Al Lisson couldn't make them out.
Even so, one had to think he knew the antlers so well that he didn't need to see the rack. At least not all of it. A tine or two would be plenty.
But in the haze of an early December day, he squinted from behind the barrel of his muzzleloader, debating whether to shoot. He couldn't tell if his target was a buck or a doe. But he had a doe tag, too.
So, finally, he pulled the trigger.
"Then I walked over, and there it laid," Lisson said. "I couldn't believe it."
Al Lisson's collection of sheds from what he believes is a single buck, spread out in a snowbank outside the Dispatch, with the actual rack from the buck in the forefront. Brainerd Dispatch/ Brian S. Peterson» Purchase reprints of this photo.
There, just east of Staples, Lisson looked down on a big buck he had shot and killed. The buck.
No, it wasn't a monster buck, a record buck. Rather, it was the same buck Lisson had been following since, well, it was a young buck.
Lisson, 42, of Staples, has collected the buck's sheds since 2001, or most of them. It's difficult to be absolutely 100 percent certain that the sheds came from the same buck - this buck. But as Lisson spread out his collection of sheds, you could see the similarities from shed to shed.
And Lisson knows. He followed the buck for much of its life, which he estimated at 9-1/2 years.
"The neighbors will find them. (We) didn't find last year's (sheds) or in '03. But we've found them from '01, half in '02, and in '04, '05 and '06," he said. "Some give me the sheds, but others don't want to part with them.
"The best (rack) was in 2004. Everything was so perfect. I would say that at 4-1/2 to 5 years they have their best racks.
"People ask, 'How do you know they're all the same?' And I say, 'Look, see for yourself. You'll know.'"
Lisson's worry was that this buck that he had followed for so long would just disappear - get hit by a car or wander away and get shot by a hunter who couldn't appreciate what the buck has meant to Lisson and his neighbors - "It brought everyone in to look at it" Lisson said of the local buzz generated by the shoot.
Al Lisson read the measurements of one of the sets of sheds, which he had mounted. Brainerd Dispatch/Brian S. Peterson» Purchase reprints of this photo.
"Even when they're alive you don't know what happens to them. I had seen him three times this year, two times bowhunting from 80 yards. I didn't expect to get him. I'm just glad he didn't get hit by a car and that we were able to find him."
Thanks, it turns out, to another buck.
"I'm a dairy farmer. I was done milking and saw a deer on the corner in the cornfield so I got dressed," Lisson said of the last-minute decision to hunt that day. "Ten minutes later, I saw a 6-point buck. I hadn't shot a buck yet.
"I thought I hit him. It sure sounded good. I went about 150 yards to the willows and got on his tracks. We had just gotten that snow (in early December) and there was blood in the snow. As I was tracking, about 50 yards later, I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. But I stayed on the track, and after another 10 yards, I saw a deer standing in the willows. I couldn't tell if it was a buck or a doe. I had a doe tag. So for the next two minutes I was wondering if I wanted to shoot it.
"It dressed out at 170 pounds and we green-scored the rack at 163. It was a basic 10-point. It had a broken leg from two years back. Someone had reported hitting a big buck. (One leg) was 6 inches shorter (than the other). He hadn't even been using the leg. Last year, I noticed he had a limp, but when he was running, you couldn't tell."
Soon after the hunt, Lisson made another discovery.
"Two days ago," he said, "I found a full set of sheds."
The tradition continues. Or so Al Lisson can hope.
BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5864.
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