ZUMBRO FALLS, Minn. — Here among some of Minnesota’s most beautiful rolling hills and bending rivers, a small group of men gathered last week, unusual for them at this time of year, early February.
Unusual as well were the firearms they uncased, rifles mostly, with the odd shotgun toted as well. The men use the land primarily for deer hunting by archery, and they’re serious about it, placing a multitude of stands throughout its 160 acres so that, on a given autumn morning or afternoon, a platform can be chosen that gives them an advantage, windwise.
Gun hunting, well, that’s a second choice. And down here, during firearms deer season, it’s accomplished by shotgun only, no rifles.
“I’ve hunted in this part of the state all my life,” said Ron Schultz, whose business is real estate but whose life, you can tell, is centered here, in deer country.
“We’ve always had plenty of friends’ land to hunt around here, that hasn’t been a problem,” he said. “But in recent years, farms we hunted kept getting divided, a 40 sold here, an 80 there, with houses going up.
“It’s a fact of life, the development, I realize that. But it’s why I bought this property, to have someplace to keep the way it is.”
The mission on a recent Thursday was to kill deer, five if we could. But we’d take any number up to that. Ron’s property is about eight miles from the spot where an archer killed a doe on Nov. 28 that turned out to be infected with chronic wasting disease. Now the DNR wants to kill as many as 900 deer in an area roughly 10 miles in all directions from Pine Island, Minn., to see if CWD has spread, and if so, by how much.
Ron’s land lies within that 10-mile-radius area.
“We want to see if it’s around here, the CWD,” Ron said. “We don’t like killing these deer, especially at this time of year. We hope the DNR doesn’t find CWD in our deer. But you never know. We want to see if it’s here.”
The afternoon was cold, with a slight but biting wind that rolled across the undulating landscape. Milking operations prevail hereabouts, and in summer many of the surrounding fields are sown with alfalfa, a crop that, in evening, attracts deer from the hardwood patches that hold this country together.
Munching for hours, sometimes all night, the southeast’s deer seem never to want for food.
“We take some deer every archery season,” Ron said. “Then in shotgun season we thin out the does to manage the herd. We might take 10 or more by shotgun.”
Marksmen included Ron’s brother, Rick, and Rick’s son, David. In the bunch as well were Bryce Beckel and Craig Curley, with Ron and I rounding out the group.
Hunting — if it can be called that — by special permit, we had been given five tags by the DNR. Earlier, officials had said they would issue up to 10 to each landowner. But that number was cut in half, now in the early going of the culling, to ensure the permits were distributed evenly across the special CWD zone the agency established.
Unsure what to expect — whether one of us would come across a herd of 20 or more deer yarded up, making for easy pickings — or whether we would kill nothing but time, we split up across the 160 acres, locked and loaded.
While walking to an elevated, and enclosed, stand where we would sit, Ron and I heard a shot. Craig — he’s known by Curley — had touched the trigger of his 7mm, crumbling a big doe at 250 yards.
“One down, four to go,” came the text across Ron’s phone.
Deep snow was everywhere, unlike anything the southeast has seen in a long time. But the deer here don’t have wolves to worry about — coyotes, yes — so they survive even these very cold winter months pretty well.
Ron and I had no sooner climbed into our stand and Curley’s big bore jumped again. Once more, a long-distance shot flew true, dropping a second doe.
Time passed. Deer weren’t exactly volunteering for CWD testing, and the afternoon’s shadows grew longer. Then behind us, on a wooded ridge, Ron and I watched as a parade of whitetails weaved among trees and brush, ghostlike, always wary, always looking.
I picked out a fat doe and squeezed off a shot.
So there should have been four permits filled as darkness gathered first in the deeply wooded draws that wind through this land, then along east-facing hillsides, before finally creeping across broad meadows and valleys.
But my shot had flown errant, and cleanly, so only three animals lay dead at day’s end, each, as a dressing knife would reveal, pregnant — one with triplets, the others with twins.
It was, in the end, not a hunt. It was a culling, and we were reminded of this a final time when, instead of taking the carcasses home to be butchered, we left them piled askew on Ron’s land until a DNR technician could remove their lymph glands for testing.
Night fell. It had been a different kind of February day.
(c) 2011, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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