Dan Merkel is one of the owners of an Upper Peninsula camp in the Lake Superior watershed. Even in the best years, deer are not exactly plentiful up there. And following back-to-back horrific winters, prospects for the upcoming season re not exactly shining. But that won’t stop Merkel from making the 300-mile drive to camp.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “It’s my camp.”
That’s a sentiment he shares with plenty of other Michiganders, for whom November 15—opening day of the firearms deer season—is one of the biggest days of the year, second only maybe to Christmas.
Deer hunting is in Michiganders’ DNA.
“Last year my dad didn’t go,” said Merkel, a 59-year-old businessman. “He had some health problems and this year they’ve stopped coming at him, so he’s going. And it may be the last year he’s up there, so it’s imperative that I be there.”
Actual deer hunting is less important than going to camp, Merkel said.
“It’s our own little society—a men’s club that’s been going on for 35 years. A bunch of us playing cards, and shooting the bull and it pains me to think that it’s not always going to be that way.
“It’s the kind of camp where one deer is a success for everyone. We maintain the place together, we work on the blinds together, and most years nobody gets a deer. I can live with that.”
Merkel said he didn’t kill a deer the first 15 years he went to camp.
“For me, the first 15 years was more about walking through the woods—exploring miles and miles of it. We were looking for deer, we wanted deer, but we didn’t always get deer. I got my first buck when I was 43 and now about two out of five years I shoot one.
“Last year there was two and a half feet of snow. There weren’t any deer around. We never even went out. And we had a huge time—we had our food and libations and that was it.”
I’m with him on that. I, too, open deer season in the Upper Peninsula, where extreme winter weather has whittled what was once a pretty fair deer herd in the vicinity of where I hunt into a mere handful of critters. Odds that I’ll see a buck are fairly long and odds that it’s a buck I deem worthy to shoot are even longer. But I’ll be going and I can tell you right now with a reasonable degree of certainty where I’ll be sitting.
Why? Because this is one of the things we do in Michigan.
Unlike a lot of deer hunters, I didn’t grow up hunting deer. My father was a small game hunter and it wasn’t until I was old enough to go on my own that I started deer hunting. Over time, I found the place where I hunt now with a buddy and I invited one of my brothers, Paul (who had never hunted deer), to come along. He got into it. When my youngest brother Dave (who was also a newbie) expressed interest, Paul and I were more than glad to invite him along.
A year later, it got even better when I suggested to my dad—who had started hunting deer with a buddy of his in the interim—that he join me. I took him up to where I hunt for the last couple of days of the firearms season and he had such a good time, he started joining his boys. A few years later, my brother-in-law—my sister’s husband—joined us. My dad eventually dropped out (he kept going until he was 85, and gave it up because my mom missed him while he was gone) but my nephew (my B-I-L’s son) goes now. It’s a family affair.
That’s the main reason I go now: to be with the bros. We don’t kill the deer like we did when the population was high, but that hardly matters.
“It’s always a good time,” said brother Dave. “You’ve got to go. You’re away from work, you’re out in the wild. It’s awesome. It’s really no deeper than. Killing a deer’s the best part, but it’s a good time regardless.”
I could probably tell you a hundred things I’ve seen—from two eagles fighting over a gut pile to a chickadee landing on my boot as I sat with my back up against a tree—that I wouldn’t have seen had I not been out deer hunting. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t go.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I fully plan to shoot a buck if an appropriate animal wanders within range. But if it doesn’t? I won’t complain. I’ll just enjoy the time in the woods with my bros. And I’ll plan to shoot a buck next year.
This article was produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.
Images by Bob Gwizdz