Legends of Deer Camp: Jim Brawner

Much has been said about dad since he passed away six months ago (Six months?!?).  Most of it good, and deservedly so.  Greeting hundreds of people at his funeral was the kind of experience that makes you question your own life and wonder if you’re making an impact the way he did (I’m not).  If you grew up in Pulaski, Wisconsin, from 1975 to 2005 you likely came across him at some point, and unlike most people, he seems to have a nearly unanimous approval rating.  The number of people who have some kind of story about him is certainly in the thousands.  I’ve written multiple times about his bird hunting greatness.  He truly was larger than life, and his legend has only grown in the past six months.

I think I speak for everyone in the family – especially his brothers and my brother – when I say ENOUGH.  These stories are giving him a big head in the afterlife.  I hear his voice saying, “They call me James M. Brawner, and the M is for magnanimous.”  He also liked, “James T. Brawner, and the T is for trustworthy.”  For the record, his middle name was Andrew.  It’s time to take this guy down a peg or two.  It’s the Brawner way.  We can’t let a family member get too full of him/herself.  We typically operate with one part kindness and heartfelt sentiment to two parts ridicule, sarcasm, and mockery.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  There’s been way too much of the former recently.  That’s why I present to you this series of stories I’m calling “Jim Brawner: The Worst Deer Hunter Who Ever Lived.”  I’m hoping my fellow deer hunters will contribute and we can make this a living document with tales of my dad, the deer hunting anti-legend.  Keep checking this page as I’ll continue adding stories as I get them.  If you want to write something and contribute to this, submit your work to chabrawner@mac.com and I’ll get it in here.  Let’s keep the legend alive.

I realize I’m sounding hyperbolic when telling tales of my dad, but that’s kind of how he was.  He was the best bird hunter I’ve ever been around.  He’s also EASILY the worst deer hunter.  You know what we call tiny deer at our camp?  Jimmys.  We named them after him.  That’s all he shot.  His deer stand?  We call it The Nursery.  Only an idiotic young deer would come within 200 yards of him.  If he wasn’t eating loudly, farting, snoring, or shooting at the water, he was almost certainly calling one or all of us on the walkie talkies.  More on that in a minute.  Let me get in to the origin story first.

Jim Brawner: The Worst Deer Hunter Who Ever Lived

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The 42-Year Old Rookie – Charlie Brawner

When I was a child my grandpa and uncles went deer hunting every year.  They would leave a day or two before the annual gun deer hunting opener – the Saturday before Thanksgiving – and stay for a few days.  They’d come back for a day or two to regroup and celebrate Thanksgiving with the family.  We’d have Thanksgiving “dinner” at about 2:00 PM at grandma’s house and they’d all head back up north leaving my nine cousins and me with my grandma, mom, aunts…and dad?  Dad was an avid fisherman and bird hunter.  For whatever reason big game hunting wasn’t for him.  Grandpa and the uncles would also go hunting out west for many years and dad wouldn’t participate.

My brother, Andy, started deer hunting when he was 12 (I’m three years younger).  My dad turned the mentoring of my brother over to his dad and brothers.  This led to the infamous “get what’s on the inside outside” story of Andy’s first deer and subsequent knife wound that I hope he will tell on this page at some point.

Over the next few seasons dad started showing up at deer camp for opening day to check in on Andy and the rest of the family and he’d bring me along.  I was more interested in shooting things with my BB gun and Marv’s epic bonfires than I was hunting, but I had fun being a part of it.

In 1988 when I was ready to start deer hunting dad decided he would start, too.  Not sure why he didn’t with Andy but he felt the need to with me.  It probably had something to do with Andy’s maturity and/or my lack of it.  Andy was not only larger than most grown men by the time he was 12, he had a maturity beyond his years to match.  At least he did in my mind.  I did not.  Whatever the reason, dad started hunting deer the same year I did.  He was 42.

I remember very little about my first year hunting deer in Florence, but I definitely remember the next year when we joined Ron, Jo, and the rest of the Jasperson deer camp in Polk County.  Their camp had so many luxuries that the Florence camp was lacking: private property, tree stands, deer, etc.  Dad, Uncle Bill, and I went to Polk County for the next few years and they set me up with a tree stand.

