Published October 14, 2007, 12:00 AM

Hunt of a Lifetime

By: Kevin Schnepf,

Earl Hodson shuffles his feet through the barn he built six decades ago. He ambles by the dust-covered Model A Ford that his uncle bought for $495 in 1928.

“That was the first car ever sold in Ulen,” says Hodson, who as a young farmer drove the car to haul eggs and cream to the Minnesota town of Ulen.

But Hodson was not visiting his farmstead in northern Clay County to talk about cars. He was here with his daughter, Beth, and her husband, Tim Chloupek, to bow-hunt deer.

Hodson is 90 years old.

Never mind that he suffered a heart attack last spring, two weeks after his last birthday. He started hunting at age 12 in 1929.

Nearly 80 hunting seasons later and unable to climb into tree stands anymore, Hodson’s hunting perch is on a chair on the east end of the barn. Looking through a 15-by-10-foot doorway barricaded by a four-foot-high gate and strategically placed vines, Hodson can see the sun setting on the trees that line the banks of the Wild Rice River.

“This is a good spot for an old man,” Hodson said with a smile. “It’s like a guy sitting in his fish house staring at a dark hole.”

With his bow sitting on his lap, Hodson scans the scenery – hoping to see another deer emerge from the woods. As the sun sinks lower, a full harvest moon begins to light the sky.

“This is a beautiful place,” he says.

All work, a lot of play

This 500-acre farmstead is where Hodson grew up. At age 9, he left his parents and eight brothers and sisters to help his uncle and aunt farm. He tilled his first field at age 13 with two horses and a walking plow. The next year, he bought part of the farm.

He milked cows in the barn that he’s proud to say he built himself. He cut trees for it and hauled it three miles by horse to a saw mill. He laid more than 2,000 cement blocks for a base that still supports the dilapidating barn.

“We grew mostly corn,” said Hodson, who along with his wife Betty of 27 years raised four children – Earl Jr., Beth, Jody and Nanette. Betty, also an avid hunter, died of breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 48.

Despite his work ethic, Hodson found time for play.

He has competed in more than 50 horseshoe tournaments. At age 84 while wintering in Texas, he played for a slowpitch softball team.

But hunting and fishing are his passions.

“I can remember my first hunt just like it was yesterday,” Hodson said of a 1929 hunt in which he shot a small buck. “It was east of Highway 59 by Park Rapids. Back then, it was always hard finding them. There’s a lot more deer than there was 40 years ago.”

Hodson estimates he has shot 138 deer during his 78 years of hunting. He trapped 13 beavers one year and made two coats out of the fur. For 16 straight years, he and some buddies went to Canada for week-long fishing excursions.

So what does he like better, hunting or fishing?

“It depends what time of year it is,” Hodson said with a smirk. “I’m going to hunt until it’s the last day I’m alive … if it’s in the fall.”

Hodson admits he has slowed down after his heart attack last spring. His last successful hunt was the fall before when he shot a doe with his shotgun.

He says the heart attack felt like “a big horse knocked me in the chest.” Bonnie Hodson, Earl’s second wife of the last 17 years, wonders if he should even be using what strength he has left to pull a bow.

“But he likes it … that’s his life,” she said. “If you take that away, then what is life?”

About 90 percent of his hunting life is spent with Earl Jr. – whose wife Gwen describes the two Earls as two peas in a pod who eat, sleep and dream hunting.

“So if you take that away, you might as well dig a hole,” Gwen said of Earl Sr.

Storybook life

When he’s not hunting, Hodson finds time to walk his dog in his north Fargo neighborhood. That’s how he met Clay Whittlesey, an avid hunter who lives a few houses down the block.

One day, Whittlesey was unloading his truck from a recent duck-hunting trip in central North Dakota.

“So, you hunt?” asked Hodson, who eventually revealed to Whittlesey his passion for hunting.

“Then he started telling me all these stories,” Whittlesey said. “I thought something’s fishy because this guy is 85 years old. I didn’t believe him.”

Two years later, Hodson invited Whittlesey to take a look at the deer mounts hanging in his house. When Whittlesey walked into the living room, it ended any doubts he had about Hodson’s hunting ability.

“I poked my head around the entry way and looked above the fireplace,” Whittlesey said. “ ‘Wow,’ I yelled. On the wall were three of the largest whitetail deer mounts I had ever seen in my life.”

What Whittlesey saw was 22- and 16-point bucks Hodson shot in Minnesota and an 8-point buck with a 26-inch wide rack he shot in Saskatchewan 15 years ago.

During his 25 years of bow hunting, Hodson has bagged eight moose and five bear from a tree stand – the first one in Manitoba when he was 30 years old.

“He roared when I shot him,” Hodson said matter-of-factly.

“Earl is just one of those tough old birds,” Whittlesey said. “When he shook my hand, he about crushed my hand. If I could be doing that when I’m his age … he’s quite an inspiration. I just felt foolish when I didn’t believe his stories.”

Like the story when Hodson drove to Montana by himself to bow hunt elk. To save money, he slept in his car. He has yet to get an elk.

“They are always too smart for me,” Hodson said. “There was one 40 to 50 feet away standing between two pine trees. I pulled the bow back, the bow squeaked and he was gone. That’s the best chance I ever had.”

Hodson remembers the days when it was easier to get permission from landowners to hunt. He remembers the days when there were hardly any guiding services – saying everything was freer in the olden days.

Hodson gets to reflect on issues like that when he sits on his chair in the barn that he built – with his bow ready to be aimed at yet another buck.

“If that deer came out of the bushes and walked right past here, I probably wouldn’t get it … but I don’t care,” Hodson says, scanning the sunset on the Wild Rice River.

“I think about how good it is to be out here and not laying in a bed somewhere. I feel lucky to get out there … I’ve had a full life.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

Hunt of a Lifetime Kevin Schnepf 20071014