By Jerry Ness
I had no mentor to teach me the art of deer hunting.
Dad never hunted deer, as it happened at the same time that cows needed milking. I never understood such misplaced priorities.
My uncle Ernie tried, but evidently, nobody ever taught him how to hunt deer either. His weapon was an old single-shot twenty gauge shotgun. I’m certain that it had never been sighted in or even fired for years.
Even if he had been a crack shot, not that many deer ran through the kitchen of our farmhouse. That was the place where Ernie did the majority of his posting.
One year he did hunt with Herman Runsvold, a distant relative of ours from Moorhead. They hunted on the land north of ours, which everyone called the Smoke Land. I think it had once belonged to some guy named Mr. Smoke.
It was good ground, but their “hunt” largely consisted of sitting in Ernie’s old Plymouth and listening to the Gophers play Michigan. Unless a deer knocked on the window or jumped over the hood, their chances for success were unlikely. But that was Ernie, one of the really good guys.
What would he have done with a deer anyway? For Ernie, deer hunting was about drinking coffee, chatting with old friends, and maybe buying a new red cap. The goal of actually shooting a deer never really factored into Ernie’s deer hunting.
So, where did this leave me?
I suppose Chuck Anderson, my friend and neighbor, was most responsible for bringing me into the deer hunting fraternity.
Chuck had two Uncles, Conrad and Amos, who were World War II veterans and avid deer hunters. They carried powerful rifles and were often successful. I think they probably influenced Chuck to follow down the deer hunting path, and I followed him.
He sat by an oak tree on a little knob in the woods south of his house. He must have bagged deer right from the start. I remember going down to look at his deer and thinking it was about the coolest thing ever. Chuck had a New Haven .410, three-shot bolt action, which was his deer rifle. It was not surprising that when I turned twelve, I used $19.95 of my gopher trapping money to buy one just like it at the Coast to Coast store in town.
I was now armed!
As a twelve-year-old, I could legally buy a Minnesota deer license.
With five dollars I had earned by picking mustard, I made this important purchase. With the license came a metal tag. I was especially careful to not click it together.
If I had, it would have been useless for tagging the big buck I intended to slay on the first Saturday of November.
Just like that, I had a gun, a license with a metal tag, and a role model.
I was a deer hunter!
Dad bought me five, two-and-a-half-inch-long slugs in a little cardboard box. I certainly couldn’t waste any of them by practicing.
So I didn’t.
I had no idea how far these little slugs would carry, how much they would drop, what was the effective killing range, or anything else about them. All I knew was that I had a gun, five slugs, a license, a knife I had won at the county fair, and a red coat.
I’m ready to go deer hunting.
In 1962, western Minnesota had a one-day, one deer of either sex, season. It wasn’t really a deer season as much as a deer day. The deer population wasn’t what it is today, but nevertheless, the first few hours of the day sounded like a small war. After a restless night of fitful sleep, I awoke early on that fateful November Saturday, quickly ate my oatmeal, got dressed, and was on my way. Daybreak found me sitting atop the highest point on our farm, which we call the Rocky Hill.
My choice of a spot to sit was clearly problematic.
My underpowered .410 had an effective range of perhaps fifty yards. Therefore, unless a deer ran right over the top of the hill, he was out of range. Of course, I knew none of this at the time.
I also knew nothing about the importance of sitting still. Of course, even if I had known, it would have been impossible because I was freezing to death. This was caused primarily by my complete lack of adequate clothing. My feet led the way toward hypothermia, clad in leather shoes inside my uninsulated, four-buckle overshoes. At least I had some nice, thin, cotton socks!
My hands were ten little icicles inside my little brown jersey gloves.
The wind was barely interrupted as it blew through my cotton long-johns and blue jeans on the way to my thin, young legs. On my head sat my cap with pathetic ear lappers.
My red, hand-me-down jacket perhaps would have been sufficient on a balmy September day, but was completely overwhelmed by the cold of November. I was frozen even before I got to my stand.
As I sat on an ice-cold rock, clasping my own body with rigid arms and frozen fingers, the Grim Reaper sat on the next boulder and bided his time.
No wonder I walked around the top of the Rocky Hill instead of sitting still.
I was trying to stay alive! They say you can’t remember pain, but I can remember cold!
Around mid-morning, a minor miracle occurred.
As I looked north, I actually saw a deer! It came out of the hills to the west and was running across the cropland toward the east. Was it a buck, a doe, or a fawn? How would I know?
It was so far away that I could barely see it.
Looking back, I know now that it was two to three hundred yards away and on the run. With my 30.06 and powerful scope that I have today, it is a shot that I would never take.
But this was 1962, and I was twelve, so the little .410 barked not once but twice. I had used forty percent of my ammunition. At this point, a second miracle happened. At least, it happened in my twelve-year-old mind. My deer stumbled, fell, got up, and continued running east into Anderson’s pasture hills.
I must have hit him!
With my 60 years of experience and hindsight know now that those poor .410 slugs were lying somewhere in the grass about halfway between where I was standing and where that deer was running.
I know now that it was a shot that even an Army sniper would not take. If I had tried to lob my slug out there at a forty-five-degree angle, it still wouldn’t have made it.
These are things I know now.
But it was 1962, and I was twelve, and I wanted to bag a deer like my good friend Chuck.
All these things combined to make my eyes and brain believe that this deer had been hit. I ran home and told Dad that I had a wounded deer somewhere in the pasture.
Luckily he knew even less about deer hunting than I did, so he agreed to help me look for my wounded prey.
He found his old Stevens single shot, twelve-gauge with the friction tape around the stock and forearm, and then dug in a box in the wellhouse until he found two old slugs. These old shells were so dirty and stained that it was impossible to determine their brand.
We then trudged north into the pasture hills and commenced the search for signs of blood.
Needless to say, we didn’t find any.
To this day I don’t know if Dad went with me because he was just being nice, and that’s what dads do—or did he really think that it was possible that I could have hit that deer?
I don’t think he had any better idea of the range of that .410 than I did.
I don’t remember if I sat on the top of the Rocky Hill for the rest of that one-day season.
I do remember getting a call from Chuck that evening. He asked if I wanted to come down and see his deer.
I was happy for him.