It’s hard to forget the shake-you-to-your-core fear you feel as a kid the first time you’re asked to retrieve something from a dark basement. Over time, that fear becomes excitement the more you ascend the stairway, having successfully avoided whatever monsters call the lower level home.
The analogy offers insight into hunting. For many, the social aspect of the sport is part and parcel to the experience, and the idea of going it alone stirs memories of descending that creaky stairway, uncertain about the unknown.
Yet many hunters who head afield by themselves look favorably upon the experience, understanding, for example, that the spectacle of a rising sun casting its golden autumn hues across an endless prairie doesn’t have to be shared to be treasured.
In the final wash, each hunter defines success in different ways. And if the only measure is time spent with others, hunting alone isn’t a good option.
But for those who rate as important solitude and quiet, and the freedom that attends making their own decisions while understanding the way hunting must have been before it was an excuse to hang out with buddies, there’s much to like about striking out on their own — whether it’s a solo adventure out west for elk or deer, or an outing closer to home for smaller quarry.
Following are profiles of three hunters who, for various reasons, spend most of their time afield on their own.
Bill Hildebrand: Pheasants
When his boys were growing up, Bill Hildebrand made pheasant hunting with them a priority. Together, they kicked through some of the grasslands the elder Hildebrand hunted with his father, and also struck off to find new spots of their own.
Then one boy went to college. Some years later, so did the other. Suddenly, Hildebrand wasn’t so sure he wanted to go afield anymore, his hunting buddies having moved away.
“It almost felt like a death,” said the 67-year-old Hildebrand, who lives in Champlin Park.
And yet he had a dog — a golden retriever at the time — and he didn’t want her cooped up all fall. So Hildebrand loaded her up and headed back to the grass. He missed his sons but discovered something else: Being alone in the field — just him and the dog — wasn’t so bad. In time, he came to embrace the quiet and solitude.
“When the dog points a bird, I’ll usually drop that first one,” said Hildebrand, who now has two Brittanies. “Then I am so afraid I’ll have a limit and have to quit that when other birds get up, I’ll just pull up my gun, pretend I’m shooting, and keep going. I don’t care if I get a limit. That means nothing to me. It means I have to quit hunting, is what it means.”
Hildebrand hunts pheasants four or five days a week for much of the season. He tries to work in a trip or two with his sons but otherwise takes advantage of the fact he’s retired and hunts while others are office-bound and dreaming about the weekend. Sometimes, he makes a sandwich and brings it with him, relishing the chance to stop and eat it when the mood strikes him.
“I can pick the places I want to hunt and can avoid walking through the tough stuff if I want. Or I can dive right into the cattails,” Hildebrand said. “And if the dog turns and goes the other way, I don’t have to worry about anyone else.”
Jay Weide: Ducks
As he always does, Jay Weide hunted ducks on opening day this year. And yet it almost was a new experience. For the first time in 10 years, he shared opening day with another hunter.
And though he doesn’t mind company, he’s unabashed about his preference for duck hunting alone. No partner, no dog — just Weide, his equipment and Mother Nature. He watches birds flit about, and appreciates the opportunity to sit in silence as the animals of the marsh — beavers and deer and otters — do their thing.
“It’s really peaceful,” said Weide, 55, of St. Louis Park. “It’s calming and there’s a lot of solitude. It’s just really relaxing.”
There’s another thing: It’s challenging and rewarding, all at the same time. Weide, who cut his teeth hunting with his dad and brothers in Kansas, hunts primarily along the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota, watching the sky and hoping for a crack at mallards, teal or wood ducks.
“It really feels like an accomplishment, knowing success or failure is all based on something I did,” Weide said. “It’s not someone else’s calling, someone else’s decoy setup, or someone else’s area. I choose the spot. I set up the decoys and do the calling and the shooting. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.”
But there are challenges.
“It can be a lot of work getting the boat in and out by yourself,” Weide said. “And you’re on your own if you have an accident.”
Adam Myers: Deer
Twenty-six-year-old Adam Myers of Cloquet can attest to the possibility of an accident occurring, and the necessity of being prepared.
Last fall, he was deer hunting alone — something that’s become common since his mom, who was his favorite hunting partner, died about a decade ago — when he flipped his canoe in the frigid waters of the St. Louis River while trying to reach a remote hunting spot. Thanks to a dry box that held his cellphone, he was able to call for help and was rescued after spending several hours in the water.
The moment he went into the river, he thought of his mom, who died when she was 49. “I was just hoping she was watching over me,” Myers said.
Myers made it out of the water that November day, and will spend this year’s firearms deer opener the same way he has since his mom’s death: hunting by himself, likely where the two of them once hunted together. While he enjoys hunting with other people from time to time, there’s no replacement for the woman who raised him and taught him to hunt.
“I’ll probably go to this public land over in Cotton,” Myers said. “That’s where we used to go.”
His plan when he gets there? Start walking.
“I dress light, take a backpack with food and water, and just walk,” said Myers, who lets his mind wander during his excursions. “I’m always trying to get farther away from the road than anyone else. Typically, I walk at least 10 miles during the weekend — maybe 5 or 6 miles a day.”
Yet anyone who has killed a deer off the beaten path knows the work involved in getting it to a road or vehicle — even when there’s someone along to help.
“That’s the worst part of being alone — hauling the animals out,” Myers said.