During the Spanish flu pandemic that began in 1918, Minnesota deer hunters had 22 days to gather venison for the coming winter. The limit was one whitetail per hunter, down from the five animals allowed as recently as 1895.
That there were any nimrods in Minnesota’s woods and fields in 1918 is a surprise. License fees weren’t a problem — Minnesota’s first big-game license, in 1897, cost 25 cents. But the flu, which was first identified in Minnesota on Sept. 30, 1918, quickly ravaged the state, afflicting, initially, soldiers returning from World War I before spreading like wildfire to the general population.
By the time the deer season opened Nov. 9, 1918, team sports and even bowling had been banned by state officials in attempts to limit crowd sizes. Theaters, bars and restaurants also were closed. But defiance was routine, and police at times were called in to halt football games.
Now, a little more than 100 years later, amid another pandemic, Minnesota hunters are again preparing to go afield.
Bear, dove and early goose seasons begin in early September, with grouse, woodcock and duck seasons following, along with archery deer hunting. The big one, firearms deer season, which attracts nearly 500,000 Minnesotans, begins in November.
In advance of these traditions, some hunters are asking whether gathering in camps this fall — a convention as old as the state itself — and possibly spreading the coronavirus among friends and family, is a good idea.
“We haven’t had that talk yet,” said Wesley Carlson of Champlin. “But we will. I don’t see a vaccine being available before deer season, so that’s a concern. How stringent the other hunters in our group are in keeping themselves safe before the season is another question.”
The firearms deer camp owned by Carlson and his wife, Lorna, is typical of Minnesota hunters’ fall retreats. Located in Pine County, its 27 acres are heavily wooded and well populated with deer. Ruffed grouse also inhabit the area, but not, Carlson said, in the numbers they once did.
Typical as well is that Carlson’s camp is a meeting place for longtime friends who in some instances don’t see one another except during hunting season.
“In our case we all grew up together in north Minneapolis,” Carlson said. “What’s different is that none of us hunted when we were kids. Our dads didn’t hunt, and we just never got the chance. But when we got out of high school, we started hunting grouse together, and it grew from there. We’re all the same age — we’re turning 67 this year — and we’ve hunted together at my camp since I bought it in the mid-1980s.”
The contagiousness of the coronavirus is by now well known. Wherever people gather indoors, particularly if ventilation is poor, chances it will spread increase. Older people are particularly vulnerable — and the average age of Minnesota hunters has been increasing for years.
“I’ve heard some camps just aren’t going to get together this year,” said Greg Salo, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources enforcement division assistant director. “Others are going to alternate weekends so everyone isn’t in camp at the same time.”
Minnesota’s biggest hunting camp is in fact hosted by the DNR. Scheduled this fall for two weekends, Oct. 15-16 and Oct. 31-Nov. 1, the Camp Ripley archery deer hunt is a gathering unlike any other in the state. Less popular than it once was, the outing still attracts more than 2,000 hunters.
“We’ve made some changes this year [because of the pandemic] to the Ripley hunt, and we’ll detail all of them soon,” said Jami Markle, DNR central region wildlife manager. “The main one is that rather than issue licenses by lottery, as we have in the past, from August 28 until October 2, hunters can purchase them over the counter, first-come first-served, wherever licenses are sold.”
This change, Markle said, was prompted by the possibility that the hunt this year might not be held. If a license lottery had been offered and the hunt was subsequently canceled, refunding hunters’ application fees would have been problematic.
Other changes to the Ripley hunt still are being finalized, Markle said. But it’s likely that mask wearing and social distancing will be encouraged and that hunters will be required to self-register deer they kill, rather than interact with staff or volunteers for that purpose.
Meanwhile, the 12x20-foot cabin Wesley Carlson and his hunting mates have inhabited for more than 30 Novembers likely will be vacant more days this fall than in recent deer seasons.
“When we were younger, we’d typically hunt all three weekends of the season,” Carlson said. “But lately we’ve been hunting just the first two weekends. This year we’ll have to talk about how much we’re going to hunt.”
Wherever that decision lands, in coming weeks some Minnesota hunters likely will make pilgrimages to their camps unabated and, apparently, unafraid, pandemic or no pandemic.
If they do, they’ll mimic the what-me-worry? attitude of Dr. H.M. Bracken, secretary of the Minnesota State Board of Health during the 1918 pandemic.
Acknowledging the importance of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the Spanish flu, Bracken nevertheless opted not to wear one himself.
“I personally prefer to take my chances,” he said.