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Opener is a family affair

Tori Bjerklie had contemplated sewing her husband a camouflaged apron just for the opener of Minnesota's firearms deer season.

After seeing her and their five deer-hunting-day daughters off to their stands Saturday morning, Darrell Bjerklie was supposed to stay behind at their deer shack and put on the breakfast bacon.

But it didn't quite work out that way.

After hearing his hunting buddy Rob Pulju take down a seven-point buck nearby, Darrell decided to take a little walk around the shack. He saw two does, and, as he explained later, "deer hunting got in the way of breakfast."

By midmorning, there were four deer hanging in the Bjerklie camp, the fourth contributed by 21-year-old Denise Bjerklie.

Counting Pulju and his daughter, Chelsea, the women and girls at the Bjerklie camp near Cherry outnumber the men by about 3 to 1, and that suits the family just fine.

Darrell, 44, figures he had just two choices, given his own love of hunting and the fact that he has five daughters: "I could choose to leave them all home and go out with some guys, or I could teach them to enjoy being out here and hunting."

He has chosen the latter since the time that eldest daughter Dana, now 25, was 8 and he carried her on his shoulders through waist-deep snow to get to a deer stand.

Darrell does an awful lot for his deer hunters. He clears trails around their 200 acres of hunting land. He fixes up comfortable deer stands and seeds paths with tender clover.

Family holiday

The firearms deer opener has evolved into the Bjerklie family's biggest holiday, Lori said.

The Cherry family kicks it off with a garage-busting party for neighbors, friends and family the night before. Dozens of hunters toss $5 into a pot for the "big buck" contest, and relatives -- like Dave Clement of Zim -- and friends -- like Brenda Baasi of Cherry -- drop by for the fellowship.

The party doesn't last all night because most of these people are hunters, and they get up early for the opener.

Lori Bjerklie, 43, grew up "tagging along" with her father and brother as they hunted, "but I wasn't included the way we are now." She truly learned to hunt after she joked that was the only way she'd get to see her husband during deer season. The next Christmas, Lori found she had all the gear she needed to join Darrell. Today, both her mother and aunt also are avid hunters.

"We have a serious interest in hunting," Lori said. "But a lot of guys I work with, the last thing in the world they want is to have their kids and wives come out to the shack."

The Bjerklie hunting shack, a tidy building complete with a sauna out back, is filled with family and friends, and the same stories are told year after year. That's what Darrell and Lori like best about the season -- being together as a family.

"We have success hunting, and we have a good time," Darrell said.

Donning orange

On Saturday morning, all the women picked through a huge mound of blaze orange clothes piled on the Bjerklie's couch before driving out to the shack. They huddled to talk and joke in the chilly darkness.

"I am the deer slayer," 19-year-old Dorie proclaimed as the family gathered before dawn. One of her trophy bucks on the Bjerklies' wall at home proves it.

Denise, meanwhile, wondered if she could really gut a deer with her Leatherman's tiny knife blade.

"Everyone's cell phones set to 'vibrate?' " Darrell asked.

Then, two by two and three by three, each hunting party peeled off to their respective stands.

Twelve-year-old DeAnn --with orange bands on her braces in honor of her second hunting season -- sat with her mother Saturday morning. It was slow going. Although shots were heard all around, not one deer walked near their stand. By about 8 a.m., DeAnn was dozing on the windowsill of the heated stand.

From her stand in a nearby field, Denise was having more success. She had missed the last three hunting seasons because of the nine-hour drive from her college, Dickinson State University in Dickinson, N.D. This year, she couldn't stand it any longer. She took time off from classes and work and brought her boyfriend and a few friends to the family hunting camp.

"I was sitting in the stands with my dad before I could shoot," Denise said, describing her family's history of hunting. She likes the early quiet in the woods, and trying to make deer out of the shadows and tree stumps in the early morning light.

But she's also ruthless about harvesting a deer, her mother said.

"Denise has never been a trophy hunter," Lori said. " 'If it's brown, it's down' is her motto."

Denise stayed true. As the frost melted off the field grass, she was elbow-deep in the small doe she had dropped, gagging a little as the stomach gases escaped but persevering until the job was done. Darrell said all his daughters field dress their kills. He and Pulju skin and de-bone the deer but everyone pitches in to cut and wrap the meat.

Back at the shack, the breakfast bacon finally made it to the grill about 10 a.m. Chelsea Pulju, 14, was milling about the bustling shack with her father, the Bjerklie clan and other visitors. Saturday marked the beginning of her third hunting season, the second she's been on her own.

On Monday, Chelsea will be talking about the hunt with her friends at Mesabi East School in Aurora.

Does anyone still think it odd when a young girl heads out to the woods for the deer opener?

"Not up here," Chelsea said seriously. "I wouldn't think so up here."