. He feels that someday, that edict will be one they will have to live with by law rather than choice.
“Not to mention, it just eliminates the lead in our sausage.”
Their attention to their deer herd is something that makes them special. Even before the deer season started, they noticed a decrease in antler size from years past. No one assumed the bigger deer were being shy; they knew better.
In 2012, the region had a brutal and long-lasting winter, creating a winterkill that was above average. That product of the North Country is one of the contributing factors for having bigger deer: Only the strong survive.
But it also comes with its negatives.
“Brutal winters serve a purpose,’’ said Dr. James Kroll, the appointed Deer Czar of Wisconsin. “But when they are prolonged like last year, you will see a down turn in antler size because those bucks are putting their energy into staying alive rather than into antler growth.”
That particular result has been present in the bucks of Buffalo County this season and as far north as Saskatchewan.
While that was a consistent topic of conversation during the deer season in Buffalo County, none of it seemed to matter when the Nolls get together.
After all, the tradition that is almost 70 years old started with Andy Noll’s infamous words: “I didn’t give a damn what it was. It was a deer.”
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