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Family keeps tradition alive after hunter’s death

Courtesy Photo Brad Nelson of East Grand Forks, Minn., watches for deer from the comfort of his enclosed stand in November 2011 near Middle River, Minn. An avid outdoorsman, Nelson was killed in a July farm accident, and friends and family members this year decided his deer stand would remain empty throughout the hunting season.

NEAR MIDDLE RIVER, Minn. — Brad Nelson’s deer stand sits empty this fall, a decision his family made as tribute to a man who was the life of their hunting camp.

0 Talk about it

So many good times. So many stories, some of which can’t be told in print.

That’s the way it is in every deer camp. What happens in camp … stays in camp.

It’s been a different season for the crew that gathers in the 16-by-20-foot yellow shack with the orange door near Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area. Brad Nelson was 55 when he died July 9 in a farm accident — four months to the day before deer season opened — near East Grand Forks, but his family and friends are carrying on the tradition he loved so much.

On Nov. 10, as huge snowflakes fell outside the cabin door, they talked about Nelson and shared some of their favorite stories about the guy who was camp cook, human alarm clock and jokester.

His daughter, Kim, 24, was seated at the table in the one-room shack, along with his son, Kyle, 20, of East Grand Forks; sister, Charmaine Munt, of Alexandria; and niece Jenna Nelson of East Grand Forks. Others sharing stories included brother Brian Nelson of East Grand Forks, brother-in-law Mike Munt, and family friend Bob Wahl of Park Rapids.

They talked about a man who put others first, who was more excited to see young or new hunters in camp have success than he was to shoot a deer himself.

“He took great pleasure in somebody else having fun,” said Munt, who shot her first deer last year while in the stand with Nelson. “He taught me how to shoot, so when I shot that deer, he was just thrilled that he had taken me out there, and it actually happened.”

Even though she grew up in a hunting family and had been around the sport all her life, Munt said shooting the deer, a small buck, was a first.

“I’m like, I don’t even know what the heck I’m doing, and I’m out there, and I said, ‘Brad, there’s one over there, and it’s got things on its head,’” she recalled.

Any hunter could be excused for losing patience with a hunting partner — even a sister — who sees a deer with “things” on its head.

“He said, ‘Yeah, those would be the antlers,’” Munt said.

She also shared a photo she took two years ago of Nelson in his stand.

“A flock of geese had just flown over, and he was standing there, and he said, ‘Life can’t get any better than this,’” Munt said. “And he just had this look on his face.”

When she got home, Munt emailed the photo to Beth Nelson, Brad’s wife.

“I said, ‘It’s all in a day with the master in the deer stand,” Munt said. “It’s a really good picture of him.”

Taking a tumble

The stand also is the setting for a story Kyle tells — a deer camp favorite — about the time five years ago when his dad opened the door to answer nature’s call.

He’d untied his boots to keep from overheating in the heated stand.

“If you know Brad, he gets a little riled up when he sees a deer or thinks that he hears one or sees one,” Kyle said. “So, he had his boots untied and is standing out the door and thought he heard a deer so he stepped to look.”

Problem was, he missed the step.

“There was no step there, so he kind of tumbled down, got his legs stuck on the third rung up and caught himself,” Kyle said. “And he said, ‘In the good shape I’m in, I just did a push-up and got out of it,’ but I don’t know if that is completely true. I think it just fell over.”

There was no deer, and Nelson suddenly found himself on the ground 8 feet below with all but his dignity intact.

“It’s like, ‘I’m fine, alright, let’s get back in the stand so I can kill something,’” Kyle said of his dad’s reaction. “So he’s walking back up the stand and his boots are untied.”

That’s when he tripped on his boot laces and bonked his forehead on the window frame.

Kyle watched the misadventure unfold from a safe distance of 400 to 500 yards.

“These are two-by-fours that kind of stick out, so he really whacked it,” Kyle said. “This whole time, I can see his stand. You can see orange fall out of the stand and you can see it hop in the window and go away.”

Kyle said he couldn’t hear what his dad said, and it’s probably just as well.

“Not a good day in the deer stand that day,” Charmaine said with a laugh.

“Every day is a story with Brad,” daughter Kim added.

Trophy buck

Those stories aren’t all about misadventures. In 2010, Brad Nelson shot a buck that scored 163 2/8, qualifying it for the Boone and Crockett record book for whitetails with typical, or symmetrical, antlers. A full head mount of the deer hangs in the Nelson home.

Kim said she will never forget the sight of the buck’s rack hanging over the box of the pickup when her dad pulled into the yard at the cabin. She’d talked to him after he’d shot, and all he’d said was that the buck was “respectable.”

“We were thinking six or eight points and not this Boone and Crockett record book deer,” she said.

“It’s once in a lifetime, that big of a deer around here — to even get a shot like that,” Brian Nelson said.

Kim said the shock of her dad’s sudden passing has subsided, but the camp is still different. The stories and photos of the good times keep the memories fresh. To those who didn’t know him, Brad Nelson might have had a gruff exterior, but his family remembers him as a softie at heart.

Just don’t lie to him, Kyle said.

“That was one line we were told since we were old enough to understand: ‘Tell me the truth, and I’ll never be mad,’” Kim Nelson added. “You can’t put Brad in one word. He’d do anything for anyone. He always put someone else before him.”

“And he would do for all you kids,” Charmaine said.

One time, Kim said, her dad had seen two smaller bucks and a bigger one and invited the daughter of a hunting buddy to join him in his stand.

The girl was hunting deer for the first time.

“He said, ‘Come sit with me, and you can have a shot at a buck tonight,’ “ Kim said. “Dad had never met her, and she had never met him. He knew her parents. She goes and sits with him and gets a shot at a pretty decent deer. She missed, but he could have shot it himself, and he didn’t even pull the trigger.

“It was all about the kids.”

Quite the cook

Brad Nelson was known for his elaborate deer camp meals that included turkey, roast beef and pork chops and gravy. He also had a sweet tooth and once concocted a dessert in a 9-by-13 pan that had whipped cream on the bottom, followed by a layer of ice cream sandwiches, a layer of plain ice cream, a layer of fudge, a can of cherry pie filling and the leftover whipped cream on top, with a sprinkling of peanuts, chocolate and caramel.

“A cardiologist’s dream,” Charmaine Munt said.

“He cooked all the time,” Kim said. “He did Lenten suppers at church for quite a few years and all the cooking up here.”

He also cooked at East Grand Forks Heritage Days.

The snow continued to fall, and the clock was ticking toward the magic late-afternoon hours when deer often are most active. With no deer hanging from the meat pole, the crew had to get to work if they were going to have any meat-cutting parties in Brad Nelson’s garage.

They’d cut steak and roasts and fry up venison back straps with mushrooms and onions. It’s been that way as long as she can remember, Kim said, and it will be that way this year.

“So we better get deer,” she said.

Even in the tough years, they’ve gotten deer, Brian Nelson said.

In more ways than one, this year qualifies as tough.

“It’s different, coming up here,” Brian said. “You see things that were Brad’s, and it reminds you that he’s not here no more.

“So, it’s definitely different. … And you just can’t replace him, you know?”

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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