I had to climb a ladder to get up to my spot up in the tree and dad was NOT a fan of that idea.  First, it can be dangerous.  However, at this point I was 13 years old and relatively athletic.  I could climb that ladder in my sleep and was wise enough to know I should wait until I’m in my stand to load my rifle.  Dad could not climb the stand and even if he could there wasn’t room for two up there especially when one was his size.  This meant he was sitting on the ground at the foot of the tree beneath my stand.  While we hunted he verbally checked in on me frequently, but it didn’t take long for him to go silent.  I assumed he fell asleep.  That assumption was bolstered later when I actually saw my first deer.  I wondered to myself, “Can dad see these deer?  Is he going to shoot?  Probably not.  He’s gotta be sleeping.”  My suspicions were confirmed when I placed my crosshairs on one of the deer and pulled the trigger.  This caused both dad and the deer to jump straight up in the air.  It did not end well for the deer.  Dad yelled, “WHAT HAPPENED?!?  ARE YOU OK???”  I remember feeling only somewhat insulted when I replied, “I shot a deer.”  I wasn’t audacious or disrespectful enough to say what I was really thinking, which was, “What the hell did you think I was doing?”  It was possible that dad thought there was a better chance that I had accidentally shot myself than actually accomplishing what I was there for.  Thanks for the vote of confidence.

In his defense, I’d think the exact same thing about my 10-year-old son now.

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Public Hunting Problems – Charlie Brawner

We spent most of my early hunting years at “The Shack” in Florence County, Wisconsin.  Don’t ask me to explain the ownership situation at The Shack.  There are at least half a dozen people alive who can summarize this better than I can, but here I go: I think my grandpa had a hand in building a hunting shack with one of his buddies on the Pine River.  Grandpa didn’t own it, but his friend’s family allowed us to hunt there, even after the friend passed away.  At some point – I’m going to say after the 1997 hunting season – we were told that the family who owned it wanted to use it and we needed to find somewhere else to hunt.  Now that I see it on paper, I guess that wasn’t very confusing after all.  I probably have several facts wrong, but you get the point.  We got to hunt there, but we didn’t own it.  I’m not sure why it matters anyway.

The Shack was near the Pine River and was up against a lot of public hunting land.  For those of you unfamiliar with hunting public land, the rule as I understand it is simple: Whoever gets to a spot first gets that spot.  I’ve been a part of some upsetting arguments/debates with people over the years (ask my buddy Hoot about the fine “sportsman” on the Ahnapee River) about who has claim to spots, but generally if someone gets there first, they get the spot.  We were able to use The Shack, but once we stepped off of that property, anyone could be hunting the land around it.  Because of that, we couldn’t set up permanent stands or make any solid plans.  You never knew who could be hunting there.  At some point in the early-90’s my brother and I found a spot at the top of a hill overlooking a valley.  It looked like someone attempted to put up some branches and logs to create a ground blind, but it had clearly been abandoned for years.  We cleared out the spot and claimed it for ourselves…at least as much as one can claim a spot on public land.  I hunted that spot for at least two consecutive opening weekends but was well aware that it wasn’t really “mine” because anyone could get there before me and use it.

I don’t have the exact year, but I’m going to guess it was 1994 or 1995.  We got up at our usual early time, ate some breakfast, and headed out to our spots.  Mine was only a 15-20 minute walk from The Shack.  It was still dark as I approached my makeshift ground blind and was greeted with a Mag Lite in my face and a sarcastic voice asking, “Can I help you?”

Shit.

I shined my light back at the guy and saw someone I’ll politely say looked like he’d just been released from prison and spent his time there making several people his bitches.  Knowing the rules of public land I just replied, “No, I usually hunt here, but you got here first.  It’s all yours, man.  I’ll find somewhere else.”  I thought I handled it well.  He got there first.  Respect.  Then he had to say, “I’ve been hunting this spot on opening day for years.”  I said, “Actually, I’ve been hunting this spot for a few years, but it doesn’t matter.  You got here first.  I’ll get out of here.  Good luck.”  I was disappointed I lost my spot, but it was his fair and square.  That’s how it works.  I was pissed that he lied.  I had been hunting that spot on opening day (and the day after) for a few years.  I already conceded the spot.  Why did he have to feed me his bullshit line about hunting there for years?  It didn’t matter.  I had to find somewhere else.

