BEMIDJI – For the first time in three years, Don Bixby packed up his hunting gear and took a lunch for the start of Minnesota’s firearm deer hunting opener.
The 64-year-old Bemidji man, who shared his passion for hunting with his three children and was a strict teacher of firearms safety, had missed the past few years due to health issues.
Within a few hours of sunrise Saturday, Bixby’s hunt took a terrible turn.
“He was just a freak about everyone being safe,” daughter Nikki Bixby said Sunday. “It’s so totally ironic.”
At 9:01 a.m., the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office received a call reporting a man had been struck by a bullet from another hunter on public land near Concordia Language Villages, about nine miles northeast of Bemidji.
By the time deputies, ambulance personnel and a state Department of Natural Resources conservation officer arrived to the Turtle River Township location, Don Bixby had died from the injuries.
Nikki Bixby said her father had driven to the spot, having borrowed a pickup from a friend, and parked on the side of a trail bordering the woods and an open field.
Many of the details are not available, but Nikki Bixby said the bullet traveled about 240 yards before it struck her father, who was standing next to the pickup when he was hit.
“He was disabled and was hunting with a handicap permit,” she said. “My dad was the safest hunter. My whole family hunts. He raised us to be careful and safe hunters.”
A Beltrami County sheriff’s news release on Saturday said a Bemidji man has been identified as the other hunter and released pending an investigation. Don Bixby and the other man were acquaintances of each other but were not hunting together.
On Sunday afternoon, the Sheriff's office identified the other hunter as 48-year-old Phillip Bruce Nyland of the Bemidji area.
Sheriff's Chief Deputy Ernie Beitel said on Saturday that the man who fired the gun was not carrying a cell phone at the time, and left to report the incident when he encountered another person, who then called dispatchers.
An autopsy is pending and the incident is under investigation by the sheriff’s office.
Don Bixby was born in Deer River, moved as a child and graduated high school in Blackduck. He had been a logger his entire life, and suffered heart attacks and asthma later in life, Nikki Bixby said. He had been living in adult foster care due to health issues, she said.
He was a lifelong hunter, fisherman and a kind soul, she said.
“He was one of the nicest guys ever,” Nikki Bixby said, adding he was the kind of guy who would give what he had to help others even though he didn’t have much.
She said her father taught her and her brothers, Richard and Wesley, to handle firearms with care.
“He was always cautious about safety,” Nikki Bixby said. “Don’t kill something you don’t plan to eat. Always know what you are shooting at.”
Nikki Bixby, who now lives in Bottineau, N.D., said she was traveling to Bemidji and hoped to know more about her father’s death on Monday.
“This man was loved and will be missed every day from now on,” she said.
Don Bixby is survived by his three adult children and 10 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.