Rochester man hunted for six decades, then says goodbye to the sport - on his own terms
Bob Walker retires after getting his last deer.
For the last couple years, Bob Walker of Rochester kept telling his son and hunting buddy, Jeff, that he was considering putting away his shotgun and "retiring" from hunting.
Walker had hunted almost every year for the past 66 years, ever since as a 14-year-old Pleasant Grove farm boy, he had killed his first deer with a .410 shotgun.
That was back in 1955, when Walker was among the first to get a one-day license for the first deer season in Southeast Minnesota. Nov. 9, 1955, was a date easy to remember. It was not only the day Walker got his first deer, but it was his mother's birthday.
Deer hunting before then had largely been confined to Minnesota's northern reaches, but as deer migrated south, it became a pastime for hunters in southern Minnesota.
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For most of those 66 years, Walker had returned home with successful hunts that supplied enough venison, baloney, bacon and jerky to last for months.
But as Walker approached his 80th year, certain aspects of deer hunting began to wear on him. He couldn't hunt alone anymore. He couldn't get down and field dress deer any more.
Walker, a retired sheet metal manufacturer and former Rochester Parks and Recreation umpire and volleyball official, lives an active lifestyle, walking four to six miles a day. But a neighborhood stroll was not the same as trudging through uneven and branch-and-stick-strewn woods. He had backed up and tripped over a branch recently while setting up a blind.
"Why take any chances of breaking an arm or a leg at my age? I've been fortunate enough to hunt for many years," Walker said.
Yet, Walker hesitated to call it quits. He wanted his hunting career to end on a high note. And for the last two years, father and son had started their hunting weekend with high hopes of Walker getting his climatic last deer. They settled themselves in different parts of a 60-acre wooded area between Marion and Chatfield that the two had hunted for two decades.
Both outings had unfolded similarly and disappointingly -- at least for Bob. Jeff Walker, an accomplished hunter, got the first deer. Then he would hold back, hoping his dad would get the other. But as the day showed signs of expiring, Walker gave his son permission to shoot if an opportunity presented itself. For those two years, Walker had taken down and folded up his stand empty-handed, and "we'd take our two deer and have them processed."
"I went a couple of years without getting one," Bob Walker said. "I really didn't want to quit without getting one."
Bob Walker's earliest memories are steeped in hunting on his family farm. His dad started him on pheasant hunting as a young teen, after buying him a 16-gauge shotgun and a full box of shells for $12. Even before that, as a young boy, he helped flush squirrels for his Aunt Mary. They developed a technique to outfox them.
"Anybody who has hunted squirrels knows that squirrels go up the opposite side of the tree from where you're at. You walk around, the squirrel goes around," Walker said. "So, she would stand still. I would walk around the tree. The squirrel would come around and she'd shoot it. That's the way we worked."
Then one Christmas, his dad bought him a .410 shotgun, and it was with that gun that Walker shot his first deer at 14.
Determined to give it another try, 66 years later, on Nov. 7 the Walkers went to the same hunting grounds outside Chatfield. The elder Walker was set up in his blind at 6:30 a.m. They could begin shooting an hour later. Jeff set up a distance from his dad "down over a hill."
The day before, Walker had been in his blind all day and spied only one deer: a little six-pointer on a trail that walked within 10 yards of his blind. Walker let it pass.
"It was small and a small rack. Let him grow up hopefully," he said. "He was not a deer I wanted to shoot."
Later in the day, Walker heard a shot from the direction of his son. His son had gotten a deer. Jeff began tracking it and eventually found the dead deer. Some time later, sitting in a swivel chair in his blind, Bob Walker saw movement to his left. The deer trotted right up to Walker. The deer suddenly locked up. Walker is convinced that the deer sensed something out of the ordinary. His gun barrel poking out a window, Walker fired the weapon.
"I put a good shot on her. She whirled around, and she took off," Walker said.
"When I heard the shot, I knew it was him," Jeff Walker said. "I was kind of praying that it was a successful shot."
Jeff called on his phone and asked his dad if he got one. His dad said he did. Did it go down, he asked? No, it hadn't. The deer had turned and run back in the direction from which it came. Jeff told his dad: Just stay where you're at. When Jeff got to Bob's blind, Bob pointed where the deer had run.
Jeff walked in that direction and not much later, Bob heard his son give out a celebratory yell. At 80, Walker had gotten his last deer. When he shot at it, Walker thought it was a doe, but it was a button buck.
"He grabbed a hold of me and give me a big hug," Bob said about his son's response. "He was as happy and excited just as much as I was. I let out a war whoop."
Walker's last successful hunt occurred only two days before the 66th anniversary of his first successful deer hunt. It had happened in the same woods.
When the two got to the car, Walker took out the 14 slugs he still had in his fanny pack and handed them to his son.
"I want you to use them. I won't need them anymore," Walker told his son. "And that was kind of the way it goes."