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Deer opener a mixed bag in Hubbard County

A warm weekend meant fewer deer moving and a slow opener for many, according to wildlife manager Erik Thorson with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

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Dave Saline of Maple Grove shot this 8-point buck from 113 yards. He was the only hunter in his party to get a deer on opening weekend.

A warm weekend meant fewer deer moving and a slow opener for many, according to wildlife manager Erik Thorson with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Thorson said with rain and snow in the forecast and colder temperatures, this coming weekend will be a much different hunt.

“Deer will likely be more active, and if there’s snow, hunters will be able to track them, but it might get a little messy,” he said. “Most of the harvest usually happens the first weekend of the season before deer go into hiding, so we’ll have to see what happens. The Park Rapids area has a robust deer population, so if the deer are out there moving there could be a good number of deer harvested yet. Cooler temperatures will help them move more, not be as elusive.”

Camaraderie at deer camp

Laughter spills from the cabin, along the smell of chili and pizza.

Dave Saline, a realtor in Maple Grove, has been hunting in the Park Rapids area for over 40 years. He brought his hunting party to Fremont’s Point Resort on Big Mantrap Lake. This year’s deer camp boasted a party of seven, including Saline’s son-in-law, Shawn Engel.

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Does were plentiful. On opening morning, they saw nine – but no one had a doe permit.

“We’re kinda in a three-year dry spell. We haven’t shot a deer in three years,” Engel said. “I’ve been waiting for that buck. I’ve passed on quite a few does.”

With Zone 259 being buck-only hunting in recent years, there have been some lean years, Saline agreed. They didn’t apply for the doe lottery this year, unfortunately.

Although he could hunt on his property in Remer, Engel has traveled to Park Rapids since 2004. “It’s just a tradition coming here,” he said.

Brian Wright and Gus Ewoldt joined the hunting party about three years ago. They are all friends. “It’s a close crew,” Wright said, calling himself a late-to-the-game hunter convert. “But I’ve met some amazing people doing it. We’ve had some great conversations.”

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A mixture of new and seasoned hunters, this group stayed at Fremont's Point Resort on Big Mantrap Lake. They stand before a 1907 cabin that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Pictured, from left, are Brian Wright, Dan Mock, Dave Saline, Joseph St. Onge, Shawn Engel and Gus Ewoldt.

They agreed the balmy weather – in the high 50s – kept wildlife inactive.

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“We’ve been out there in 0 degrees, snow and rain. Rain is the worst,” Engel said.

Saline said some of his friends no longer hunt, but like to bring their children, at 10 to 12 years old, to get a feel for the woods, sit in the deer stand and maybe carry a shotgun.

Thanks to COVID, Saline said more families have rediscovered the outdoors, like hunting and fishing. “It was dying out. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “Now it’s ramped up big time.”

Wright and Engel hope to bring their sons up north when they are old enough to handle a gun.

YouTube lured in Steffel’s buck

Madison Steffel was with a hunting party of 13 family and friends Saturday and Sunday, including her dad, Joel Steffel, and her uncle, Doug Steffel, the only other member of the party who got a deer over the weekend.

“We all have Ice Castles we stay in and sit around the campfire at night and talk,” she said. “Everybody is leaving Wednesday. We plan it as a vacation. It’s a big thing everybody looks forward to, especially my Grandpa Ernie.”

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Madison Steffel got her 8-point buck Sunday around sunset north of Ponsford. It was the first and only deer she saw over the weekend.

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Steffel, 23, has been working near Yellowstone as a hiking guide at a dude ranch. “A lot of my coworkers are from Atlanta, because the owner of the Atlanta Falcons owns the ranch,” she said. “Many of them had never seen bears or gone camping. I would lead at least two hikes a day. We had grizzly bears on our property and bighorn sheep. People paid $7,000 to hang out in the woods for a week.”

Steffel and her boyfriend were in the woods north of Ponsford when she finally got her 8-point buck that weighed 160 pounds. It was near sunset Sunday night.

“My boyfriend, Cole Perry, and I pulled up a minute-and-a-half, YouTube video of a male buck grunting,” she said. “On the video, it says to play it while you’re hunting. My other relatives were seeing bucks, but we hadn’t seen anything. We heard a deer coming. For about an hour, it would make noise and stop. All of a sudden we saw it creeping up behind us from the south. So we played the video for about 10 seconds and it started coming right towards us from behind. I stood up in the deer stand and rotated 180 degrees and shot it while standing up and it fell in its tracks. It was a really quick shot. I lured it in with the YouTube video. I’m surprised we had a signal because we usually get one bar, but somehow the video loaded.”

“That is the first deer I saw during the weekend,” she said. “Last year, I saw absolutely nothing, but the two years before that I would see at least two deer a night. We did see a porcupine up in a tree.”

Steffel has been hunting since she was 12. “I’ve shot bigger bucks than that before,” she said.

Steffel said she is looking forward to the jalapeno deer sausage that her uncle, who lives in Olivia, will be making from her buck and bringing up at Christmas. “It’s my favorite,” she said.

DNR busy testing for CWD

Thorson was part of a group doing mandatory testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD) at a check station over the weekend.

They were on site from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, testing a total of 230 deer.

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DNR staff were busy testing over 230 deer for chronic Wasting disease Saturday and Sunday.

“We didn’t sample fawns or trophy bucks,” he said. “We talked to a lot of hunters and also conservation officers who were out and about. Generally what we heard is it was kind of a slow opener, not as much shooting as normal and people not seeing as many deer as normal. We did see some really nice deer that came in. We saw a number of deer that were 200 pounds, dressed, a lot of big bucks.”

He said the warmer-than-average opener meant hunters needed to take care of their deer sooner. “It also means deer generally move around less, as they have their winter coats,” he said. “The rut is going on pretty good, so there’s a lot of buck movement irregardless.”

Permit area 184, north of Itasca State Park, is part of a surveillance zone for CWD. Yearlings and adults were tested by making a slit in the deer’s throat and extracting the lymph nodes. They will be sent to Colorado for testing for abnormal proteins that indicate CWD. Results will be available to hunters in one to two weeks.

“The CDC recommends not eating meat from deer that come back with a positive test out of an abundance of caution,” he said. “CWD takes a long time to incubate. It can take up to three years before symptoms appear, so a deer can look healthy and still have the disease. Hopefully, we don’t find it up here, or it’s just an isolated animal or two and we can eradicate it.”

Testing for CWD is available at other times by appointment by contacting the DNR wildlife office. Area residents who notice a deer that is emaciated or has symptoms such as droopy ears or head, salivating or staggering, some of the indicators of CWD, should contact their DNR wildlife office.

Deer harvest numbers are available on the DNR website www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/deer/management/statistics.html.

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