Published November 08, 2009, 12:00 AM

Tales from the opener: Another deer season begins

Minnesota’s firearms deer season opened Saturday morning, while North Dakota hunters took the field beginning at noon Friday. Here are a few snapshots from the hunting season to date:

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Opening day and a VIP

It’s 5:30 a.m., and sunrise is still more than an hour away, but the day already is in full swing in the Randy Knott household southwest of Thief River Falls.

That’s what you’d expect the opening day of deer season.

Jennie Knott, Randy’s wife, is at the stove wrapping up a batch of scrambled eggs and homemade venison sausage. She’ll be in the stand herself before daylight, but meantime, there are hunters to feed.

There’s also a VIP on hand. Mark Holsten, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, is hunting the Knotts’ property as part of the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener. Randy and Jennie Knott are serving as “hunter hosts” — volunteers who provide guidance and a place to hunt.

Without these kinds of volunteers, events such as the Governor’s Deer Opener wouldn’t be possible.

Randy Knott kindles enthusiasm for the daylight that’s soon to come by breaking out the photo album. It’s filled with memories from previous deer hunts — big bucks, so many big bucks, each with their own story.

If history is any indication, there’ll be a few more stories, a few more photos, by the time deer season ends.

Going primitive

He could be hunting with a rifle, but Holsten, the DNR commissioner, opts to go primitive and shoot the 50-caliber Austin & Halleck muzzleloader he picked up a few years ago. It doesn’t offer the flexibility of a modern center-fire rifle, but the fun more than makes up for it, he says.

If all goes according to plan, Holsten will have a doe walk within 80 yards, and he’ll give the deer to the state’s venison donation program.

Holsten, 44, is what you might call a late-comer to deer hunting. He grew up in Washington County near Stillwater, Minn., and hunted ducks and pheasants, but not deer.

That all changed when he was a student at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where a college friend talked Holsten into hunting deer between Orr and Crane Lake in northeastern Minnesota.

He didn’t shoot a deer the first five years, but that didn’t keep him from coming back.

The experience, he said, was the attraction.

“The camp, the solitude of it, walking around in the big woods,” Holsten said. “And every year, I just got more and more interested, looked forward to it more and more.”

That led to bow hunting and, later, elk and deer trips to Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Someday, Holsten said, he’d like to make those trips with his son and daughter, now 16 and 13, respectively.

But that will have to wait until school activities take less of their time. It’s a familiar dilemma for outdoors enthusiasts with kids.

“We’re in that period of being hard to do anything right now,” Holsten said. “Here I am, commissioner of the DNR, and I struggle to give my kids these experiences because of the competition of time.”

Too darn nice

A clear sky greets the beginning of legal shooting hours, and the temperature is nowhere close to freezing.

Despite a stiff west wind, it’s a nice day.

Too nice, perhaps.

From his post 16 feet above the ground, Holsten has a clear view of the woods and the surrounding countryside. Randy and Jennie Knott are in separate stands elsewhere on the property, a wooded 320-acre paradise of poplar, oak and other hardwood trees.

The only thing missing is the deer.

Occasional shots break the silence during the first hour of the morning, but by 8 a.m., there’s little to hear but the wind rustling through the trees.

Holsten gets a glimpse of two deer before he has to climb down from his stand at 10 a.m., but neither offer shooting opportunities.

Still, it’s two more deer than either Randy or Jennie Knott see.

“It’s very quiet,” Randy Knott said. “I’ve never heard this few shots opening morning.”

Hunting season is only a few hours old, though, and there’ll be lots of time to shoot a deer. Randy Knott says his perfect hunt is the one where he shoots a buck the last day of season.

For now, at least, there’s always tomorrow.

First buck

Jeff Smith had never shot a buck before Saturday morning.

That all changed shortly before 9 a.m.

Smith, of Lakeville, Minn., was hunting about 30 miles northwest of Thief River Falls with Pete Bercich, the former Minnesota Vikings linebacker and now a color commentator for the Minnesota Vikings Radio Network and KFAN Radio, when a buck came walking out of some pine trees.

Smith and Bercich were in Thief River Falls for the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener.

As Smith tells it, he raised his rifle and shot, and the buck dropped where it stood.

In that moment, he became the first person in the Smith family to shoot a buck — not that they hadn’t tried. The 8-pointer tipped the scales at 127 pounds field-dressed.

A range-finder showed he’d made a 240-yard shot, but Smith said it didn’t seem that far.

“It was sort of a relief; when I shot, it was just, bam! — it went down,” Smith said. “It was pretty incredible.”

Slow start

As opening weekends go, this year’s deer opener in Minnesota and North Dakota has gotten off to a slower start than most, according to enforcement personnel on both sides of the Red River.

“Beautiful weather and pretty quiet — not many problems,” said Gary Rankin, district game warden for the Game and Fish Department in Larimore, N.D. “I’d say success is probably fair at best. I’m seeing a few deer taken, but not a lot.”

Farther west, Paul Freeman, warden supervisor for Game and Fish in Devils Lake, said most of the traffic he’s encountered in the field has been farmers running tractors and combines scrambling to harvest their crops.

Stuart Bensen, conservation officer for the DNR in Erskine, Minn., said he hadn’t seen a dead deer as of late Saturday afternoon. He stopped at check station in Fertile, Minn., where about a dozen deer had been registered.

There was one decent buck, he said, but most of the deer were antlerless.

Despite the slow hunting, Bensen said he hadn’t encountered many problems in the field.

“The warmer it is, the less complaints we have,” Bensen said, “which is good.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to