EAST GULL LAKE -- "Governor, now you're one of us."
That was welcome to the Brainerd area given to Gov. Tim Pawlenty Thursday night at a community dinner at Cragun's Resort.
Wayne Enger, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, delivered the welcome as he handed the governor a camouflage sport coat. Minutes earlier, Pawlenty had proposed a wager for an identical coat worn by Enger. The bet? Whoever shoots the biggest deer Saturday gets the coat.
The dinner kicked off the first Governor's Deer Hunting Opener, an event announced April 5 at a Minnesota Deer Hunters Association banquet in Breezy Point. Where the governor will hunt Saturday morning has not been disclosed, but it's believed to be near Nisswa. Pawlenty will begin hunting at dawn and host a news conference at 11:30 a.m., when the media will learn if he shot a deer.
"I've been told the biggest buck in the area is sedated and tied to a tree near my stand," Pawlenty joked as he made the rounds after dinner, shaking hands and saying hello to an estimated crowd of 400 people, many wearing blaze orange.
Pawlenty said he has not sighted in his rifle yet, but planned to do that Friday morning.
In promotional literature, the Governor's Deer Hunting Opener has been called a celebration not just of deer hunting, but of all hunting in Minnesota.
"We must give credit to all who make this sport possible," Enger said. "That includes the many private landowners who manage their land for deer. Fifty percent of our total deer harvest occurs on private land."
About 16 reporters and photographers, some from as far away as Winnipeg, are on hand to cover the event. John Edman, director of the Minnesota Office of Tourism, said organizers were hesitant to place politicians and the media together in the woods with loaded guns, but decided to do it anyway.
"Hunting, fishing and all forms of wildlife recreation pump $1.1 billion into our state's economy each year," Edman said. "Hunting accounts for $482 million of that."
Thursday, Minnesotans bought deer licenses at a rate of 1.3 per second and today that number will double, said Mark Holsten, DNR deputy commissioner.
Pawlenty said he hopes the Governor's Deer Hunting Opener will be the start of another great Minnesota tradition.
"This will be a wonderful way for me to blow off some steam," said Pawlenty, who was late getting to the banquet due to unfinished business in St. Paul. "I want to give voice and attention to an important segment of our state's economy. Hunting is critically important to businesses throughout Minnesota. But just as important, it's part of who we are, our heritage, our way of bonding with family and friends."
Pawlenty noted that this first governor's opener comes at a key moment in state and national history.
"We just gone through war, we're still at war actually, we've been through a tough recession and we're facing a historic budget deficit. I believe we've turned the corner. Minnesota has a great education system, wonderful people. But when you ask people why they live here they almost always say, 'Because I love the outdoors.' That's what this event is all about. Now let's go knock 'em down."
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