DULUTH, Minn. -- The quiet season opened this week. With little fanfare, and in solitary fashion, thousands of archery deer hunters eased into the woods and sat silently in their chosen trees, hoping a whitetail would approach within shooting range.
Seasons opened in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and right in the city of Duluth, where nearly 340 hunters are taking part in the city's sixth annual deer hunt.
Ron Lillo of Duluth was one of those hunters. He once hunted in the woods north of Duluth with his bow, but now, after two surgeries on each shoulder, he has a permit to use a crossbow and hunts only in Duluth.
"Each year, I've shot four does and the biggest buck I can find," Lillo said a few days before the season. "I'm going to do it again this year."
While bow hunting is a silent and solo form of hunting, it is still a big deal. Nearly 100,000 Minnesotans hunt whitetails with a bow, and the number is about 260,000 in Wisconsin.
In the Duluth hunt, hunters may take up to five deer. They must shoot at least one doe, or antlerless deer, before shooting at a buck. Outside the city, bow hunters may take one, two or five deer depending on what permit area they hunt and what permits they have.
Bow hunters are a passionate bunch, perhaps because their pursuit requires such a high level of commitment and skill. Or perhaps it's because regularly being within 15 or 20 yards of wild whitetails is such an intense experience.
Lillo, who has shot plenty of deer, tells the story of two Canadian moose hunts where he missed a moose each time -- because his heart was pounding so hard he was unable to aim well.
"Bull fever," he admitted.
That same afternoon at Chalstrom's, four days before the opener, archery manager Eric Grussendorf and employee T.J. Johnson helped one bow hunter after another with last-minute needs.
Nate Siem, 21, of Cloquet came in to buy some arrows. His buddy, Isaiah Johnson, 21, of Moose Lake picked up some lighted nocks so he could better track his arrows.
Asked if the hunters were eager for the coming season, Johnson tried to put bow hunting in perspective.
"I wish I could quit my job this time of year and start again after the season," he said.
Lillo, at 55, understands. He still has it bad.
"It doesn't end," he said. "I scout 365 days a year. I'm always looking."
Justin Olson, 18, of Duluth came by with his bow, which was making a slight clicking sound when he drew the string back, he said.
"It's all in your head," Grussendorf teased.
But together, Grussendorf and T.J. Johnson lubricated the bow and had Olson fire it twice at a target. Problem solved.
Gail Whitcomb of Princeton, Minn., arrived with a cooler on wheels. She's from Whitcomb's Whitetails Uncommon Scents, and she was delivering more frozen buck urine. Hunters sprinkle the urine on buck scrapes they encounter in the woods -- or make themselves -- to make wild bucks think they have competition nearby.
Whitcomb, with little prompting, launched into a tutorial on deer urine, when does come into estrus, why she doesn't collect doe urine until that happens, how bucks react to such scent and -- well, the rest is pretty much X-rated.
"Archery," the intercom barked.
Grussendorf picked up the phone. A caller had a question about a cam for his bow.
Sean Hartley, 34, of Duluth stopped in to buy some arrows. He has been scouting where he hunts north of Duluth.
"Lots of deer," he said. "But I haven't seen any bucks."
He will hunt about 40 days this fall, he said. Like most good bow hunters, he's been shooting a lot.
"Every day for a month and a half or so," he said.
It has been this way, or busier, at Chalstrom's for at least three weeks, Grussendorf said. He's accustomed to it.
Hunters come to have bows tuned, have draw lengths adjusted, buy arrows. And talk.
"We'll have customers come in, and it takes five minutes to take care of 'em," Grussendorf said, "and they'll be here for half an hour."
They listen to the country music playing on a small radio, stand under the sign that reads, "Your wife wants you to have the very best," and tell stories.
"We hear a lot of stories from the previous season," Grussendorf says.
Or, they discuss the hottest issue in bow hunting circles -- whether fixed or mechanical broadheads are the best. Broadheads are the razor-sharp blades affixed to the tips of a hunter's arrows. Fixed broadheads are just that. They don't change position. Mechanicals are designed to fly to the deer in a retracted position, then spring out upon impact. Each style has its plusses and minuses, Grussendorf said.
The debate rages wherever bow hunters gather.
"I think the debates on broadheads are even more heated than the arguments over brands of bows," T.J. Johnson said.
Now, each bow hunter has made those decisions about bows and broadheads and where to hang a stand. Now, those hours between the end of the work day and a half-hour after sunset will become much more precious.
Gear and clothing is laid out carefully in pickups. Spray bottles of scent-masking potions ride on seats or dashboards. Frozen deer urine is kept in a cooler. Each day's shooting hours are committed to memory.
Now it is a matter of being out there as many days as possible. It's a matter of scent control and patience and vigilance. It's a matter of interminable waiting for that sweet few seconds of surprise, and being ready to execute when it happens.
The silent season is on.