EMBARRASS, Minn. — The half-inch of new snow overnight was nice, making everything in the woods seem a little less brown, making a brown deer just a little easier to see.

The 25-degree temperature seemed almost balmy compared to recent mornings. And just like that, after a 349-day wait, Minnesota firearms deer hunters were back at it, on a Saturday morning with low clouds, light winds and high expectations.

“It really is perfect out,’’ said John Riemer, the proprietor at Johnny’s Deer Camp here. “But then again, it really doesn’t matter for me. I had my heater going all night in the deer stand. It will be nice and cozy. … I’ve got a 30-pound propane tank out there.”

Riemer, 63, of Pike Lake near Duluth, is half of Johnny’s Deer Camp (Camp motto: “We’ll do anything for a buck.”). The other half is Jim Simone, 78, of Duluth’s Gary neighborhood, Riemer’s father-in-law of sorts.

Jim Simone and John Riemer relax with Riemer's dog Max before heading out to their deer stands Saturday outside of Embarrass, Minnesota. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Jim Simone and John Riemer relax with Riemer's dog Max before heading out to their deer stands Saturday outside of Embarrass, Minnesota. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

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“We’ve been hunting together, what, eight years now, John? No one else will hunt with him,’’ Simone joked.

The ribbing is steady at this camp, even early in the morning.

“He has me up here because he needs someone to shoot his deer,’’ Simone said before saddling up on a four-wheeler and heading to his stand.

“You usually do get one,’’ Riemer noted. “One year I heard a boom at 8:20 and another 10 minutes later and we were done. He shot both our deer down by 8:30 on opening day.”

“It’s hard not to shoot when they have antlers,’’ Simone confessed.

Johnny’s Deer Camp was born in 2008 when Riemer bought 40 acres of land — mostly tamarack, spruce and cedar — an old Finnish farmstead originally owned by a guy named Maki. There's 400 acres of state land right behind their property and there are a few deer around in most years, Riemer said. Those deer include some nice bucks. One year they counted 12 different bucks on their trail cameras.

“Nothing big, maybe 5-, 6-, 7-pointers,’’ Simone added. “But they're bucks.”

Through last season, the guys used an old camper trailer as their deer shack. Functional, but drafty and cramped. This year the guys splurged and bought a pre-built 16x24-foot shell cabin made by Amish carpenters near Rice Lake, Wis. The shell was delivered over the summer and the guys, and sometimes their wives, have been working on it ever since — painting, putting up paneling and ceilings and insulation, carpeting, cabinets and then some. There’s electricity to the building so they added baseboard heaters, a stove and fridge. (Even the outdoor porta-potty has a milkhouse heater in it.)

It’s a simple deer shack, to be sure, but one that will keep them warm and dry and comfortable for many seasons to come. It’s the kind of place tens of thousands of orange-clad Minnesotans were using Saturday, on opening day of the firearms deer season, and that thousands of others wish they had.

“There was never enough room in the trailer,’’ Riemer said. “And we wanted a little getaway we could use more. … The Amish did nice work.”

John Reimer (left) and Jim Simone measure the length of the next board they need to cut and place on the ceiling of their deer shack in Waasa Township back in September. They purchased the shack as a pre-built shell and finished it themselves.  (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
John Reimer (left) and Jim Simone measure the length of the next board they need to cut and place on the ceiling of their deer shack in Waasa Township back in September. They purchased the shack as a pre-built shell and finished it themselves. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

The guys asked forgiveness that all the finishing work wasn't perfectly square.

“I’m a plumber, not a carpenter,’’ Riemer said on a September afternoon when the guys were working on the place.

“It ain’t going to be perfect,’’ Simone added.

But it turned out pretty darned good.

Simone hunted for years off the Three Lakes Road near Duluth and sometimes down by Barnum. Riemer has hunted deer all over Minnesota, from Carver County in the south-central region to Greenbush in the far northwest, and has some nice mounts to show for it. But as he settled in to live and work around Duluth and the Iron Range, Riemer got to like the country north of Giants Ridge — the hilly divide that runs the length of the Range. When he heard about the old farmstead for sale, he jumped at the chance, putting in a bid on the same day he looked at the land.

Now, the scruffy mix of overgrown hay fields and woods here is their permanent hunting haven. The original house is gone. But there’s most of an old log barn still standing, two long-idled Farmall tractors and half a school bus parked in the woods behind the shack — just enough memories left behind by the Finnish settlers to make the guys wonder what the place was like a century ago.

“The place was full of women’s clothes. … But everyone said the old Finlander was a bachelor. So go figure that,’’ Riemer said.

On this opening morning of 2019, there would be no buck, big or small, for Johnny’s Deer Camp. Simone was still in his stand when we left, planning to sit until dark or a deer was down. Riemer came back to the shack just before noon. He had to go check the boilers at the Virginia school where he works. But later that afternoon he’d be back in his stand, too, sitting until dark.

Because on opening day, when enthusiasm is still sky-high, that’s just what you do.

“I’ll go back out for sure,’’ Riemer said. “That spot is good in the evenings.”

John Fourness tags a buck shot by Steve Allen Saturday near Embarrass, Minnesota. Allen doesn't hunt much outside of deer season and was proud to get the buck in one shot. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
John Fourness tags a buck shot by Steve Allen Saturday near Embarrass, Minnesota. Allen doesn't hunt much outside of deer season and was proud to get the buck in one shot. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Just down the road

Steve Allen of Chanhassen, Minn., was hunting with his buddy, John Fourness of Plymouth, Minn., Saturday morning on 20 acres Fourness owns just outside Embarrass. Allen said he got lucky when a heavy-bodied spike buck wandered by him in the woods early.

“Apparently when I loaded my gun this morning I didn’t close the clip quite right. … After I shot, the clip fell right out of the gun and down to the ground,’’ Allen said. “Lucky the first shot was good because I didn’t have a second.”