NORTH STAR TOWNSHIP, Minn. - Tradition is a huge part of the Minnesota deer hunting experience. Stories of big deer bagged and of missed bucks with giant racks that somehow get bigger every year. Ritual night-before-season meals. Who gets to use grandpa's gun and sit in his stand.
But there’s a tradition going on at the McCabe family deer camp, in the woods just north of Duluth, that’s extraordinary in its longevity and which shows little sign of fading.
Tom McCabe Sr. and Russ Allen have been getting together every November to hunt deer, in the same spot, since Dwight Eisenhower was president. Since “Gunsmoke” was a brand new show on TV. Since McDonald’s sold its first hamburger.
“Most of my old hunting partners are pushing up daisies,” said McCabe, 87. “But Russ and I are still going. We’ve been doing this since 1955.”
On Saturday, Nov. 3 - opening day of Minnesota’s firearms deer season - they were both out there again, on a cloudy but mild morning that was nearly calm in the woods. It was so still you could hear the hurried flapping of chickadees. Raven caws and red squirrel chatter seemed deafening.
A light dusting of snow speckled the ground overnight, but even that melted away by noon as skies grew brighter and the thermometer climbed into the 40s.
At least in this part of Minnesota, the forecast rain held off for most of the hunting day.
“It’s not like the old days when we had snow and cold just about every season,’’ said Russ Allen, 92.
Russ’ son, Tim Allen (at 68, still referred to as one of the kids) helped his dad find the right boots and don the right clothes for the morning hunt, and then helped him into a side-by-side ATV for the ride out to what at the McCabe family deer camp known as the “Golden Anniversary Stand.” It’s an enclosed shack on stilts with steps - not a ladder - along with sliding windows and a door that can keep the elements out and warmth from a propane Mr. Heater Buddy in.
“We built it on our golden anniversary of hunting together,’’ McCabe said. That was 2005, Now they’re up 63 seasons together.
Tim started the heater, loaded his dad’s .25-06 rifle and left to find his own hunting spot a quarter mile away.
“How many shells do you want in there dad?’’ Tim asked. “It should only take one but I’ll give you five.”
Nearly a century on the land
The woods here are rolling knobs of red and white pine mixed with aspen and birch, with multiple age classes and clear-cuts separated by dense forest. There are seven miles of trails criss-crossing the property.
“Some of this land has been logged off twice in my lifetime,’’ McCabe said. “We've planted 250,000 pine seedlings here over the past 40 years.”
The McCabe family’s connection to this land dates back to 1922 when Tom’s father, W. John McCabe, purchased a parcel. Over the years the family has added more land and now has nearly 700 acres sprawling between the Cloquet River and the Pequaywan Lake Road.
- John McCabe, an avid sportsman (the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America is named in his honor) built the first shack on the land in 1934 that was base camp for hunting and fishing in the area.
Tom started hunting here in the 1940s as a kid, he said. Russ Allen joined the group in 1955. Tom McCabe built what is now the family cabin in 1958.
“Russ was a forester for Halverson Tree Co. and we’d cruise the whole region looking for Christmas trees that they’d buy from us,’’ said McCabe, whose family has been in the logging and wood products business for decades.
Whether working or hunting, the two had a knack for knowing where the other one would be in the woods, McCabe said. “It’s like we knew what each other was thinking. We just hit it off... We did a lot of fishing and duck hunting and partridge hunting together and we started hunting deer together here in 1955.”
They haven't missed a deer season since. Even in 1971 when there was no Minnesota deer season.
“We were living in town and I packed up and told my wife I was going to the cabin… We couldn't hunt deer that year, there was no season, hardly any deer… So we just rode around the land on the kids’ horses and had fun just tromping through the woods,’’ Tom said with a grin.
Tom’s wife, Alice, said she had no idea there was no deer season that year until someone told her a decade later.
“I think he was gone all week while I was home with the kids,’’ she said with a laugh that made it clear she’s finally forgiven Tom for his transgression.
Stories old and new
Many of the McCabe camp buck stories are retold each season. Others have faded into memory. But one still stands out, literally, because the 10-point mount is hanging in the cabin over the fireplace.
The year was 1957, but McCabe recalls it as if it were 2017.
“I was on a little ridge and I heard Russ shoot… bang, bang, bang… pretty fast. So I stood against a tree and waited. It wasn’t long until this giant buck came running by at full speed, about 75 yards out,’’ McCabe said. He was shooting an old .32 special, lever action, octagon-barrel rifle with open sites. He fired and the buck dropped.
It took three guys to drag the giant buck out of the woods, even with a coating of snow on the ground “and if one guy slipped, the deer stopped. The other two couldn't’ budge it by themselves,’’ McCabe said.
“A week after I shot it we weighed it at 295 pounds. People said it was the biggest deer they'd ever seen,’’ McCabe added, a monster by any standards. “We still get some big deer around here, but not like that.”
Each deer stand here has a special name, like the “Pee Stand’’ where one hunter, requesting anonymity, shot a buck he first saw while down on the ground answering nature's call. The buck never moved as the hunter climbed back into the stand, picked up his rifle and shot. There’s the “Moose House,” the “Shoo Stand,” “Jimmy’s” and the “Barber Pole.” Then there was the carpenter in camp who built his stand on opening morning, hammering and sawing away for hours, seemingly scaring off every deer in the county. He then sat down in his completed masterpiece and, within 30 minutes, shot one of the camp’s biggest bucks ever.
“We have lots more stories if we could remember them,’’ Russ said. “We had more deer back then. Bigger deer. ... There are too many wolves now. We never used to hear wolves, but now we do.”
Friends and family
This deer season would see eight hunters on opening day at the McCabe camp. Tom’s son, Rob McCabe, of Duluth, is a regular, as is his Rob’s son, Brandon, of Cotton, adding a third generation of McCabe’s hunting together.
Friends Ron and Todd Siciliano of Thunder Bay, Ontario, were there, too, as they have been for most of the past 26 seasons. Duluth native Tom Macleod, now of Cross Lake, also made the annual trek.
“I just can't miss this. It’s tradition,’’ Macleod said.
Everyone actively hunts, but there’s little pressure to score here - only good-natured competition that friendship over dozens of seasons has mellowed.
Like Russ, Tom McCabe mostly sits in stands now. He and Russ are usually the last to leave the hunting shack after daylight breaks each morning.
“Let the kids go out in the dark. We’ll get there eventually,’’ McCabe said. “I used to like to still hunt, to walk all day. I shot a lot of deer walking, especially on drizzly, misty days that were quiet. But not any more. I mostly sit now.”
“It’s getting harder every year now,’’ said Russ, who now brings an oxygen tank to deer camp and walks with a cane. Approaching “93 is kind of pushing the package, I guess.”
Just about everyone in the McCabe camp saw a deer or two Saturday morning. Alas, they were all does and fawns. The camp has been strictly bucks only since 1972, a self-imposed effort to help bolster the deer population.
After lunch of hot soup and sandwiches in the cabin most of the crew was preparing to head back out into the woods.
After all, there’s plenty of deer season left, and on opening day, morale was high.
“I saw some scrapes down toward where Tom was,’’ Tim Allen said. “There’s bucks around.”