Every year the deer gun opener serves as a reminder of North Dakota's strong hunting tradition. Even with a diminished deer herd and fewer licenses than almost anyone can remember, the deer gun opener is still a special day.
Many vacation days are reserved for the deer gun season. Friendships are rekindled, families gather for a joint venture and memories are made.
"It's not just the deer thing," said Tom Kelsh, Minot. "I've just always been along with these guys."
Kelsh was part of an opening day deer hunting party in Unit 3A2 north of Minot. Others in the group included longtime hunting partner Richard Leshovsky of Velva, Leshovsky's brother, and Leshovsky's sister and her family. Not all had deer tags but none were about to break tradition and miss opening day.
The hunters departed Minot shortly after 9 a.m. on the opener. The season officially started at noon, leaving plenty of time to drive to the preferred hunting area and do a little 11th-hour scouting. There was also time to exchange pleasantries and strategies with other hunters preparing to hunt nearby. Coordination is as important for safety as it is for increasing the odds of seeing deer.
The wind was light with a mixture of light rain and a few snowflakes as the long-awaited noon hour approached. Anticipation was high, even among those who have many deer seasons behind them. Some hunters took their position as "posters" while others moved into position to begin walking through some likely deer cover. Precisely at noon the orange-clad hunters began their season.
One small buck and two does were encountered early in the walk. As fate would have it, the does passed in front of those with buck tags. The buck presented only a moment's opportunity for a lengthy shot and disappeared safely into cover.
At the opposite end of the large area, a hunter was keeping close watch over a likely escape route for deer exiting clumps of cover and tree rows, perhaps looking to sneak into a nearby field of standing corn. Even with several hunters working toward his position, no deer were seen. The hunter keeping watch said he wasn't surprised because deer numbers were down.
Not far away Tim Vosberg of Wahpeton was returning to his vehicle after a long and determined walk.
"Not a thing," said Vosberg. "Its always been a good spot, maybe not as good as 10 years ago but still pretty good. We've got relatives up in this area. That's what brings us up here."
Vosberg was hunting with one of his two sons during the Friday opener. His other son was due to join him the following day.
"We've been here for 12 or 14 years. We like it. It is kind of fun," said Vosberg. "The farmers are pretty good about it."
Several hunters commented on the lack of deer in areas where they had seen several during previous opening days. Few shots were heard either, another indicator that the opener was a bit tougher than many were accustomed to. Still, a few deer were seen and there was ample sign indicating deer activity.
Every hunter was aware that they were fortunate to have a deer tag. With a reduction in licenses, many prospective hunters were not drawn for deer gun tags this year.
Tom Leshovsky of Minot did not get his first priority in the deer draw, but did receive a doe tag for Unit 3A4. Nevertheless, he gave up his opening weekend of hunting to participate with family members who had drawn tags in Unit 3A2.
"I'll go later and try and get my doe," said Tom Leshovsky. "It's kind of fun to hang out with family."
Tom Leshovsky, binoculars in hand, kept a close watch on the countryside for any deer on the move. He was familiar with the area and was happy to lend a helping hand to the hunt.
Don Leinen, Hankinson, was hunting along with his wife, Kathleen, and daughter Autumn, 13, and Noel, 15. Don, Kathleen and Noel had buck tags. Autumn did not. She had participated in this year's youth hunt and did not have a tag for the regular season. Still, she was eager to be part of the party.
"It is a family tradition," said Don Leinen. "We've been coming up here since the kids were real small. It's fun to get together with family and friends."
"The girls have been hunting with us since they were old enough to carry a stick. One year, Noel carried a BB gun," laughed Kathleen Leinen. "We did a lot of walking today and no deer so far."
A couple of lengthy walks proved good for the appetite. The group took a brief break for some late afternoon sandwiches and a few sticks of jerky.
"I like it. It's fun," said Noel Leinen when asked about the hunt.
Autumn agreed, saying, "I like mostly everything about it."
Leshovsky's brother Richard was enjoying the opener. He had seen only a couple of does until connecting with a white-tailed buck late in the day. It was the only deer taken by the party opening day.
Day 2 saw a change in the weather. Wind gusts were approaching 40 miles per hour and the temperature had dipped.
"It was downright cold," said Tom Leshovsky. "Every spot we checked had deer sign. It's not like there's no deer. I think it is a combination of every spot being full of water, which eliminates those spots, and the best cover is standing crop. We walked miles upon miles and saw one small buck."
A few does were seen entering a field of standing corn early in the morning. Later in the day, said Leshovsky, he sighted six or eight deer within 20 feet of a cornfield.
"I really think we've got deer hiding in corn and sunflowers, but the deer (numbers) are still down, down big," said Kelsh. "That's my real thought on it. With all the stuff we went through, we should have seen way more deer."
However, as Kelsh had pointed out, deer season is as much about the event as it is about tagging a deer.
"Some years are better than others," said Richard Leshovsky. "This year may not be the best but we're still enjoying being outside."