As hunters in southeastern Minnesota head outdoors for the final weekend of the deer-hunting season, some will wait to spot a deer the way they always have — perched atop a tree on a makeshift tree stand.
But others won't have to rely on makeshift tree stands. Instead, they'll hunt from the comfort of deer hunting shacks, some of which include glass windows.
Among those choosing to shoot in comfort is Dave Schultz, who built a deer stand that most would consider palatial on his five-acre property about 20 minutes north of Winona, Minn.
Perched on four stilts about 12 feet above the ground, the 6- by 8-foot steel shed he built three years ago is a cross between a watchtower and an adult tree house, with a full set of wooden steps leading to the ground.
"People in my hunting party have nicknamed it the Taj Mahal," Schultz said. "I don't think it's excessive. I think it's just a comfortable necessity.
"Don't get me wrong; I'm a die-hard hunter. I'll sit out in the cold no matter what, or the rain. But I thought it would be pretty neat to have it since it was on my own property."
Inside, there are double-pane sliding windows on three of the four walls Schultz salvaged from an abandoned trailer home left on the property when he bought it. Covering the windows are camouflaged pieces of burlap that serve as curtains. The floor is carpeted, with a space heater in one corner, and the walls are black and coarse from the spray-foam insulation.
"My wife doesn't know it, but it probably cost about $2,500," Shultz said with a laugh. "But it was worth it. It's well worth it 'cause it's built well and it should last for a very long time."
Deer stands have long been a tradition for hunters in the region. But state Department of Natural Resources officials say the newer structures are bigger and more elaborate.
Some consider the structures eyesores because they stand in sharp contrast to the tree stands hunters have traditionally used outdoors, said Curt Cogan, a DNR forestry enforcement coordinator.
"Years ago, you never saw any of these," Cogan said. "I'm talking 30 years ago probably. Everybody build a small little stand in the crotch of a tree and that's how you did it...I suppose people just want to be more comfortable and more relaxed."
Much to the chagrin of state and county land managers, the large tree stands are appearing on public land and in forests where they are prohibited, Cogan said. DNR and county land managers are developing stricter rules to crack down on hunters who build them on public land, he said.
"We don't like to see any metal put into trees and left in trees because our state forest lands are also used for harvesting of forest products," he said. "You can imagine when somebody cuts one of those down and it's got some nails in it and if it's run through a saw mill, what that does to the saw blade. It's not only a damage to the blade but it's also a possible metal fragment comes out from it and it's a safety issue for the people that are sawing it up."
The bigger stands can make for a good hunting experience, albeit one that departs from tradition.
A few weeks ago, Schultz spotted a buck in the field below from the reclining van seat inside his stand. It was 20 degrees outside, and a toasty 65 degrees inside the stand.
"I set my coffee down, grabbed my gun, and I was a little shaken 'cause it took me by surprise because it was less than 20 yards away," he said.
Within minutes, the hunt was over. Schultz made the shot and claimed a 10-point buck — the nicest deer he's shot in 30 years. A few days later, his son shot an eight-pointer from the stand.
"Now that we've got two nice bucks from this stand this year, it's kind of like 'Hey, this does work. I can be comfortable and I can get a nice deer,' " Schultz said. "And every deer is nice. Like I said, we're not trophy hunters, but to sit in here in comfort and have deer come to our own piece of property is pretty neat. And my coffee stays warm, too."
Schultz said he will continue to hunt this valley on foot or perched from a tree the way he always has. But now that he's proven some success from the new stand, his castle in the woods will be his hunting spot of choice.