With the Minnesota hunting seasons well underway it's time for a meat-in-the-pot gut check. Who is putting game in the bag and who is not? Who made the shots and who missed? Is the prey competing fairly or are they flaunting their defensive skills again? How did the dog perform?
Ten weeks ago on these pages we told you about deer, grouse and duck hunters preparing with great anticipation for the coming seasons. Now we ask: Did the prep work pay off.? What have they seen looking down that vented-rib shotgun or through the peep sight of that compound bow?
For Jason and Kate Howard of Plymouth, the bow season has been one of frustration. Kate's hunting has been limited because she is expecting their first child in mid-November. "We had a nice doe come within 20 feet of our tent blind one evening but she knew something wasn't right and wouldn't move in front of the open window," Kate said. "We could peek at her as she rolled her head around and stomped her front feet. When she finally did run across our shooting lane we didn't want to risk a rushed shot."
When describing her husband, Jason's, approach to the sport, the word ardent isn't strong enough. He has been out many times and moved his trail cameras and deer stands several times.
"My cameras tell me the deer are still mostly nocturnal," he said. "And heavy winds have kept them off their feet several days. But I did find an area where they were moving in daylight. So I set up a tripod stand one evening and snuck in there in the black of night the next morning. I found myself walking right through the bedding area of eight to 10 deer deer. They exploded like a covey of quail. Frustrating, but that's hunting."
Many other bow hunters across the state are evidently sharing Jason Howard's frustration. Leslie McInenly, DNR Big Game Program Leader, reports archery harvest through Oct. 27 was 9,891 deer, down 24 percent from a year ago. License sales are about normal, at 99,126.
Grouse hunter Tim Esse of Vadnais Heights invested a lot of summer effort getting his 11-year-old English setter, Tina, in shape. And that has paid off. On the five weekends Esse has hunted so far, Tina has been able to go hard an average of two hours a day. His 18-month-old pup has been relieving Tina in the afternoons with some points and some bumped birds, as Esse expects from a young dog.
"Grouse and woodcock hunting has been a lot better than I expected with all the dire reports," said Esse. During the last weekend in October in the Deer River area, he flushed 18 birds on Friday, 12 on Saturday and 10 on Sunday. But he's doing a lot more walking than in years when the grouse population was higher.
Esse keeps a spreadsheet on his computer, noting area hunted, birds flushed, dog points and shooting accuracy. Asked how he's shooting he said, "Pretty well for me until last Friday. I had to enter a zero-for-8 in my computer!"
David Allen of Loretto was anticipating the duck season more than ever this year. He is introducing a new yellow Labrador puppy, Dolly, to the sport. On the opener he and a partner bagged four teal and a Canada goose, with Dolly retrieving all the birds. "She performed beyond my highest expectations," noted Allen.
Over the Education Minnesota conference weekend Allen made hunting a family affair with his wife, Mary, son, Hunter, 6, and daughter, McKenna, 9, joining Dolly, 1, in duck camp. A lack of game (one teal, no pheasants) and a cold Saturday rain didn't dampen the kids' spirits. The family held a BB gun shooting contest, which McKenna won.
And now the overarching how-is-hunting question: Is anyone having fun?
• Deer hunter Jason Howard: "I am completely at peace when I'm waiting for deer on a still morning. And when my wife is along I couldn't be any happier."
• Grouse hunter Tim Esse: "They could cancel the season and just let me walk in the woods and watch my dogs work. Pure joy."
• Duck hunter David Allen: "When my entire family, including my dog, is with me in the outdoors, yes, I'm having fun."
Retired from the workaday world, Bill Klein lives in May Township, just north of St. Paul.