On whitetails, nimrods and a northern Minnesota tradition

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

If you walk into a deer shack and call the biggest guy there a “nimrod,” you might be in trouble. But that’s just because you’re in the wrong century. In another time you’d be paying him a compliment.

How “nimrod” became an insult is an elaborate story worthy of any late night deer camp conversation. But it’s just one part of northern Minnesota’s deer hunting tradition.

Indeed, we find ourselves amid Minnesota’s 16-day rifle season for hunting whitetail deer. Sure, there are many other ways to legally harvest deer, including bowhunting, muzzle-loading and, my personal specialty, accidentally hitting them with a car. But the rifle season seems to hold the most cultural sway. And while this tradition goes back a long way, it’s not as old as you might believe.

Before early automobiles first traveled the rugged roads of the Mesabi Iron Range, the Great Northern Railway depot in old North Hibbing produced a grim scene each November.

The evening train baggage car swung open to reveal several dozen whitetail deer hanging from a rod. Workers lowered the gruesome freight down to waiting huntsmen alongside the hat boxes and suitcases of other passengers. Some hunters, when allowed, kept their kill with them in the passenger compartment.

Imagine a traveling salesman trying to read a newspaper next to a half frozen 12-point buck with its tongue hanging out. Welcome to the Iron Range.

The year was 1915. For many families, this era began the rites still celebrated at deer hunting camps around northern Minnesota.

Just a few years prior to this historical image, moose regularly appeared at the edge of Iron Range towns. Two decades earlier, elk patrolled the hardwood forests and fields. Moose and elk proved excellent game, hunted by the Ojibwe and Dakota for centuries. But they’re harder to hunt. You have to work for them before and especially after the shot.

At that time, deer were just occasional interlopers who dwelled in the transitional space between elk and moose habitat. But in the 1890s loggers clearcut the forests around the Iron Range. By the 1910s, dense brush and aspen stands grew in place of the century pines, tempting whitetails into new territory. The expansion of towns, highways, and rural homesteads created lasting deer habitat. The deer never left. Moose became rare while elk disappeared from Minnesota entirely.

That’s how deer hunting became popular in northern Minnesota. By 1915 there were so many deer, each fatter than the next, and more people arrived every week.

At the same time, powerful new hunting rifles made it possible to shoot deer from greater distances, much to the delight of wealthy sportsmen who could afford them. But for many immigrants and Ojibwa people, deer became a staple food. Many of these hunters were less inhibited by the constraints of “hunting season,” often as a matter of survival.

The question of whether hunting is a sport or a means of survival colored these early firearm seasons. Like most history, it boiled down to political and economic power.

Sportsmen hired private game wardens to enforce poaching laws, handing down penalties that hit poor people hardest. But at the same time, unregulated hunting was destroying the Iron Range population of wild animals and birds.

One well-known game warden, George E. Wood, reported finding songbirds in the stewpots of immigrant families. Restaurants throughout the midwest served untold quantities of locally-poached fish and venison. He estimated that, without intervention, there would be no game animals in all of northern Minnesota.

Wood was a relentless game warden who arguably did more for game conservation than anyone else at the time. But he also made enemies. One night, an angry poacher burned down Wood’s house in Hibbing while he and his family were away.

A century later northern Minnesota’s deer hunting tradition continues. There’s a lot less drama, and far fewer hunters than during peak years after World War II. Few survive on venison anymore. You could say that the  sportsmen prevailed, though only because many immigrants would become sportsmen.

One final note on the word “nimrod.” Of course, those with better religious credentials than me know that Nimrod was a great hunter in the Bible. During the time when deer rode around in trains on the Iron Range, hunters were commonly called “nimrods” in the pages of the Mesaba Ore and Hibbing News. Indeed, “nimrod” was a common term for a hunter used for ages, and the name of a famed British Royal Air Force aircraft in World War I.

But something changed in 1940. That was the year the Warner Brothers cartoon “A Wild Hare” ran in theaters across the country. This was the first time the iconic Bugs Bunny appeared on screen with his longtime foil Elmer Fudd.

Bugs called Fudd a “nimrod” in a sarcastic voice after he had outsmarted him. The cartoon was a huge hit, so much so that Bugs and Elmer featured in many hunting-themed stories for years to come. Many of them involved Bugs calling Elmer a nimrod.

That means everyone alive today believes that “nimrod” means “moron.” Thank you, Bugs Bunny. Here in northern Minnesota we all know better. We aren’t morons for enjoying the last week of the rifle deer hunting season.

We’re just nimrods.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Bugs also liked to remark, “What a maroon!”

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