NEAR COOK, MINN. – In this neck of the woods, when deer hunting on opening morning, you had best pack optimism with you. Whitetail numbers are still down here in far northern Minnesota, brutalized by a couple of recent bad winters. So there are no easy pickings. And what easy pickings there are, the wolves get.
I was thinking about this Saturday morning as I climbed into my stand. Jack pines, spruce and aspen surrounded me. The woods are wet this year, and I could imagine a buck picking his way delicately through the swamp my perch overlooked. A little snow on the ground would have helped. But the morning broke clear. The temperature: 32 degrees.
Positioned on other stands hither and yon were my brother, Dick, of Eveleth, and his son, Brian, of Champlin.
Last year, the three of us spotted only one deer on opening weekend, a fork that Brian shot. That’s not a big turnout. Yet we came back for more this year.
Anyone who has a history with a piece of land, and who feels a part of it, understands this. Others might consider it a waste of time. Maybe it is. After all, many places in Minnesota offer far more productive deer hunting. But we have dragged some nice animals out of these woods. In return, we figure, we owe something — to the land and to the deer.
Early in the morning, chambering a round in my .270 always gives me a little lift, and when I was comfortable in my stand, I did just that. I also peeked through my scope. It’s a ritual, all of this, as is checking the time — legal shooting here Saturday was a little after 6:30 — and hanging my pack just so from my stand.
That way, my Thermos would be readily accessible so I could pour a cup of coffee and consume with it an apple turnover I toted in for the occasion.
In most years when we take a deer early on opening morning, Dick does the shooting. His stand is suspended alongside a pinch point between two swamps, and deer like to cross there. Openings among the trees for a clean shot are few, and Dick has to be quick on the draw to sluice his target. This usually happens around 8:30, and it was about that time Saturday when the woods’ silence was pierced by gunfire, one round then another about 10 seconds later, both from Dick’s direction.
Just as quickly, the woods fell silent again.
Hunting where we do, and how we do, is mostly a solitary undertaking, and we like it that way.
We do have ravens for company, and atop the forest floor’s many deadfalls, squirrels scamper in the earliest light. Woodpeckers also are a constant companion, the big pileateds lumbering from dead tree to dead tree.
Occasionally, bald eagles will bank and soar against a cobalt sky.
As a bonus, when November’s snows come early, late-migrating geese will arrow high overhead — obscured but noisy.
Into this milieu, when things work out, deer walk.
• • •
When Saturday’s last hour of daylight arrived, Dick, Brian and I had yet to see anything with antlers we could shoot. Morning had passed with no deer down, then lunch time, the three of us gathering as we usually do beneath a stand of large white pines.
By then the temperature had risen to the high 30s and there was no need for a warming fire.
Stretching on the ground, thick with leaves, we unwrapped sandwiches.
Brian reported he had seen one spike buck.
“Well, I didn’t see anything,” Dick said. “That wasn’t me who shot at 8:30. I heard it. But it wasn’t me.”
“I didn’t see anything,” I said.
A couple of weeks back we had spotted a half-dozen or more scrapes and quite a few rubs while scouting and clearing trails.
It was doubtful the lone spike Brian spotted was responsible for all of these.
So we remained hopeful we’d kill a buck.
We had, after all, packed optimism in with us. When hunting deer in this part of the state, it’s as necessary as ammunition.
Dick hunted from a new spot Saturday afternoon, seeking encouragement, if not better odds. Brian, meanwhile, remained steadfast on his stand, from which he has killed bucks, as have Dick and I, and also my two sons.
Shorter and shorter the day’s light grew, until shadows eventually turned to darkness.
We found the footpath leading from the woods and followed it, optimism’s tether frayed a bit, but still holding.