More than 50 years later, Green Bay hunter's gift keeps giving
When Don Bins bought a Pendleton shirt as a thank-you present for a Montana rancher in 1961, he never imagined the woolen gift would secure a lifetime of prime mule deer hunting for his Green Bay friends and family.
Bins just thought he should show the rancher his appreciation for letting his group hunt the man’s property near Broadus. And so Bins bought that expensive plaid shirt with his mill worker’s wages, and mailed it to the rancher for Christmas, along with a heartfelt thank-you note. Every Christmas since, even in the rare years he didn’t hunt the man’s ranch, Bins sent cheese and other gifts, too.
Some good deeds get rewarded. The rancher never forgot Bins’ gifts, nor did the rancher’s descendants after he died. That’s why Bins, 87, is preparing to drive to southeastern Montana once again in November to hunt muleys on the same rolling, semi-arid lands along the Powder River that he first hunted at age 31.
The rancher’s family — now in its fourth generation — regularly reminds Bins and his son, Dan, that they and their friends are welcome to hunt muleys on this high-desert ranch as long as they’re willing to make the drive and climb the hills. The family also leases elk-hunting rights to a local outfitter, but remind him that as long as the Bins boys and their friends want to hunt deer, they’ll be the family’s guests.
Don Bins first hunted the ranch when a group of co-workers at the paper mill invited him along. The group had hunted the ranch before, but needed one more guy to help share the work and expenses. They each shot a mule deer that fall, and Bins fell in love with the ranch’s open landscape that let him see “forever” in all directions from any hilltop.
“You can easily see a mile out there,” Bins said. “That’s what I’ve always liked the most. “When our friends from out there hunted with us in Wisconsin, they got claustrophobic. They felt boxed in where we hunt in Florence County.”
Bins enjoyed that first hunt so much that he suggested he and his co-workers chip in to buy the rancher a gift. The group’s leader bluntly rebuffed him, saying the rancher “had a lot of money” and didn’t need any of theirs.
“That didn’t go well with me,” Bins said. “I liked the man. He was a big, friendly guy, and I thought he deserved more than just a ‘Thank you,’ and a handshake.”
Soon after, Bins spotted an expensive XXL Pendleton shirt in a local sporting-goods store. He bought it himself, brought it home and mailed it to the rancher in time for Christmas.
That 1961 hunting group splintered during the next couple of years, but Bins’ growing friendship with the rancher ensured his access to the man’s 29,000 acres. Before long Bins formed his own group of hunting friends to join him each November, and added his son to the camp roster when it peaked at eight hunters in 1983.
This year’s group includes Don and Dan Bins, and Dan’s friends Murray Basten and Steve Wagnitz, also of Green Bay. Most of Don Bins’ friends and longtime hunting partners have been gone for years, but Basten and Wagnitz help fill the void.
“It’s still the thrill of the hunt that keeps me going, but that’s only as good as the group you’re with,” Don Bins said. “I’ve always liked the camp life and camaraderie out there. That’s the biggest part of it.”
Don Bins has also hunted Colorado, but most of his western hunts took place on that same Powder River County ranch. He has enjoyed many successful hunts the past 50-plus years, mostly for mule deer, including several big enough to justify full-shoulder mounts. But his 35 sets of antlers and horns also include elk and pronghorn antelope.
Bins credits his late wife, Marge, for putting up with his frequent hunting trips during their 55-year marriage. “She was a good sport,” he said. “She wasn’t from a hunting family, but she knew how important it was to me.”
Don Bins also knows his Montana hunts wouldn’t be possible without help from Basten and Wagnitz. The feelings go both ways. They realize they wouldn’t be hunting a private ranch along this famous river if not for Don’s generosity.
“They take very good care of my father,” Dan Bins said. “They know Dad opened this door for them and they realize all of his hunting and fishing partners are gone. They help him however and whenever they can.”
When the group begins this year’s hunt Nov. 5, Don Bins hopes to get a mule deer for the fifth straight year. Last year he sneaked within 150 yards of a bedded buck and shot it with his pet rifle, a Ruger bolt-action in .243 Winchester.
Dan Bins said his father got emotional after shooting that buck, which was the largest deer they got in 2016, and said it would be his last deer. In fact, Don Bins didn’t hunt Wisconsin’s 2016 firearms deer season, the first time he didn’t hunt whitetails here since his youth. But as Labor Day approached this year, his hunting desires blazed again, and he started looking forward to November.
Dan Bins said he wasn’t surprised.
“Dad’s been saying ‘This is my last year’ the past four hunting seasons, but when we start packing for Montana each year, Dad’s always there,” he said.