Brandon Van Tassel walked to his deer stand Saturday morning toting a .338 Savage and three decades’ worth of memories.
Brandon, 34, was fairly new to the sport. He had begun hunting birds in his mid-20s. But not until two years ago did he consider giving deer hunting a try.
Brandon wasn’t brought up as a hunter. But he was familiar with guns. Oftentimes he shot clays with his friends, and he knew his way around a rifle.
“I didn’t keep Brandon away from hunting intentionally when he was young,” said his mom, Kimberly. “But I didn’t expose him to it, either. I knew he would be a safe hunter. Still, when he went, I just had to put it out of my mind. I couldn’t think about it.”
Thirty years ago — Nov. 6, 1989 — Brandon was 4 years old when his dad, Kim, was killed on opening weekend of deer season. Another hunter shot him, mistaking him for a deer, even though Kim was riding his three-wheeler at the time.
Kim and Kimberly had been high school sweethearts in Spring Lake Park, and on the eve of their marriage, Kim, an avid outdoorsman, warned his soon-to-be wife he would be gone frequently, hunting and fishing.
He was good with a rod and reel, too. And a gun. A couple of years before he was killed, he arrowed a trophy whitetail buck that landed on a magazine cover.
Kim’s hunting partners would recall that shots rang out from the direction of his stand about 5:20 p.m. on the Monday of opening weekend in 1989. Hearing the reports, one of the hunters, who had already returned to camp, said, “What the hell was that? Kim wouldn’t shoot that late.”
Kimberly was home in the Twin Cities that evening with Brandon and his 8-year-old sister, Janelle. Kim had promised to call before the kids went to bed. But 7 o’clock came and went, with no call. Then 8 and 9.
About 10 p.m., the doorbell rang. Kimberly’s mother, father and brother were beneath the porch light. Kim, she would learn, was dead.
“If you’re a deer hunter, and you shoot,” Kimberly said, “you better know what you’re shooting at. It can change a lot of lives forever.”
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“The first buck I shot, a couple years ago, I shot with my dad’s rifle, a 7mm,” Brandon said.
That occurred at a camp east of Hinckley, where Kim’s brother, Kirby, hunted. One day he asked Brandon if he wanted to join him and two other guys, hunting whitetails.
Kirby had given up hunting after Kim was killed. Then, seven or eight years ago, he got back into it.
“When I was a kid, I was too young to know much about my dad’s death,” Brandon said. “As I grew up, I started asking questions. But I was involved in sports in high school, basketball and baseball. So hunting never really came up for me as a possibility until my friend asked me to go pheasant hunting about 10 years ago.”
Meanwhile, after Kim died, Kimberly didn’t specifically exclude hunters as possible suitors. Still, she was relieved that her second husband, Larry Trapp, to whom she is happily married, is a golfer, not a hunter.
Yet, and still, there was Brandon, who with each passing year looked more like his dad. And with Brandon’s interest sparked in hunting, he was becoming his father’s son in that respect, too.
“The two bucks I shot in the past two years were a 6-pointer and a 4-pointer,” Brandon said. “The 6-pointer was a big-bodied deer.”
Brandon, who lives in Andover with his wife, Krista, and two young daughters, was at a sports bar some time ago when another guy overheard his last name.
“He started a conversation with me. Turned out, he was the son of the guy who bought my dad’s three-wheeler when my mom sold that stuff,” Brandon said. “He said I could have it if I wanted. It wasn’t running at the time. I’ve got it running now.”
Saturday morning, peering into the dawn’s half-light from his stand, Brandon was well aware this opener is the 30th anniversary of his dad’s death.
“I told Mom a week or so ago that this year it would be a cool tribute to Dad to shoot something big, something mountable,” Brandon said. “Dad was a good hunter and he had shot some big bucks.”
Never before, Kimberly said, had Brandon mentioned an anniversary of his dad’s death.
“Not in 30 years,” she said. “But he was so excited about the season coming up. He said he wanted to shoot a big buck to make his dad proud. I said, ‘OK,’ and I promised not to text him in his stand.
“I didn’t have anything to do with this. He’s his dad’s son. Hunting must just be in the blood.”