I wasn’t all that familiar with the land since I was still relatively young and all of my experience there had been with my dad and/or uncles.  I did the only thing I could think of and walked over to dad’s spot to ask him where he thought I should go.  When I got to his stand he was furious.  I also felt like he thought I went out like a punk.  Like I should’ve put up a fight with this dude who happened to have a rifle in his hand and looked like he would be willing to use it if it came down to it.  I’m not big on getting in to arguments with freaky looking dudes with firearms.  He kept saying, “You let that ass hole take your spot?”  Umm, yes, and I’d do it again.  I’m not about to get shot over a deer stand.  Also, again…HE GOT THERE FIRST.  We could debate about whether or not the guy was an ass hole, but I don’t really think I had a leg to stand on since he beat me there.  If I beat him there, then he showed up and threatened me if I didn’t move or something it would’ve been different.  As it was, it wasn’t the coolest thing for that guy to do, but it sure wasn’t illegal.

Dad said, “You stay here, I’ll take care of this.”  I had no idea what he was going to do, but I sure couldn’t stop him.  He left and I sat in his spot.  After a few hours without seeing any deer I had to see what dad was doing.  I didn’t want to go straight back to the spot, but I knew you could see it from a nearby dirt road, so I figured I’d just walk out to the road and see if the guy was still sitting there.  When I got there dad was on the ground no more than 20 yards away from the guy.  He found a spot under a tree and was lying there looking as relaxed as someone resting on a poolside chaise lounge at a resort.  His hands were folded behind his head and he looked like he was having the time of his life.  When he came back to The Shack a short time later he said, “I just sat there talking, eating, and farting.  He left.  I don’t think he’ll be coming back.”  Well played.  I was pissed I didn’t think of that.  I was too worried about ruining my hunting.  Dad didn’t care.  Like a deer hunting kamikaze, he killed his own opening morning but he took that guy down with him.

I’d like to think I’d do the same for my kid now.

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A Day Well Spent – Tyson Novinska

When it comes to hunting, or shooting anything with a firearm really, there was no way that I could ever come close to the level of marksmanship that my friend Jim could display.  Clays.  Ducks.  Ringnecks.  He could nail anything that was about 18″ and moved at a million miles an hour.  Over time, however, it was apparent that Powerful Jim did, indeed, have his hunting kryptonite.  Whitetail deer, for whatever reason, were too elusive for the big guy.  Maybe it was the patience required for deer hunting that didn’t agree with him.  Or the silence one had to display.  Whatever it was, deer hunting success just didn’t find Jim.

On one chilly morning in November of 1995, I believe I found some of the answers to the questions we had on the lack of success that Jim found during the great whitetail deer hunts.

After that year’s opening weekend, I had expressed interest in being able to go back up to Florence County to get some more time in the woods.  Back then, our group were still going to the shack and hunting on public land for the two days that made up opening weekend before we all left and never really hunted anymore during the nine day season.  Jim had talked about the possibility of going back up that week to hunt and invited me to join him and since I was home from college on break, I happily accepted the opportunity to get back out into the woods.

On this particular day, it was just Jim and I.  I don’t recall why Charlie didn’t come, but Jim and I loaded up the white Ford Taurus early that morning and headed up to Florence County for a planned day of hunting.  I was going to sit in the stand that Charlie typically occupied, off the main logging road we typically walked down and overlooking a small draw or valley.  Since it was public land, there was always a chance that someone could be in this makeshift stand but given the vastness of the area we were pretty confident it would be wide open.

