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COLUMN ONE : In the Midwest, an Army Hears Call of the Wild : It’s a fall tableau of bonding and bloodsport as fathers and sons march into the woods to shoot at deer. Almost everything else stops dead in its tracks.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Just minutes to go to that special moment, the one Todd Dennis has been dreaming about, yakking about for weeks like an impatient kid counting the hours until Christmas. But now he’s finding it very hard to stay awake.

His eyes are heavy, his head drooping. It’s so early, so cold, so miserable in his makeshift blind in the murky, pre-dawn drizzle. Patience, Todd. Patience. Don’t sleep. They’re out there somewhere. You’ll see them soon. It’s almost daylight. It is daylight.

And, suddenly, the woods are alive with the sound of gunfire.

Something’s stirring over there in the leaves, over on the hill about 100 yards yonder. Come on, come out. You’re in there. Yeh, Yeh, that’s it. There, in the scope. That’s no hunter. That’s a buck. A yearling. Not huge, but there’s those two little spike horns.

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Steady. Heart, stop racing. Don’t get “buck fever,” not now. Don’t panic, don’t shake. Just aim and squeeze the trigger. Blam. There he goes. He’s down. Got him clean through the neck. One shot.

“Is this heaven or what?” Dennis says, triumphant. “Man, there’s a big buck out there and I’m going to get him, too.”

Todd Dennis is pumped all right, but not just because he’s bagged a deer. His father, grandfather and the rest of the regulars they’ve been hunting with for years are somewhere nearby trying to do the very same thing. But 18-year-old Dennis did it first. He’s as good as all the rest. Heck, maybe he’s better. He’s arrived.

This is the time of year when millions of Midwesterners like Dennis and his family take to the woods for the annual deer hunt. For some, it’s just sport. Others go for relaxation, the challenge or the camaraderie of getting away with the boys. And for many hunters in Michigan and other upper Great Lakes states, the hunt is a rite of passage, a male bonding experience passed down from kin like a precious heirloom.

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Dennis became part of that heritage in 1985, the year he turned 14 and was was old enough to hunt under Michigan law.

“That’s a big thing when you get to go deer hunting,” he explained. “It’s like a bar mitzvah . When you go deer hunting, they start to look at you as a man and you feel like a man.”

Stalking deer is a bold and bloody fall tradition that makes some people wince and others glory, but one that’s deeply ingrained in the Midwestern psyche. People plan their vacations around the hunt, traffic turns bumper-to-bumper on otherwise deserted country roads, factories close and school absenteeism is rampant.

At Birch Run near Saginaw, so many teachers and students played hooky on opening day of deer season in previous years that, this year, school Supt. Bert Jenniches decided to close the 2,000-student system entirely. “It’s almost a wasted day of instruction,” he explained.

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In Michigan alone, officials predict that up to 750,000 hunters, the vast majority of them men, will be out gunning for deer during this year’s Nov. 15-30 firearms season--an armed force roughly equal in size to the U.S. Army.

Over in Wisconsin, with a population only half that of Michigan, more than 600,000 hunters are expected to take part in the nine-day season that kicked off Saturday. So deep is the hunting passion in Wisconsin that a year ago the Legislature passed a law allowing the blind to participate, as long as some sighted person goes along to supervise.

“We would never have the remotest chance of stopping (deer) hunting in Michigan,” acknowledged Eileen Liska, an official of the Michigan Humane Society, which sees the sport as archaic and vulgar. " . . . Nothing we say or do is going to stop this.”

Indeed, hunting has thrived over recent decades, a phenomenon that defies both economic and demographic realities. Rural communities are dying and cities expanding rapidly. To keep meat on the table, no one need venture farther than the butcher counter at the local supermarket.

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Yet, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 16 million Americans, nearly 10% of the eligible population, purchased a hunting license of some kind in 1985--up from under 6% of the hunting age population back in the mid-1920s. Experts say that in some parts of the country, the popularity of hunting has dipped in recent years, but in the Midwest it is going stronger than ever.

