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Two Harbors antler aficionado pens book of deer hunting stories

Joe Shead's "Buck Tales'' shares stories of his first buck, biggest buck and many hunts in between.

Joe Shead with big buck
Joe Shead, of Two Harbors, the author of the new book "Buck Tales, Stories From the Deer Stand,'' is pictured with a nice buck he shot in Minnesota.
Contributed / Joe Shead
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TWO HARBORS — Joe Shead’s new book is not a how-to book, as was his first one, “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White Tailed Deer Antlers.”

Instead, Shead might say it’s more of a how-not-to sort of book.

“I'm pretty prone to a lot of disasters,” Shead notes.

“Buck Tales, Stories From the Deer Stand,” takes readers through Shead’s more than 30 years of deer hunting adventures, from the first seven-point buck he shot near his boyhood home, to a big buck he shot north of his current home on the North Shore, to a moose he shot on a canoe trip in Alaska.

Joe Shead's first buck
Joe Shead, lower right, with his fist buck in his first deer season, a seven-pointer taken near his boyhood home in Redgranite, Wis., in 1990. Shead's father, Jerry, left, also bagged a buck.
Contributed / Joe Shead

It’s an easy read and packed with three-dozen detailed stories, not just of first bucks and big bucks but also small-antlered deer, deer with no antlers and — best of all — Shead’s memories of the people he was with or met along the way. It unveils good hunts and bad, misses and misadventures included.

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Shead, 44, the former managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine and now a Two Harbors-based freelance writer and fishing guide, is philosophical on why he hunts, and how that has changed over the years. Shead is a good storyteller, with a keen eye for detail, a knack for self-deprecating humor and just enough deer hunting strategy thrown in to prove he’s serious about it.

“For me, a good story is every bit as important as the meat in the freezer and antlers on the wall,” Shead says in the new book’s introduction.

Joe Shead with Alaska moose
Joe Shead, who set up his camera with a timer, took this photo of himself with his Alaska moose. His one-week solo canoe trip hunt turned into a 10-day ordeal. The story is one of three-dozen hunting stories in his new book, "Buck Tales, Stories From the Deer Stand."
Contributed / Joe Shead

Shead started deer hunting at age 12 in 1990, near his hometown of Redgranite, in south-central Wisconsin. His family hunted mostly on a farm owned by his father’s friend just 10 miles from home. His dad, an avid duck and deer hunter, was his idol.

“There was no deer camp or trip up north,” Shead notes. But, he was still enthralled by everything about deer season.

“Some people you meet show you photos of their kids. I’ll show you photos of my antlers.”

Shead admits he was spoiled growing up during incredibly high deer numbers in the 1990s in that part of the state and how that meant seeing and shooting lots of deer. But he has come to realize that quality — less crowded woods, more room to roam, bigger bucks — can be just as rewarding as quantity in hunting.

photo of book "Buck Tales"
Joe Shead's new book, "Buck Tales, Stories from the Deer Stand,'' is available at goshedhunting.com for $18.95.
Contributed / Joe Shead

Some of the stories are funny, like when Shead’s hunting buddy walked to his deer stand on opening morning before he realized he forgot the bolt to his bolt-action rifle, but then just sat there until lunch time, unable to shoot, because he didn’t want to disturb another hunter who was along his route back to the truck.

Shead takes the reader on exhausting journeys through swamps, over frozen ponds and through newfallen snow in pine forests as he tracks, shoots and drags deer out of the woods. It’s the effort, not the trophy, Shead notes after shooting a modest buck deep in a swamp, that often makes the hunt more memorable.

The final chapter, "Bull Tales," takes you to the Alaskan wilderness, where his planned week-long solo moose hunt turned into a 10-day struggle just to get back to his truck.

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Joe Shead's book Buck Tales, buck photo
Joe Shead shot this nice buck in Minnesota. It's featured in the chapter "Ready for a Buck" in his new book, "Buck Tales, Stories From the Deer Stand."
Contributed / Joe Shead

And for a guy who has staked much of his livelihood around antlers, it becomes clear that deer hunting to Shead is far more than trophy bucks and giant racks.

“Antlerless deer hunts bring out the best in hunters. The hunts center on the most altruistic reason for hunting deer: procuring venison and camaraderie,” Shead writes. “Absent are any notion of greed over shooting the biggest buck. Antlerless hunting, simply put, is deer hunting at its best.”

The News Tribune recently asked Shead a few questions about the new book and about deer hunting:

You seem to be a natural writer. When did you start writing outdoor stories and what encouraged you to try? 

I've been writing outdoor stories since I was a kid. I had this pocket-sized notebook that I remember writing these "dramatic" stories about catching bluegills and white bass when I was in grade school. I started subscribing to outdoor magazines with my birthday money when I was 10. Any time we drove somewhere, my nose was in a book or an outdoor magazine and the joke was when I turned 16, I wouldn't know how to get anywhere because I never looked up! My neighbor (my babysitter's husband) was a real storyteller and a practical jokester. I probably got a lot of my personality from him.

In high school, I used to write newspaper-style stories about my friends. In one story, I wrote a gag about how one of my friends died after being gored by a buck. It was written like an obituary. The last line, instead of saying, "A memorial has been established" or "Send flowers to ..." I wrote, "His remains have been sent to the Boone & Crockett Club for scoring.”

