Pierce Pennaz couldn’t have been more excited for Minnesota’s deer season to begin.
His dad, Steve, had taken him out of school Friday, and the two drove from their home in Independence to Jackson County in southwest Minnesota talking about the buck they hoped Pierce would see in his scope Saturday morning.
They had planned to hunt from one of the deer stands that dotted a friend’s farm. But the wind was wrong for each of the stands, so Steve put up a ground blind, and well before daylight Saturday he and Pierce huddled together in the small structure.
Pierce, 19, has Down syndrome and wouldn’t have been allowed to hunt deer without a law change by the Legislature in its past session. His two years as an “apprentice hunter,” under Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations, had expired and to continue to hunt he would have had to pass a DNR firearms safety course, which wasn’t a practical option.
“We could have taken the course online,” Steve said. “But the point was I never planned to have him be allowed to carry a firearm by himself or to hunt by himself. What I wanted was to be able to share hunts with Pierce, which is what he wanted, too.”
A law change proposed by Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, in 2018 would have granted a provisional firearms safety certificate to people with permanent physical or developmental disabilities, provided they hunt with parents, guardians or other adults.
“The bill passed the Legislature but was included in an omnibus bill that ultimately was vetoed,” Nash said. “So we worked on it again in the recent Legislature and got it passed.”
Steve is an outdoors TV host, writer and Hall of Fame angler who has long enjoyed time afield with Pierce. He and his wife, Karen, also have a daughter, Maddie, who is a recent college graduate and a seasoned hunter.
“When I told Pierce a year ago he couldn’t go hunting with Maddie and me because the law didn’t get changed, he was very upset,” Steve said.
So on Saturday, when Pierce and Steve crawled into their ground blind before sunup, they did so with the same anticipation that Minnesota’s other 450,000 deer hunters felt that morning.
“It was only five minutes after first light when we saw a buck about 100 yards from us, with his nose down,” Steve said. “We were watching it. But all of a sudden, Pierce started throwing up. We had stopped at a gas station for some food, and maybe that was it. Whatever it was, he said he didn’t feel well. So a little after 7, we headed back to our motel.”
Falling asleep nearly as quickly as he lay down, Pierce was still snoozing at 11 a.m. Saturday when his dad turned on a TV to watch the Gophers-Penn State game.
A graduate a year ago of Orono High School, Pierce is now in a transition program learning job and life skills. He works a couple of days a week at a pizza shop. But he misses his high school friends and also misses his teammates on a high school basketball team that took a silver medal last year at a Special Olympics national tournament.
Pierce’s unified team included Pierce and other developmentally challenged players, as well as other student “partners.”
“In his team’s last game, Pierce made back-to-back three pointers,” Steve said. “The crowd went wild.”
Awakening from his nap about halftime in the Gophers football game, Pierce told his dad he was ready to hunt. Soon after, they were back in their blind, where they sat for one hour, then two, then three.
“It was late afternoon when we saw a buck running along a fence,” Steve said. “The deer was about 100 yards away. I put Pierce’s gun out the window of the blind, braced it, and he came over and put his shoulder to it.”
At first Pierce couldn’t locate the buck in the optic’s reticle. Then he said, “I see him.”
“You on him?” his dad said.
“Shoot when you’re ready.”
Four or five seconds passed. Then Pierce shot.
“I got him! I got him!”
Steve wasn’t so sure. The buck had run off. Maybe Pierce hit him. But maybe not.
Waiting long enough to let the animal die if it had been struck lethally, they found blood where the deer had been standing and tracked it from there.
“We found the deer dead in a ditch about 15 feet deep,” Steve said.
Pierce associates deer with “deer sticks,” or sausage, one of his favorite snacks. So when he saw the buck, he yelled, “Deer sticks! Deer sticks!”
“Pierce,” Steve said, “has taught his mother, sister and me never to underestimate him. Or for that matter, never to underestimate any people with disabilities.”