Throughout the autumn and into winter, outdoorsmen flock to the stately pine and oak forests of the north woods to track a rich variety of game, including ducks, geese, wild turkeys, squirrels, bears and elk. In Michigan, there are even special seasons for those who hunt deer with bows and arrows and old-fashioned muzzle-loading rifles.

But the regular deer season is in a class by itself. It is a major event, as eagerly anticipated by many as opening day in baseball or the Fourth of July. Between accommodations, equipment, transportation, food, supplies and liquor, Michigan conservation officials predict that this year’s two-week deer season will pump an extra $300 million into the state’s economy.

For many hunters, it’s a mystical experience, kind of a Woodstock with guns. Killing a deer is exciting, they say, but just being there is more important.

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“It’s almost sacred,” said United Auto Workers official Paul Mastos, who learned to hunt deer with his father and now continues the ritual with his son. " . . . We sit out there ‘til it’s dark, from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. We stay out even if its bitter cold. . . . It’s more than a tradition, it’s a challenge.”

Thomas Heberlein, a rural sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, agreed. “Hunting is a very serious interaction with nature as you try to go one-on-one with a prey species,” explained Heberlein, who has studied modern man’s fascination with the hunt. “It can be very intense and very exciting. That doesn’t mean the hunter is joyous at the moment of death. . . . Seven out of 10 of them come home without a deer and do that year after year after year. . . . Mostly, it’s armed nature-walking.”

Indeed, many hunters insist that it’s not so much the deer that they’re after, but the peace of mind. “I consider it a successful hunt if we just see deer,” said 63-year-old Cecil Smitherman, Todd Dennis’ grandfather. “Killing them isn’t everything.”

Like Smitherman, the highlight of Gary Seaman’s deer hunt each year is not the hunt but the sounds, aromas and warmth that fill the cabin he shares with his father, brother, son and mother in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

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“This is a time when you can sit, laugh and find out what makes dad tick,” said Seaman, a 48-year-old auto worker from Flint. “You hear stories, maybe find out something of the family’s past. . . . Every one of the deer horns on the walls (represents) a year you remember with camaraderie. It’s not so much the number of points (on the horns). It’s the year, how you did it, who you did it with.”

Not everyone, of course, shares such a romantic vision of the sport. Animal rights activists consider it outdated and barbaric and argue as stridently against the practice as outdoorsmen do in favor of it. “We are entering the 21st Century,” said the Humane Society’s Liska. “What was appropriate 100 years ago isn’t appropriate now.”

In Wisconsin, the 1,200-member Alliance for Animals stages an annual “effigy” parade during hunting season. Protesters drive through the state capital in Madison with human dummies strapped to their vehicles to mock hunters who strap deer carcasses to their cars.

“It’s a slaughter,” charged John Barnes, a veterinarian and a member of the group. “There are no ethics. It’s just a shooting gallery . . . deer are running around in terror.”

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Even hunting enthusiasts admit that not everything that goes on in the woods fits the Norman Rockwell image they’d like to paint for themselves. There are always the cheaters who violate hunting laws by climbing up trees and trying to surprise their quarry from on high. Others take potshots from cars and trucks while cruising back roads, threatening nearby homes and cattle. In a wildlife version of the speed trap, Michigan game authorities have salted decoys of artificial deers near rural highways to catch road shooters.

There are also a large number of party animals who spend more time cruising local bars than hunting, then show up in the woods hung over and unsteady. In Michigan, a herd of prostitutes always migrates north from Detroit, Flint and other big cities, luring men toward a very different target than the one they promised wives and girlfriends they’d be after.

Then there are the accidents. Young hunters in Michigan are now required to pass safety courses before they can get a license and everybody who carries a gun into the woods has to be clad in bright hunter’s orange to minimize the odds of being mistaken for wildlife. Still, hunting mishaps kill at least three or four people and injure several more virtually every year.

Authorities said Patrick Peregoy, of Kalamazoo, became the first hunting fatality of the season on Thursday when he accidentally shot himself in a cornfield while trying to unclog snow from his rifle. Elsewhere in the state, three other hunters were reported injured that day, including one who shot himself in the thigh and another who was hit while sitting in a car with a friend whose rifle discharged.

