IN NORTHERN MINNESOTA – At 6:30 in the morning Saturday when we walked into the woods the temperature was 30 degrees. Stars overhead shone brightly in a dark sky, and in every county in Minnesota, perhaps in every township, at just that moment someone was doing what my brother, Dick, his son, Brian, and I were doing: going hunting.
This was the first day of the deer season and with us we toted various caliber rifles, a .243, a .270 and a .308. Hunters argue about the merits of each, but in the end, the heft in the hand is what counts, also the ease with which one firearm comes to the shoulder compared to another. Like picking a spouse, these are personal preferences. Also, after some success in the field, sentiment arises for certain guns over others, and on opening morning, as on most mornings of the season thereafter, hunters reach for their favorites.
In northeast Minnesota where we hunt, the whereabouts of deer (their numbers are usually low) varies according to the weather, the number of wolves in the area, and for other reasons that remain a mystery. Had my brother and I not grown up hunting with our dad amid thickets of jack pine, spruce and boot-sucking bogs in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where similarly low deer numbers prevailed, we might in the years since have selected more productive whitetail country to hunt. But we’re content here. So we hunt here.
We followed a foot trail a half-mile or so into the bush, then split up. Brian angled for a stand not too far distant, while Dick disappeared among tall pines, his headlamp shining toward a stand perhaps a half-mile further on. I, meanwhile, circled a swamp’s edge toward a stand where my younger son, Cole, some years ago stopped a doe in its tracks with his .243. The stand should be good for another deer or two, I’ve always figured. But in the intervening years we’ve had no luck. Yet I selected the stand anyway, testament to my stubbornness, foolishness or both.
This season, the three of us were restricted to bucks-only hunting because we hadn’t drawn any of the limited number of antlerless permits the Department of Natural Resources offered for our area by lottery. In a typical year we don’t see many deer and we shoot even fewer. Sometimes, if we have the proper licensing, we’ll take a doe. But our goal is to kill bucks, at least one on opening weekend, which, when it occurs, we consider pretty good. Two is even better, and we’ve never done three.
Night gave way to day, and the sun’s higher angle cast in broad relief the darkened forest floor, with its crisscrossing deadfalls and knee-high swamp grass. If on one of these opening mornings first light revealed within gunshot distance a volunteer buck, a monster with headgear to match, a fantasy of mine would be realized. I have other dreams as well. But this one, unrequited for some years, has been among the most persistent. But alas, at 9:30, when I poured a cup of coffee to wash down an apple turnover I had excised from my pack, it remained unfulfilled.
By midmorning a handful of shots had rung out, most far off. Intermittently, ravens flew overhead, barking. But these were fewer than on most openers. And not one skein of geese was heard or seen, also unusual. Nor were there pileated woodpeckers flitting from tree to tree. All the while, the temperature climbed through the 40s into the high 50s. A scant wind swirled from the south, and at noon, when we met for lunch, the temperature was 68 degrees.
“I saw parts of two deer in the distance,’’ Brian said. “One looked big. The other I couldn’t see well.’’
“I didn’t see anything,’’ Dick said. “There’s not a lot of sign; I’ve seen very few scrapes.’’
Most years at lunchtime we build a fire. Saturday instead we shed clothes. Time passes, and I can remember when Brian carried a gun into these woods the first time. Now he’s 35, with a wife and a daughter. You think about these things when you meet in the same place at the same time every year.
I passed the afternoon propped against a red pine overlooking a recent clear-cut that sprouts aspen about the circumference of a man’s forearm, seeing one deer that never did fully expose itself after getting a nose full of me downwind.
Also in the afternoon Brian watched an unsuspecting doe feed in front of his stand for an hour. That she didn’t have a fawn, or fawns, seemed a little different. Then again, maybe not.
Dark to dark we hunted without firing a shot.
Sunday morning would come soon enough, and we hiked from the woods wondering what might happen then.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org