Ten minutes into my first deer hunt, I found myself to be something less than a diligent hunter. The woods near my grandparents’ cabin on Tulaby Lake (near Detroit Lakes) were still dark in the early morning. I was sitting hip-to-hip with my dad in a 4-by-4 deer stand 5 feet off the ground. And I was a cold and antsy 15-year-old.
When a deer didn’t do us the courtesy of showing up within the first 10 minutes, my attention wandered. I fidgeted. I squirmed. I napped. I tried to toast our deli-ham-on-buttered-bun sandwiches by holding them next to the portable propane sunflower heater. And that’s basically how I spent my Saturday.
For a lot of kids across Minnesota, their first deer hunt is a rite of passage, one of the crucial stops on the road to adulthood. It’s no different in my hometown of Ada, located in the northwestern part of Minnesota. I got my first chance in the fall of 1996, when I was finally old enough to ace a firearm safety course and join my dad, my older sister and my uncles out in the woods. In separate stands, of course. Not that talking would be encouraged anyway.
My dad is the type of guy who says he can’t remember how many deer he’s bagged over the years. He got his first one in 1970 as it charged at him in what sounded like an epic showdown between man and beast. One of his trophies, the head of a majestic nine-point buck, stares down at you from above the cabin’s fireplace. These were big shoes to fill.
On Sunday morning we gave it another try. Some years you don’t even see a deer out there, a fact that weighed heavily on my mind. Hours later, I was staring up at the sky, eyes glazed over, when my dad lightly put a hand on my shoulder. He pointed to the bottom of the slope at our left. A deer had materialized. It was the most nervous thing I’d ever seen — I had no idea if it knew danger was nearby or if deer were always that way.
At that distance, we couldn’t tell if it had antlers or not. My dad didn’t have a doe permit that year, but I was young enough to have the type of license that allows you to “harvest” a deer of any gender. The shot was mine to take.
I raised my rifle, a .243 Winchester on loan from my Uncle John, to my shoulder and thumbed the safety. Through the scope, I saw nothing but trees. Rifle down, I spotted the deer again. Rifle up, nothing. Rifle down, deer. Rifle up, oh-no-why-is-this-happening?
This continued for what felt like a long time. All the while, the deer was steadily, cautiously picking its way across our field of vision. I still couldn’t find it in my scope. My blood started pounding in my ears.
My dad could sense the opportunity slipping away. Better to have shot and missed than never to have shot at all. He leaned over and I could feel more than hear the urgency in his whisper: “You gotta take a shot!”
Like magic, exactly as he said it, the deer’s rear end appeared in my scope. I pulled the trigger. After hours of purposeful silence, the shot was earsplitting. And somehow, the deer dropped.
My dad was excited. For years afterward, I think he thought the deer was in my sights the whole time and I was just waiting for the perfect angle. I did nothing to dispel that notion.
The deer turned out to be a three-point buck — exactly one-third as impressive as the cabin’s trophy. The small, asymmetrical rack is collecting dust on a shelf in a garage somewhere. We whistled for John, who came and gave the deer what he called “a courtesy gut.” I was happy not to have to touch any of it. I helped drag the now-much-lighter deer out of the forest and back to the gravel road. My mom met us there with a video camera to capture me hauling it away on the back of a four-wheeler. Under the pressure of that little red camera light, I forgot how to start the ATV, which probably made for better footage. We later had what little meat was on the carcass turned into sausage. It was stringy and tough, but I sure acted like it tasted amazing.
So I retired from deer hunting after that season. Maybe I’ll get out there again if my wife and I decide to have kids, though I’ll probably leave the shooting lessons to Dad. But I’m certain of one thing: I would be happy to pass on the secrets of my patented propane heater toasted ham sandwich.
Ross Pfund Jr. is a legal magazine editor and fourth-generation journalist living in Minneapolis. On Twitter: @areyoubadenough