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Despite the dangers, authorities are predicting a banner year for hunting. The woods and fields of Michigan are overflowing with an estimated 2 million deer--an all-time record. Animal rights groups claim state game officials are promoting the growth of herds to appease hunters, but authorities claim that is nonsense and blame the expanding populations on a string of unusually mild winters which have reduced the normal winter kill.

Meanwhile, farmers are screaming about crop damage caused by deer and the animals pose a major traffic hazard. Michigan state police report the number of deer-related accidents has risen steadily, from 34,252 in 1986 to 42,868 last year, when the collisions resulted in two human deaths and 1,758 injuries.

The highlight of the Michigan deer season every year is Nov. 15, the traditional opening day when as many as half the season’s kill is taken. By the end of this month, officials predict, hunters may have bagged a record 350,000 deer.

Hotel rooms and cabins are booked months in advance for opening day. The night before, huge traffic jams develop on highways leading north out of Detroit. Once hunting begins, towns like Manistee, a thriving resort center on the shores of Lake Michigan, take on a kind of wartime look--women seem to be running every shop, restaurant and office in town.

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“It’s hard to get hold of men in any businesses or government agencies,” said Sheri Worm, the executive director of the Manistee Chamber of Commerce. “You try to call someone and all you hear is: ‘He’s gone hunting.’ ”

The Smitherman clan has been hunting the Udell Hills east of Manistee in one form or another since 1967. They’ve had a standing reservation at the Moonlite Motel since 1971.

The party has grown over the years. There’s grandpa Cecil Smitherman, a retired auto worker from suburban Detroit who came here that first year with a brother-in-law and a friend. Then there’s Danny Dennis, 41, Smitherman’s son-in-law, who’s been coming ever since that first year at the Moonlite. Two years later, Dan Smitherman, Cecil’s son, joined the group, as did Ralph Thompson, related by marriage to one of Cecil’s daughters.

Recent years have seen the addition of Todd Dennis, Cecil’s grandson; two of Ralph Thompson’s kids, 17-year-old Brian and 15-year-old Greg, as well as assorted friends and co-workers. If his wife or daughters wanted to come along, they could, Cecil says. So far, however, they’ve never asked.

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As tradition has it, the group arrived in Manistee about lunchtime on the 14th and, after checking into the Moonlite, headed out to their favorite hunting grounds to scout the territory and reminisce about the past. “I can take you back to every spot I ever killed one,” said Cecil. “It’s just something you never forget.”

The area has become so familiar that they can traipse deep into the woods without a compass or maps and not get lost. They’ve also given names to their favorite hunting spots. There’s “spike horn ridge,” “gorilla ridge” and the infamous “idiot ridge,” where one member of the party (who shall forever remain nameless) one year unintentionally shot two does in two days when he was hunting for bucks.

Signs of deer are everywhere--hoof prints, trampled leaves, fresh droppings, marks where bucks have rubbed their antlers against trees. It’s going to be a good year.

Before nightfall, they head back to town for an early supper at the Big Boy, a little story telling, some jokes, and a few hands of rook. Lights out early, there’s a big day ahead.

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An hour before dawn, it’s back into the woods. To the die-hard deer hunter, this is the most special time of all and each heads--alone--to his private hunting spot. Todd picks his way through the dark to a little blind he made out of sticks and logs a few months ago when the family came up to Manistee on vacation. The air is crisp and the woods are still. But as the sun begins to rise and hunters catch their first glimpse of deer, gunfire echoes all around.

Not long after 7 a.m., a spike horn and a much bigger buck appear in the distance. Todd readies the Marlin 30-30 rifle that once belonged to his father, but a car and another hunter are in the line of fire. The deer runs off. But a few minutes later, the spike horn reappears and Todd gets off his shot.

Before the morning is out, Brian Thompson bags a yearling and Roscoe Humbarger, another member of the group, gets one, too. By hunting standards, it’s a good catch and everybody’s happy. Especially Todd.

“I’ve looked forward to this ever since I was little,” he said. “When I started hunting I felt like I’m a man. I’m grown up. I’m one of the guys now. I was only 14 and everybody thought I was still little but I felt big because I was with the big guys.”

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Bob Secter reported from Michigan and Tracy Shryer from Chicago.


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