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Continuing the tradition
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Members of the Howard clan prepare to start their deer hunting season on their family land in Aitkin County. Each year, some 30 family members hunt together. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
The deer hunting tradition in Minnesota has been built over generations. Nearly half a million people participate each year. Though this year's hunt has been overshadowed by the threat of chronic wasting disease, it hasn't kept hunters out of the woods. For many, the annual gathering is as important as Christmas, and as much a family reunion as an opportunity to kill a deer.

Aitkin County, Minn. — The Department of Natural Resources was worried about this year's hunt. A series of mild winters allowed the deer population to flourish. They needed a strong showing from hunters to manage the herd. But when chronic wasting disease was discovered in a captive elk in Aitkin County, DNR officials feared hunters would stay home. That wasn't the case. In fact, by the season opener, license sales were up nearly 12 percent.

Eighty-one year old Larry Howard sits inside the family hunting shack in rural Aitkin County. It's the day before the deer season opener, and Larry is waiting for the rest of the family to arrive. He gets emotional talking about what the annual gathering means to him.

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Image The Howard family's hunting shack

"It's really, really, really important, because it brings our family together again," says Howard. "Our generation, there's just me and Ole left. Brother Dick died. And the reins of the hunting crew got to be turned over to the next generation. And they're doing a good job of it."

The shack was built in the early 1900s. There's no running water. No electricity, either, unless the generator's running. Some of the original logs are still visible. The walls are adorned with antlers and an old deer head. There's lots of photos of past hunts, and a large map of the family's 120 acres.

There have been Howards in Aitkin County since 1877. Six generations are buried in the family cemetery nearby. For nearly 20 years the family has gathered at the shack. This year, there will be close to 30 hunters from three generations. Dan Howard is Larry's son. He travels each year from Sleepy Eye.

"I could stay in southeastern Minnesota and get a deer every year if I wanted to. But that's not why I hunt. you're looking at why I hunt," says Dan Howard. "You know, dad, uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law. It's for the fraternity, it's not for the kill. I mean, a lot of people think we're just hunters for the kill. But that's not why we hunt."

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Image Ole Howard, left, with his son Terry and grandson Skyler.

By nightfall, the shack is packed with family. The hunters this year are all men, but the rest of the family -- moms, grandmas, nieces and aunts -- join the group for Ole Howard's traditional chili feed. It's a time for family, but also a time to make plans for the next day's hunt.

Peter Howard, 13, has walked along with his dad, Mark, for three years. This time he's carrying a rifle. He says he's a little nervous.

"Yeah, because if I don't get a deer, I know they're all going to make fun of me," says Peter Howard.

After dinner, the talk turns to chronic wasting disease. Though some of the wives insist the deer be tested before they'll eat it, Mark Howard says there's no scientific evidence that should make hunters fearful.

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Image Larry Howard, 81, right, with his son Dale and grandson Todd.

"I'll eat my venison and enjoy it as much as I ever have," says Mark.

Larry Howard says the CWD threat has forced the family to do some things differently this year. More of the guys will wear rubber gloves when dressing their deer. And they'll be more cautious when they butcher.

"Before, we used to cut our deer in half. This year, we're going to process the deer whole, not cut the head off, not cut the deer in half, not expose the spinal column or nothing like that," says Larry. "It'll change our habits a little bit, but as far as shying away from the meat, I don't think I will. No way."

Morning comes early at the Howard deer shack. The guys crawl out of their sleeping bags at around 4:15 a.m. Cooking duties are shared by the group. On this morning, Joe Howard is in charge of the kitchen. Joe's dad, Dick, passed away in February.

"My father ... always made pancakes and Ole made eggs. With my father going, we had to change tradition this year, so I just volunteered ... and so we made this. It's scrambled eggs jumbalaya. I never made it before, we'll see how it goes," says Joe.

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Image The Friday night chili feed

Mark Howard leads the hunters in a breakfast prayer.

"Our gracious Father in Heaven, we are grateful this morning that we can arise and prepare for this hunting season and family gathering. We are grateful for the family unity and camaraderie that we share. We ask that Thou bless this food. We ask that Thou bless us individually and collectively as we prepare for this hunting season, that the utmost in our mind will be our safety...and these things we pray for and thank Thee for in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, Amen," Mark says.

The hunters spend the first few hours of the morning in silence, sitting in deer stands. There are about 40 of them spread over the Howard property.

Dan Howard gets the honor of killing the first deer of the day, a four-point buck.

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Image Dan Howard bags the first deer of the morning

"Words can't describe it sometimes. It is an adrenaline rush, the first morning, the first deer," says Dan. "It was a clean shot -- probably, I'm guessing, a lung shot. So there was no tracking or wounding of the deer."

By 9:30, the hunters meet back at the shack and regroup for a series of drives through the woods. Stationary hunters are posted at the end of each drive, hoping the walkers force deer to come their way. Todd Howard says it's a matter of patience and waiting.

"You can see Roger right there. He's making his way. See now, they just kicked something out south, so Mark got a shot, or Scott got a shot," he says, with the sounds of gunshots in the background. "Nope, still going, whatever it is. We were in the wrong spot, for now anyway."

One of the hunters, a Howard in-law, Steve Prince, got two deer earlier in the day. He gets help from several others in dragging them out.

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Image A Howard in-law, Steve Prince, gets a doe and a buck

"Shot both of them this morning. A doe first. Five minutes later the buck was sniffing the trail of the doe and, shot that, and he turned around like he wasn't even hit and ran like mad," Prince says. "I didn't think I had it, but there it was -- seven, eight-pointer."

By day's end, the Howard clan had 10 deer hanging in Larry's garage, ready for butchering. Larry says he's filled with pride.

"If we expected more, we'd be hoggish ... If we asked for any more than that, we show signs of greed," says Larry.

Larry Howard says the group could have gotten skunked, but they still would have enjoyed their time together. For Larry, the experience is almost spiritual. He says he feels one with nature. But he admits, there's nothing like the rush he gets when he kills a deer.

"I can't kill a cat, I can't kill a dog. I can't even kill my own beef. But I enjoy shooting deer. Ask me why, I don't know," Larry laughs.

Members of the Howard family hunting group include two doctors, three nurses, a dentist, teachers and carpenters. They'll come and go from the shack until the end of deer season.

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