A half hour north of Duluth, hunters are getting in some target practice at the United Northland Sportsmen's Club.
That's where Duluth resident Steve Allison is preparing for the annual retreat to his deer shack north of Cromwell. Allison's dad and uncles taught him to hunt when he was 14, and more than three decades later, he hasn't stopped.
"I guess more than anything else it's just to spend time out in the woods, be still, watch what goes on around you in the woods," he said. "There's always something to watch. Sometimes it's not deer, but it's always something."
Allison will be among nearly 500,000 orange-clad hunters who will head for the woods Saturday for the opening of Minnesota's deer hunting season, and for the state's second managed wolf hunt.
The annual deer hunt, a precious family tradition for many, is a big money maker. The $30 deer hunting permits contribute to the more than $400 million deer hunting injects into the state economy, DNR officials say.
But the hunt also is the primary way the state controls the thriving white tail population.
This fall, however, there may well be fewer deer to shoot, at least in northeast Minnesota, where last year's long winter took its toll on the deer population.
But statewide, deer numbers grew by as much as 4 percent over last year, said Leslie McInenly, big game program leader for the state Department of Natural Resource.
"In most of the state, folks can expect a few more deer, given our population estimates," McInenly said. "I think the harvest will look similar to last year, maybe a little bit higher than last year."
Last year hunters killed 186,000 deer out of an estimated statewide population of about one million.
The DNR splits the state up into about 130 different permit areas, each of which has a population goal. Every year, the agency adjusts how many deer a hunter is allowed to kill in each zone.
McInenly said it's a balancing act.
"Do we have higher bag limits to try to bring the population down a little bit," she said, "or do we need to restrict permits, and grow the population?"
The DNR is going through a similar process with the wolf hunt. In the inaugural season last year, hunters killed just over 400 wolves. This year, officials reduced the quota to 220.
About 13,000 hunters applied for the 3,300 licenses this year, compared to 23,000 people last year.
In the mid 2000s the DNR held a series of public meetings around the state to obtain feedback on the deer population goals. Now the agency is embarking on a new multi-year effort to gather public input and re-evaluate those population goals, starting with the southeastern corner of the state.
The goals have resulted in higher harvests in some areas to reduce the deer population, which in some parts of the state has dropped by about 25 percent over the past decade, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
"Overall, I think Minnesota Deer Hunter Association members are saying, we'd like to see some more deer, to bring it up a bit," he said.
But there are social and ecological concerns to weigh. Too many deer on the landscape can wipe out young pine and cedar trees. And no one wants to see a deer in their headlights, hunters included.
Jim Lemmerman, president of United Northern Sportsmen, said he's seeing a lot fewer deer around the shooting range.
"That's a good thing," Lemmerman said. "I think we had way too high a population, too many car-deer accidents, that gets very expensive."
At Chalstrom's Bait Shop outside Duluth, other hunters are buying permits for this weekend.
Shop owner John Chalstrom says hunters account for at least a quarter of his business. In addition to selling permits, he and his seven employees also process venison. He expects fewer animals this year.
But no matter what the season outlook is, Chalstrom said hunters will always head north.
"If they canceled deer season, I think guys would still sneak out to their hunting shacks for a week, just to go hit a sauna, and drink some beers, and BS," he said.
For Mike Olson of Duluth, it won't be the guys he'll be hunting with tomorrow.
"I'm going to be hunting with my daughter," he said. "I enjoy being out with her. She likes to get out; hopefully we'll see something."
Olson said for them, the hunt is not really about shooting anything. It's more about being in the woods, enjoying nature, he said.
As it is for many other Minnesotans, the trip also is about passing on the deer hunting tradition he learned from his dad, which Olson hopes he can pass on to his grandkids someday.
"I love it; I've always loved it," he said. "My father taught me that way. I taught my kids that way. Hopefully someday they'll have kids to teach that."