Joe Shead's book Buck Tales, photo
This Remington Gamemaster pump rifle, chambered in .270 Winchester, has been in Joe Shead's family for more than 40 years. This photo shows a seven-point buck his father, Herry, shot in 1984 using the rifle. Joe Shead is on the left, still too young to hunt at the time, and his brother, James, is in the middle. Joe Shead inherited this gun in 1993 when his dad purchased a new one. Joe has used the gun ever season since.
Contributed / Joe Shead

You currently write for Outdoors News and Northern Wilds in Minnesota. Any other publications?

I also write for Wisconsin Outdoor News, Delta Waterfowl and occasionally Deer & Deer Hunting and Fur-Fish-Game. I'm also a regular contributor to the Archery Trade Association's website.

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You grew up hunting in south-central Wisconsin. Where do you hunt mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin these days?

I hunt in Cook County in Minnesota and Douglas County in Wisconsin. Growing up in Wisconsin, I've never missed a Wisconsin opener. Because it's not such a big tradition to me, and because the season is longer, and due to high hunting pressure, sometimes I skip Minnesota opener and hunt midweek. When I lived in Wisconsin, I'd drive up the (North Shore) and hunt for a week straight at times, sleeping in my truck topper. I do still occasionally truck camp, but I'm old enough now that a nice warm bed feels good! With gas prices this year, I'll likely do some camping again.

Your stories are full of very specific details from events that, in some cases, happened decades ago. Did you remember most of those or had you written them down in a journal or diary?

I have a photographic memory. In school, I could remember the answer to tests and even where it was on the page. I constantly bombard my friends with these dumb facts I remember from 20 or 30 years ago. I remember most of my successful hunts in pretty strong detail. But, also, some of those stories were written 20 years ago when they were still fresh.

Several of the stories in "Buck Tales" had appeared in magazines previously. What made you decide to put these stories into a book form?

My very favorite books are the “Stories of the Old Duck Hunters” series from Gordon MacQuarrie, from Superior. He wrote for the big outdoor magazines back in his day and after his death, editors compiled his stories into book form. Those books are at my bedside and I read them over and over. Each time, it's like I'm reading his stories again for the first time.

I'm no Gordon MacQuarrie. I've tried to write like him and I can't. My attempts feel forced and dishonest, while his words come so naturally. He's the bar by which I judge all outdoor writing. But I have some stories that I think turned out pretty well in my own style and I wanted to put them in a collection. I hope people get a kick out of them.

Joe Shead with shed antlers
Joe Shead, of Two Harbors, displays a grouping of some of the shed antlers he found in Duluth. While known for his expertise on shed antler hunting in spring, Shed's favorite season is fall deer hunting. He grew up hunting in central Wisconsin in the 1990s and remains passionate about deer hunting to this day.
Amanda Hansmeyer / 2009 file / Duluth News Tribune

Ever since you shot that seven-pointer as your first deer, it seems your life has truly focused around deer, both your chosen careers and your time outdoors. What is it about deer, deer antlers and deer hunting that intrigue you so much?

Early deer hunting success probably fostered my love of deer hunting. We were really spoiled with some great hunting property when deer numbers were high. The funny thing about deer is I can drive down the road and see one and it's not a big deal. But when you get in the woods with a rifle in your hands and heavy autumn scent in your nose, hearing those crunchy steps in the leaves makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. Something deep within me from the caveman days stirs. My mouth goes dry. My heart hammers in my ears.

Even if it's a deer I'm not going to shoot, being in the woods hunting has a dramatic effect on me. And sitting in a tree for hours on end with just my thoughts helps me get things right in my head. I didn't choose to be an outdoor writer. The outdoors chose me.

Zwak family bonds during hunting season around Bassett Lake.

The number of deer hunters is declining in Minnesota nearly every year. What’s your take on the future of deer hunting?

I don't think deer hunting will be like it was in the old days, with big deer camps and kids, dads and granddads hunting together. There has definitely been a change. A lot of women are hunting now. Youth hunts are getting kids interested in the outdoors. The pandemic created a lot of hunters who are in it strictly to put food on the table.

Hunter numbers may continue to decline, but the demographic will change. The sport will be less dominated by 40-year-old men and will have a bigger mix of women and maybe even some more hipster-type hunters. With people working from home, there will be more people living in rural areas like the North Shore and some of those traditionally urban/suburban folks will feel a stronger connection to the land and want to put their own meat on the table.”

Do you have a third book in the works?

I have a couple ideas for books. I write a lot of duck hunting stories, so I might do a collection of those and call it "Duck Tales." One thing about me is I'm pretty prone to a lot of disasters when I'm hunting or fishing, usually self-inflicted. I've written a lot of stories about the disasters that have happened, from boats conking out on (Lake) Superior, to going fishing without a canoe paddle, to getting stuck with a snowmobile or truck way back in the boonies. I think an outdoor disaster book would be very entertaining!

Buy the book

  • “Buck Tales, Stories From the Deer Stand,” by Two Harbors author Joe Shead
  • 204 pages, softcover
  • $18.95 at goshedhunting.com . Also available locally at Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Back Forty Books in Two Harbors and Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield.
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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