Sisters, cousins, friends and neighbors share the experience
By JENNIE ZEITLER
John Theis of rural Little Falls was born and raised on a farm near Buckman. Not a deer hunter growing up, little did he realize what a big part of family life for him and his wife and their four daughters hunting season would be, as they eagerly anticipate hunting for its fellowship and challenge.
John and his dad, Claude, loved hunting for pheasant, grouse and squirrel but never hunted deer. When John was 16, he approached his dad to try deer hunting.
“We sat at the kitchen table and ordered a rifle out of the Sears catalog,” John said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a 30/30 Marlin and I still have it.”
He didn’t get a deer the first year, but eventually shot a six-point buck in their home woods. “Dad came out with a tractor just like we were butchering beef,” John said “He never did shoot a deer before he died four years ago, but he so enjoyed spending the time with us.”
John married Kelly in 1984, and that year they joined the National Guard. They also started hunting together. Their eldest daughter, Casey, was born in 1987.
“As soon as we were old enough to take the firearm safety class, we went hunting,” Casey said. “Dad would pick us up at school one day during hunting season. It was always really exciting and we got hooked in the process.”
“I always took the Monday after opening weekend off work — I still do,” John said.
The girls had a hard time being quiet, though. “It was more about being in nature,” Casey said.
When youngest daughter Elizabeth was in kindergarten and got to go hunting, she recalls wearing a red snowsuit.
“She fell asleep under a barbed wire fence and slept through it all,” said John.
“As we headed home I spotted a doe that jumped over a fence and let dad know — it was awesome,” Elizabeth said.
“It was probably the only time when we were with dad at that age that produced something,” said Casey.
John’s older brother has never hunted, so John has made sure his two nephews, Adam and Aaron, have had the opportunity to hunt.
Some of the group take hunting much more seriously than others. Adam often pairs off with daughter Lauren. “They’re extreme hunters,” John said.
Adam and Lauren do not use deodorant or regular shampoo during the week before opener or during the entire nine-day hunting season. They use a variety of cover sprays to camouflage their human scent while hunting.
“Adam puts mineral licks out in June, already preparing for deer season,” John said.
“If I have a question about guns I’ll go to my dad, but if I have a question about how to hunt more successfully, I’ll go to Adam,” said Lauren.
“Adam shows me how to hunt now; he takes hunting to the next level,” John said.
“It’s interesting that John sparked the interest in hunting in Adam, and now Adam is giving it back to John,” Kelly said.
Adam has also shown the family to rattle deer horns together to draw deer in.
“We can learn something about this sport all the time,” said John.
For some, it’s the companionship and being out in the woods which can take precedence over the actual hunting.
“Aaron and Alyssa are not always too caught up in the hunting, and since they can’t talk out loud, they will sit right next to each other in their deer stand texting each other,” John said, chuckling. “But they still always get their deer.”
One of the most important things that John has always emphasized with his daughters and everyone who hunts with them is safety. He quit hunting for a few years because of a near-miss experience in the late 1980s.
He was hunting with a group of friends and they were doing a deer drive, where several hunters are spaced out in a line through the woods and they all walk in the same direction toward another group of hunters, driving any deer toward the hunters.
“I was in the middle of the standing hunters, and the hunters doing the drive had been told to never, ever shoot while doing the drive,” John said.
But one of them shot.
“The shot was so close to my left ear that I lost hearing in that ear for three days,” John said. And he didn’t hunt again for years.
After the Theis family started hunting again in the early 1990s, they never made a deer drive like that again. In the event that they do a drive, the hunters doing the driving are never carrying guns.
“I will not put my kids in a situation where they would potentially get shot,” John said. “Adam is very good at knowing where to put stands. If you put stands in the right spot, you won’t need to drive.”
“It’s all about awareness,” Lauren said. “You need to know your environment, know the deer’s environment, know the other hunters, know what’s beyond the target.”
“John has always been about safety first — what the rules are and following the rules,” Kelly said.
“Hunting can be a dangerous sport,” said John. “Everyone here knows that when climbing into their deer stand their gun has to be unloaded with an open chamber.”
“My gun is a part of me while hunting; I understand how it works,” Lauren said. “But it is easy to see how with just one slip it could kill someone.”
The first few years after one of his daughters joined the hunt, they could not shoot unless John was standing next to them. A couple of the girls recall using their dad’s first gun the first year they went hunting.
“That’s a lever-action rifle,” John said. “Everybody has a bolt-action now; it’s safer.”
John has also taught his daughters and nephews to make their shots count. “One shot equals one kill” is something the whole family knows.
This will be Elizabeth’s fourth year hunting. She recalls letting her deer go the first year because she did not have a good shot at it.
The size of the Theis household doubles during hunting season. Some are people who have been hunting together for 21 years.
“The neighbors make the group,” said John. “The personalities are fun. And you should see so many ladies here during hunting.”
“Many people think that all this is just for guys,” Casey said, “but we can take down an animal like anyone else.”
Everyone has their specialty. Neighbor Joe Berg processes the front quarters and Adam does the hind quarters. Aunt Chris Arnold does the skinning. Friend Kurt Devine is a master vacuum-packer.
“And he’s the best storyteller,” said John.
“That’s the most fun about these,” said Kelly. “It’s everyone’s stories.”
“I don’t know how so many stories can come from two hours of hunting,” John said.
Now, Kelly’s brother and his family come up from Florida so her brother and nephew can hunt. “They would not have this opportunity otherwise,” Kelly said.
Casey does not participate in the hunting part of the season anymore, although she helps with the processing.
“Everyone else gets enough deer that I don’t need one too,” she said. “Hunting is very intentional; I would go in order to have food, and because I know where the meat’s from. If I needed to hunt again in the future to have meat for myself, I would.”
Casey’s experiences of hunting focus more on the peace and serenity of being out in nature.
“There are no words to describe it,” she said. “We don’t often get that opportunity anymore in our world to stop and listen — to just see and be in that moment. It’s part of a greater mystery that’s all around us but that we forget about. We can go through our entire day without touching a single living thing. But when hunting, we’re made to realize how interdependent everything is. It’s really powerful.”
The Theis family also does trap shooting and target practice in their rural back yard. John, Kelly, Lauren and Alyssa have permits to carry a handgun. Elizabeth is not old enough yet, but intends to follow suit.
Many memories have been made through the years, and significant experiences shared.
“I’ve learned about myself through the years of hunting with my family. I’ve gained confidence in my ability to operate firearms and knowledge of defending myself. I enjoy the camaraderie and social bonding deer hunting provides,” said daughter Alyssa. “Of course, there is nothing like the taste of country venison sausage on a cold January evening to get you through the winter.”