Arriving after daylight started, Jim stopped the car on the logging road by the trail leading in to the stand and asked me for probably the 27th time that day if I knew where the stand was.  I had been to the stand with Charlie the week before so I was pretty confident that I could get back there quickly.  Hopping out of the car, I grabbed my gun and gear and started my walk back to the spot.  To be somewhat fair, I don’t think we had a planned exit strategy outlined for that day but I had grown accustomed to that with Jim.  If we went anywhere with him as kids, whether it was the mall, Lambeau Field, concerts in Milwaukee, our drop offs typically consisted of Jim slamming on the brakes at the most random spot, yelling something akin to “Get the hell out” and then us quickly fleeing the car to dodge traffic so we could get to our destination.  Arranging times and locations to meet at the end of any event were not important details so on the day of this hunt, I put little thought into it.  I assumed that at dusk, I would walk out and there Jim would be.

Walking back to this stand took maybe 15 minutes.  Maybe.  I can’t recall but I do know that it was not a long, difficult walk.  Getting back to the stand, I was happy to see that no one was in the stand.  Public land is basically a first come/first serve scenario and this stand that Charlie had used was occupied by a stranger just the week before.  So, needless to say, I was elated that I’d have a good spot to sit in and that this might be the day I get to experience my first deer kill.  I set up my portable chair, loaded my gun, got myself situated, and started to get my bearings on the area, listening and looking for any sign of the whitetail deer that were extremely scarce in Florence County.

If you have ever deer hunted and have sat alone in a stand, you will understand the silence that comes with those situations.  It’s just you and whatever pieces of nature are choosing to be active that day.  Wind blows whatever leaves are left on the trees, branches creak, birds chirp, and the f’n squirrels are moving.  All.  The.  Time.  Squirrels are always responsible for a good 10-15 elevated pulse rates during a typical day in the deer stand.  What I’m getting at is that, for the most part, it’s silent and peaceful.  It’s one of the best parts of deer hunting, actually.

About 20 minutes into my hunting solitude, I was jolted into a level of fear and panic that was not prepared for that day.  “Tyson!  Hey, Tyson!  You see anything yet?”  It was Jim, in his giant, booming voice, yelling from the general direction that I had left the Taurus from about a half-hour earlier.  Any deer that was within a three county radius would’ve heard that yelling, so I knew that my chances of seeing anything anytime soon were done.  Before I even had a chance to get cold, my hunt in that spot was over.  I stood up, grabbed my chair, and walked back towards the road.

Arriving back to the road, it was clearly evident that Jim had not left the comfort of the front seat of the Taurus during the past 30 minutes.  There he was, waiting, window down, asking what I had seen.  Well, Jim, nothing.  I told him that I had barely been back there and during that time had not seen or heard any deer.  I was trying to politely portray a message that his yelling had disrupted any chance of me seeing anything from that location.  In his unwavering fashion, Jim’s response of “Well, maybe we’ll get them another day” confirmed what I had suspected all along.  Jim was ready to go.

You see, Jim was many things.  Many great and wonderful things.  One thing that Jim was not was patient.  There isn’t enough space on this blog for me to write stories about amazing displays of a lack of patience that I was able to experience over my lifetime of being an adopted kid in the Brawner household.  On many levels, his displays of patience were extraordinary.  This day of hunting was no different.  Jim was ready, and ready now.  “Come on.  Put your stuff in the trunk and I’ll take you to Wendy’s.”  It was no later than 8:30AM.

As a newbie to the area, Florence County seemed about as desolate and remote of a location as one could imagine.  Where in the hell does he think Wendy’s is, I wondered.  Looking back, I can’t believe what an idiot I was.  Of course he knew where the Wendy’s was.  I loaded up my gear, hopped back in the front passenger seat (which was still warm from when I sat in it on the way up) and we were off.  As we were driving out of the woods, I remember passing the shack driveway and thinking maybe we’ll be back after this stop for food.

Driving out of town, Jim and I were chatting away when we passed a sign that read “Welcome to Michigan.”  Wait.  Did I just see that right?  I surely didn’t have any idea what direction we had been driving but did not anticipate us crossing in to Michigan.  But, there we were, making the 20 minute drive down Hwy 2 into Iron Mountain searching for the red pig tails of the girl they call Wendy.  We rolled right into downtown Iron Mountain and into the drive through of the restaurant, ordering burgers and fries and soda within minutes of them opening for the day.

