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Brad Dokken, Forum Communications, Published November 03 2012

A new perspective on deer season

ERSKINE, Minn. - For Stuart Bensen, Saturday’s Minnesota deer opener began pretty much like every other opening day in the past 30 years.

Up before dawn, coffee brewing, thoughts focused on deer hunting.

There was one difference, though, and it was a biggie. Instead of hitting the road to patrol the countryside as a conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bensen didn’t have to go any farther than the heated deer stand that awaited him just a few hundred yards from the front door.

For the first time since 1979, he wasn’t working the opening day of deer season.

Bensen retired in March, the day he turned 55, and Saturday was all about hunting. But instead of carrying a rifle, Bensen was content helping Brett Wojack, 13, of Big Lake, try to shoot a deer.

The pair met through Bensen’s sister and brother-in-law, Nancy and Ron Tradewell of Erskine, who are friends with the Wojack family. According to Brett’s dad, John, who also was along Saturday morning, the teen had shot and tagged a deer last year, but a wound the small buck had incurred before hunting season was gangrenous, and the venison had to be thrown.

“The butcher told us he maybe could save some of the meat but we didn’t want to take a chance,” John Wojack, 45, said.

Moved by the story, Bensen invited the Wojacks to hunt from the comfort of his heated, 10-by-12-foot deer stand for this year’s opener. Actually, it’s not so much a deer stand as a Hilton on stilts with knotty pine on the walls, leopard-patterned carpeting and a padded bench with – you guessed it – leopard-patterned upholstery.

More rewarding

“I never grow tired of seeing a young hunter approach the outdoors with such great excitement,” Bensen said. “I’ve taken more than my share of deer over the years, and this is far more rewarding.”

If a deer hunter ordered up a perfect day, it would look a lot like Saturday morning. A blanket of fresh snow coated the woods, the temperature hovered near freezing, and the lack of wind meant every sound was amplified.

“The animals are going to start to move on a cooler day,” Bensen said. “Some openers are 70 degrees and nothing moves.”

Wojack, using the Savage .243 rifle his parents gave him last fall, said he didn’t care if he shot a buck or a doe. The opportunity was good enough.

Phone still rings

Even in retirement, Bensen said he gets phone calls before deer season from people thinking he’s still a conservation officer.

“I’ve had several calls,” he said, “people asking questions about different laws. I have to stop them right there and say, ‘I retired last March.’ ”

It’s a whole different mindset, Bensen said, approaching the opener as a retiree.

“You can feel that atmosphere of anticipation in the air again,” he said. “Whereas before, it was bracing yourself for ‘Here we go again.’

“Even though you did get to see a lot of the good part of it, the downside, the bad part was inevitable.”

Trespass complaints. Shooting from the road. And, he said, even the occasional fisticuffs.

“It’s a good feeling, from the respect I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” Bensen said. “It’s a lot less stress and a little more excitement.”


Saturday morning, Brett Wojack had three small bucks within shooting range but was unable to pull the trigger on his best opportunity.

The power on his rifle scope was turned up too high, and he couldn’t pick out the body of the deer standing 50 yards away when he put it in the crosshairs.

“All I could see was brown,” he said.

There was another opportunity about an hour later, but the buck didn’t stick around long enough for Wojack to pull the trigger.

That was followed by the inevitable, good-natured ribbing.

“I knew that deer was big because I could hardly breathe – he was sucking all the oxygen out of the air,” Bensen said. “That deer would have fed a family of eight for a year.”

Wojack took the ribbing in stride.

The day was young, after all, and there would be other chances.

“Evening is by far the best time to be out here,” Bensen assured.

And so they’d try again, later in the afternoon. Bensen wasn’t planning to hunt, but if father and son needed help, he wouldn’t be far away.

After all, it’s not like he had anywhere else to be.

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Brad Dokken reports for the Grand Forks Herald