Making a new connection: Longtime hunter shares land, wisdom with those new to the scene

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WIRT, Minn. — The three brothers, clad in various amounts of blaze orange clothing, ventured out into the predawn darkness of the Minnesota firearms deer opener on Saturday, Nov. 4. Snow was still falling here, about 50 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, on top of a fresh 2-inch snow overnight.

The brothers — Jim MacGillis, 47, of North Oaks, Minnesota; Alex MacGillis, 46, of Minneapolis; and Pierre MacGillis, 42, of Minneapolis — were among 500,000 hunters who are expected to go afield in Minnesota's 16-day firearms season.

But unlike a lot of Minnesota hunters, the MacGillis brothers have no tradition of Minnesota deer openers. All three were taking part in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' Adult Learn to Hunt Deer program. They were staying with Doug and Linda Appelgren and hunting on the couple's 158-acre woods near Wirt. Doug Appelgren is president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, and he's serving as a mentor for the three Twin Cities hunters for opening weekend. Their hunt is also part of festivities taking place at the Governor's Deer Hunting Opener in Grand Rapids this year.

The MacGillis brothers' mentored hunt is part of a national effort aimed at getting more people into hunting. The so-called R3 program, led nationally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations, emphasizes "recruitment, retention and reactivation" to bring hunters into the outdoors or keep current hunters active.

Despite his lack of experience, Alex MacGillis' goals for this fall's opener weren't much different from any other hunter's.

"It would be really nice to get a deer," he said.

All three of the brothers had previously taken part in required mentored hunts as part of the DNR's program for new adult hunters. In those classes, they had learned gun safety, practiced shooting and ultimately hunted with a mentor in the stand with them.

On Saturday, well-briefed by Appelgren, the MacGillis brothers were on their own. They had come up to visit the Appelgrens a couple of weeks ago, learned the lay of the land, practiced their shooting and saw the stands from which they would hunt.

Saturday morning proved ideal, weatherwise. I accompanied Jim MacGillis to his stand, where the Appelgrens' daughter once hunted. Pierre and Alex went to separate stands in the opposite direction. The wind was light, and the snow put a hush on the Appelgrens' well-managed forest. Doug Appelgren wasn't hunting.

"I don't want to shoot a deer that one of them might have been able to get," he had said the night before.

Urban brothers

The MacGillis brothers grew up in Milwaukee and have lived in urban areas most of their lives.

"We didn't hunt. My father wasn't an outdoorsman," Alex MacGillis said. "We never had guns around. We didn't go camping. We didn't go to state parks."

But when they saw this opportunity to begin hunting, all three signed up.

"I was interested in the opportunity to get outdoors and understand the conservation angle of hunting a little more and understand where our food comes from," Jim MacGillis said.

Both Alex and Jim had opportunities to shoot deer during their first two mentored hunts, called the "101" and "102" courses by the DNR.

Pierre MacGillis is the only one of the brothers who had previously shot a deer. He did it in 2014 during his first session in the adult learn-to-hunt program at St. Croix State Park. He wrote movingly about the experience in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, published by the Minnesota DNR.

"A mixture of awe and remorse coursed through me," he wrote after shooting a doe. "As I caressed the doe's smooth, still-warm fur, I noticed her long eyelashes and the deep, dark mirrors of her eyes. I wondered how exactly she had experienced this beautiful land. I felt sad — and somewhat shocked — that I had just used a gun to end this creature's life. I breathed an apology and thanked the deer for its life."

On the stand

Jim MacGillis and I had a quiet morning on the stand Saturday. We heard a smattering of shooting north and east of us, nothing like the amount that hunters heard in the banner years of Minnesota hunting a decade or more ago, but a little more than in recent years.

Meanwhile, on a stand near the north end of the Appelgrens' property, Pierre MacGillis saw several deer.

He came back to the Appelgren home, where Doug Appelgren was waiting to here all about it.

"About 20 minutes after shooting (hours opened), a deer seemed to materialize out of nowhere," Pierre told Appelgren. "I didn't know if it was a buck at first."

Later, he got a better view: The buck walked past him about 15 yards away, Pierre said.

"It looked like a four-pointer," he said. "He was moving. He never stopped — munching, munching, munching."

Appelgren asked him why he didn't shoot the buck.

"I'd only shoot something standing," he said.

Appelgren understood, he said.

Committed to the cause

He volunteered to have the MacGillis brothers hunt his land, Appelgren said, because he believes in bringing more people into a pastime he loves.

"If you care about your grandkids," he said, "this is what we have to do. It became a personal crusade, and maybe by being president of MDHA, this is something I can keep heralding. I think we need to encourage each other to bring people to the deer stand."

Minnesota's firearms deer season continues through Nov. 19.

This is the first time in 45 years of deer hunting that Appelgren didn't go out to the stand. That felt pretty odd, he said.

But he waited for each hunter's return, ready to hear their stories of the hunt. They'll hunt again today.