Our trip into town wasn’t done though.  After plowing through a bag of Wendy’s finest, Jim needed to stop at some sporting goods store in Iron Mountain.  I would be guessing if I told you what the name of the store was, but we were there and gone in under 10 minutes.  Whatever it was that he thought he needed, they didn’t have it.  Before long, we were back on 2 and heading west back into Wisconsin.  In my youthful naivety, I thought we were headed back to the hunting grounds to hunt since it was not even 11 AM.  How wrong I was.  As the Taurus blew past the road that lead to the shack and to the Valley of Death, I quickly realized that this day of hunting was over.  My mistake was only that the day of hunting was over for me, not for Jim.

As we entered back into Oconto County, we started to snake back towards Pulaski on the backroads.  Every road we drove down, Jim knew the family.  Or had hunted pheasants in that field.  Or had that family’s kids at Fairview.  That guy had more history on that area than anyone I have ever known, especially in the area surrounding Krakow.  On this particular day, we had ended up on Safian Road, which is east of Hwy 32 and runs parallel to the highway.  We were heading south, towards Cty S.  I could take you back to this exact area right now without hesitation.

Outside of the mobile history lessons that made up any car ride with Jim, the other thing that was always on full display was his hawk like vision.  Anything, and I mean anything, that moved, ran, flew or flinched off of those country roads was noticed by Jim.  “Boys!  Look at that rooster,” he’d say as a pheasant would come out of the ditch about 50 yards up the road while we had no idea what in the hell he was even looking at.  It was incredible. He would scan ditch lines looking for any sign of wildlife.  It’s a skill that, over time, I’ve been able to enjoy and now my own kid will say in amazement, “Dad, how did you even see that?”  Thanks, Jim.

Anyway, heading south on Safian Road we had an empty field to our right (west) and a farm field full of round hay bails to our left (east.)  Around those round bails were blaze orange clad hunters, and probably about 8-10 of them, participating in what was clearly a deer drive.  I specifically remember looking at the guys doing the deer drive and thinking, “Man, it sure would be fun to actually be out hunting today.”  I looked to my right into the empty, plowed up field when all of a sudden the Taurus roared to life.  As Jim hit the gas, I heard him say, rather excitedly, “Tyson!  Look at this!”

Looking back to my left towards the field of hunters, I saw a doe running.  Not just trotting along, but sprinting.  Like ears back, full stride sprinting.  She was running south and west, veering ever so slightly towards Safian Road.  This had my attention because just seeing a deer in those early days of deer hunting got the blood moving.  Watching this deer, I was also able to observe every hunter in the group with their guns up tracking the path of that deer before it dawned on me what was happening.  Jim was speeding up and driving right in line with that deer.  No sane hunter would take a shot at a deer with a car moving in unison with it.  I can still see the smirk on Jim’s face.  He was doing this on purpose.

As the trajectory of that deer’s path began to become more evident, two things became evident.  One, no one in that hunting group was going to get a shot at this thing thanks to Jim.  Two, if she keeps running at an angle towards the road and we keep traveling at this speed, we are going to smoke this thing when it crosses the road.  All of a sudden, that deer made a hard left and hit the pavement of the road so fast that her hooves slid out from under her.  Jim locked up the brakes and we watched that doe skid on the road, get up, and take off to the west of us.  There was an odd look of satisfaction on Jim’s face as our bag of Wendy’s wrappers flew all over the front seat.  I’m not sure if it was because he had me feeling like we were going to waste that whitetail in his car or if it was because he had taken away any shot that group of hunters had in the field.  Whatever it was, he was pleased with himself.

I’d like to think that on the day of this story, I was able to witness one of the only times that Powerful Jim Brawner was remotely close to actually killing a deer.  Now, it would have been via his vehicle, but I could have seen him proudly proclaiming that a kill is a kill, or if it’s brown it’s down, or something ridiculous like that.  We all know he wouldn’t have been able to shoot one in the woods, but to take one out with his car would have probably given him the same sense of satisfaction that most of us have felt by shooting a deer in the woods.  This would have been one of his defining deer hunting moments, and I could have witnessed it.

Again, I hope this page turns in to tens of thousands of words and dozens of stories.  I know I have a lot more, but I wanted to get this posted now.  Please reach out to me if you’d like to contribute.

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