THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty shot a small buck during the second Minnesota Governor's Deer Opener in 2004, but since then, the Republican governor's hunting success has been more elusive than a Democrat who likes his conservative spending policies.
That almost changed Saturday morning. The governor got a shot at a nice buck while hunting east of Middle River, Minn., but the deer ran off, and his brother, Dan, and others still were tracking its blood trail Saturday afternoon.
"They're looking for it, and they're hopeful they can find it," Pawlenty said in a press briefing late Saturday morning. "We hope, we pray they do."
Pawlenty didn't join in the search because he had to leave for a speaking engagement Saturday night at a GOP fundraiser in Iowa. The two-term governor, who has decided not to seek another term, is considered a probable candidate for the White House in 2012.
Thief River Falls was host community for this year's Governor's Deer Opener, the seventh annual. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association oversees the event, in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources, Explore Minnesota Tourism and this year, the city of Thief River Falls.
No doubt, Pawlenty said, Thief River Falls rolled out the welcome mat.
"We're here not just to have fun, we're here to promote deer hunting," Pawlenty said. "It's significant to our heritage as Minnesotans."
Pawlenty's morning hunt also had a bipartisan twist. The governor and his brother were hunting property owned by Wally Sparby and Jerry Cwikla. Sparby, a Democrat, was a longtime legislator in the Minnesota House of Representatives who now serves as an aide to Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
"Even though we come from different political parties, we realize deer hunting is for everybody," Pawlenty said. "They couldn't have been more gracious and kind."
After the morning luncheon and press briefing in Thief River Falls, Sparby returned to help the governor's brother track the buck.
"We're going to keep going until dark," Sparby said when reached by cell phone Saturday afternoon.
Plenty of deer
Organizers kept a tight lid on the identity of Pawlenty's host until the governor returned from his morning hunt.
Not even the hosts knew for sure until a few days ago. As opening day approached, Sparby said his biggest concern was that the two packs of timber wolves that started howling near the hunting camp Friday night would chase away the deer.
That wasn't a problem, as Pawlenty saw four deer Saturday morning.
"I saw more deer today than I have the last couple of years combined," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty's morning hunt was just one part of the weekend festivities. Friday, the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Thief River Falls took on the appearance of an outdoors show, with a variety of exhibits and seminars, along with a student "field day" that drew about 185 sixth-graders from schools in Thief River Falls and Red Lake, Minn.
John Edman, Explore Minnesota Tourism director, said the response to this year's Governor's Deer Opener was unprecedented.
"By far, this community has come out in ways I haven't seen before," Edman said, congratulating organizers Saturday. "You've taken this Governor's Opener to a new level."
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.