BRIMSON, Minn.— A lot of hunters who used to chase whitetail deer in this country are gone now, moved on to other locations with more deer, or maybe moved on to the greet deer stand in the sky.
But for the Stone Lake Whitetail Club, a few guys in a little green shack on the shores of the lake with the same name about an hour north of Duluth, there are no thoughts of going anywhere else.
“When we first started coming up here in the 80s, Brimson was famous for its big bucks. And there were hunters everywhere up here. You’d go down a tote road and find a school bus camped in the woods, full of guys,’’ said Jeff Tahtinen, 66, who owns the little cabin here on county leased land.
“There would be guys walking by your stand, down every trail," Tahtinen added. "Now, we can go all season and not see anyone else, or maybe see one other person. I think we maybe heard one or two shots in the distance’’ over opening weekend.
Tahtinen bought the cabin in 1982. He and his life-long buddy, Lonnie St. Arnold, of Cloquet, started hunting here in 1986. Neither guy had ever hunted deer before.
“Our parents didn’t hunt. But we thought, what the heck, let’s give it a try,’’ said St. Arnold, 63.
Now they won’t stop, reaching their 35th season together this year.
There have been as many as six hunters in camp in some years. Other guys have moved on, and the pair are now joined by Jeff’s son, Eric Tahtinen, 22, and Jason Houle, 49, of Duluth. They usually all make it to camp for the three weekends of northeastern Minnesota’s 16-day firearms deer season that runs through Nov. 22 this year.
“It took us a couple years to figure it out. It took us a few years to actually get a deer,’’ St. Arnold noted. In the '80s the region’s deer herd was slowly rebuilding.
“We had one pretty slow stretch where we went one for 15,’’ Tahtinen said.
As in one deer for the entire camp in 15 years.
But then, in the early 2000s, they started getting more deer. "We got a little better at it. We’d hit that state average, about one deer for every three guys each year,’’ St. Arnold noted.
For much of the last decade, however, the woods around Brimson have seen far fewer deer thanks to a lack of quality food, predation by wolves and — most impactfully — the worst string of deep-snow winters in 50 years. From here and north — up past Tower and over to Finland — is about the snowiest region in Minnesota, and the least hospitable to whitetails. Five of the past eight winters here have been in the severe category, stressing whitetails to the point that some die and surviving does produce far fewer fawns.
The deer herd here, on the far northern fringe of their range, simply hasn’t had a chance to recover, and — outside the Boundary Waters — this area has some of the lowest deer densities in the state.
“We put out one trail camera just for the fun of it,’’ Tahtinen said. “But the only thing we saw on it was us walking away and then us coming back to get it. Not a single deer … not even a squirrel.”
Still, St. Arnold said the Brimson deer camp has become an unmissable tradition, through good years and lean years, even lean decades, that’s worth more than bagging a buck. While many hunters have moved their hunting traditions south and west — places with far less snow, with agricultural crops to grow bigger deer, and with fewer wolves to compete with — the Stone Lake Whitetail Club is staying put.
“I have been invited to hunt in other places with a lot more deer. But this is deer camp for us. This is tradition,’’ he said. “We figure we get what we get.”
One of those traditions is to save a venison steak and some chops from the last season’s buck for a Saturday night, opening day deer camp dinner the next season.
“Now we need to go out and get a new deer so we can do that again next year,’’ St. Arnold said.
There's no running water here, they have to haul drinking water in, but the shack has a cozy oil stove for warmth and electricity so they can watch football games on Sunday afternoon. Out back there’s a sauna and outhouse.
On one wall of the shack, an eight-point buck rack hangs as a reminder of the 1991 Halloween blizzard that made it hard just to get to deer camp.
“We had to snowshoe in to the cabin. But I got that buck,’’ said Jeff Tahtinen, now retired from the Lake Superior Paper mill.
Last year Eric Tahtinen, who has become the most successful hunter in the group, bagged the only buck. In 2018 St. Arnold shot a nice eight-pointer.
“We call it the retirement buck because I got it three days after retiring,’’ said St. Arnold, who worked 40 years as a professional painter.
This year the guys scouted after the October snow storms and found more deer tracks and scat than they had seen in years, along with some buck antler rubs. Alas, the early snow melted and they hadn’t seen a deer after the first weekend of the hunting season.
Jeff Tahtinen has resigned himself to only taking a trophy buck at this point of his deer hunting career. He’s let smaller deer pass in recent years and is waiting for that true trophy that hasn’t come during his first 34 seasons.
“I’m still waiting for that big buck. That’s my goal now. I’m waiting for that trophy of a lifetime to put up on the wall,’’ Tahtinen said, reflecting a calm patience that some hunters just can’t muster. “If it comes, great. If not, this is still fun.”