Deer hunting opener a fun family tradition

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“We’ve been coming up here since Moses parted the Red Sea,” proclaimed hunter Mike Vangstad Sr., speaking of his spot southeast of Lake George called Camp Vangstad.  Five Vangstads were there over the weekend deer hunting. Plus a man named John Tesch.  “We picked him up on the side of the road,” one of the Vangstads offered to uproarious laughter.  Tesch, for his part, apologized twice for his kids not being there to even the numbers out. The hunting party from various towns in   Minnesota has stayed at the same Hubbard County site for 51 years.  

The men usually hunt opening weekend. Later this week, the camp will be filled with wives, sons, daughters, cousins and madness.  They started hunting there after one Vangstad, who was in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 in the United States for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families as part of the New Deal.  Originally for young men ages 18–23, it was eventually expanded to young men ages 17–28.  “Dad was in the CCC camps back in 1939,” Mike Vangstad Sr., said. “The CCC camps built all these roads.”  So the family got prime hunting land around Lake George Township and have hung on to it ever since.  Teen Damie Vangstad had shot the largest deer of the three hanging in the woods.  “He has a youth permit,” Vangstad Sr, said. “He could have taken a doe but he couldn’t pass up that big buck.”  Damie was grinning from ear to ear.  Of the men’s six tags, they had three bucks and three does, a rarity since most people had buck permits this year.  They were going out after lunch Sunday to try to fill  the other tags before all the company came.

The opener - The 5 a.m. breakfast rush at the Great Northern Café just isn’t what it used to be, said owner Lance Pritchett.  “We’d open at 4:30 and it would be packed in here until nearly 7:00,” he said.  Then in the good old days when the craft shows ran the same weekend as opening deer rifle season, the café on Highway 34 in Park Rapids would fill up all over again, said server Laureen Gitchel.  “We’d be full from 9 until noon, then start all over again,” she said, with hunters stopping by for lunch.  The coffee urns went full steam, full-time to fill hunters’ thermoses, Pritchett said.  “Now they can go through the drive-through and grab a quick cup,” he said of the fast food restaurants. “Everybody’s in a hurry.”  

Although opening day of hunting is not as busy as it used to be, Pritchett said the crowds come earlier and stay later in the week.  “We were dead Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday but we say it’ll pick up,” he said. “We could see the pickups and four-wheelers rolling into town on the highway. We said, “It’s comin.’”  By Friday, business was roaring again.  Out in the fields of Hubbard County Mitch Rosendahl had bagged his buck by 11 a.m. and had it loaded into his pickup.  He watched in frustration as two does nibbled on the grass just up the road, not even flinching at the gunfire.  Ken Benton by that time had seen 16 does – he was counting – but couldn’t take a shot because he, like most other hunters, had a bucks-only permit. His brother was out in a field a ways away with a doe permit, one of the chosen few.  Hubbard County dispatchers were busy straightening out hunting disputes in the field.  “They’re not allowed to shoot down or across the trails,” one dispatcher clarified for a caller.

The conditions  Both opening day and Sunday had temps up to 50. The difference was the winds. Saturday was a windless, perfect day.  Sunday, brisk winds stung cheeks and noses.  Last week’s rains made many of the minimum maintenance roads almost impassable except for a big pickup truck with big tires. A few roads were even closed off with gates because they were so impassable.  Deer registration stations are becoming a thing of the past. Most hunters toted iPhones or small tablet devices that enabled them to register their tags electronically – and tune in the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.  Two of the Vangstads were constantly checking their phones during the lunch break, relaying local news to the family at camp.

News from the DNR  There’s reason for optimism going into Minnesota’s deer opener, and the 400,000-plus hunters who hit the field for one of the year’s biggest outdoors “happenings” should see more deer on the landscape this year, thanks to a milder winter and conservative regulations last year, wildlife managers say. Minnesota’s firearms deer season opened Saturday. Steve Merchant, wildlife populations and regulations program manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said conservative regulations again this year likely will result in hunters seeing deer they can’t shoot.  One-deer limits remain in most of the state, with numerous permit areas restricted to bucks-only for hunters who didn’t receive an antlerless permit by lottery.  

According to the DNR, 70 of Minnesota’s 128 deer permit areas this year required hunters to be chosen in a lottery for an antlerless permit, and 14 permit areas are bucks-only. In 29 permit areas, hunters have the choice of shooting either a doe or a buck. Bonus permits allowing hunters to shoot more than one deer may be used in only 11 permit areas and for some special hunts.  Because of the conservative regulations, the DNR is anticipating a relatively low deer kill this fall, projecting a total harvest in the range of 140,000 to 155,000 deer between the archery, firearm and muzzleloader seasons.  Last year, hunters shot about 140,000 deer between the three seasons.  By comparison, hunters shot 290,525 deer between the three seasons in 2003, when the DNR offered liberal regulations across the state that allowed hunters in many permit areas to take as many as five deer during the firearms season. In recent years, the pendulum has swung back toward more conservative regulations.

“We are continuing to build the deer population across much of the state, and we do that by harvesting fewer antlerless deer,” Merchant said.  This season will mark the second year of a management approach to rebuild deer populations based on goal setting and listening sessions that indicated a desire for more deer in many areas.  Plans to establish new goals in far northwest Minnesota are on hold until completion of a legislative audit into the DNR’s deer management practices.  “For most hunters, it’s rewarding to see deer while hunting,” Merchant said. “So far, in many areas, the season looks favorable for both deer sightings and the opportunity for harvest, based on reports from the fields and forests.”

Northwest outlook  Deer numbers appear to be up across much of northwest Minnesota, based on both DNR and anecdotal reports. Last winter brought mild temperatures and little snow, and last year’s conservative deer season and limited antlerless permits have resulted in more does and fawns on the landscape.  Nearly two-thirds of the state’s wildlife management area acres are in northwest Minnesota and are open for deer hunting as well.

New technology  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is developing an interactive deer information tool and taking input from hunters to review the site.  By clicking the “detail report” link, hunters can find information specific to every deer permit area in the state, including harvest history, permit area designation and winter severity history. It also tells a hunter what type of land is in the permit area and how much public land is available.  In a news release, the DNR says it is hoping that with the firearm deer season opening Saturday, hunters can take a look at the application, discuss it at deer camp and provide the DNR with feedback. The application works on mobile devices and in desktop web browsers. Instructions on how to use each version of the application are online. A link for user feedback also is provided.

This report was supplemented by materials from the DNR and Forum News Service.