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‘Organized chaos’

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of a monster buck at a Camp Ripley archery h

This hunt isn’t for everyone. It just seems like it is.

The upcoming Camp Ripley archery deer hunt, regarded as the largest controlled archery deer hunt in the nation, is again expected to draw 4,000-plus hunters to the camp Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 29-30.

The archery hunts at Ripley started about 50 years ago as a modest deer research and management tool. But very early on, deer management gave way to hunter management as word of Camp Ripley and its large deer and deer population quickly spread.

For many years, pretty much anyone could show up for the hunts. And some years, they did.

Gary Johnson, who for more than 30 years oversaw the hunt as DNR wildlife manager in the Little Falls area, remembers the early years of the hunt as especially chaotic.

“It (the hunt) started as a research program,” said Johnson, who retired in 2001. “That changed in 1967 ... when they terminated the study. With that first hunt (in 1967), it switched from deer management to hunter management. The hunter numbers became so great. The peak number before they started limiting numbers was 4,400 (for one weekend). There were 2,000 vehicles. They couldn’t get off the highway — both (highways) 115 and 371. There were hunters backed up in both directions. And it was bitter cold — it was December hunts then. That was in the early ’70s. The hunt was growing with the reputation of the trophy bucks.

“The system broke down. People were frustrated. They couldn’t get in past the check-in station, they couldn’t get out. There were so many people. It was an emergency mess. You couldn’t track people if they got lost. It was (time for) serious people management. ... The application and drawing process.”

Gary Drotts, current DNR wildlife manager in Brainerd, who Johnson credits with setting up the first computer system for the drawing process in the mid- to late 1970s, has similar memories of that hunt.

“It was 20 below and there were almost 5,000 people in line,” said Drotts, who along with many area DNR types helped with the hunt through the years. “Traffic was backed up all the way to (Highway) 371. We had to start getting it under control.”

And so, led by Drotts — “I had some computer skills” — the hunt went to a lottery in the late 1970s and, ultimately, to two-day hunts in late October. 

And while the drawing process ensured there were no such surprises regarding hunter numbers, the hunt remained huge, with an average of 4,256 permits issued and 3,413 hunters participating each year (since 1981) to help manage the large Ripley deer population. This year’s application deadline was Aug. 19, with 5,000 permits issued for the hunts.

“We got better at managing them and selecting a number that was manageable, but there were a lot of growing pains with the selection process,” Johnson said. “There are always deadlines, which people miss. And they’ll have their attorney calling ... and their legislator calling and saying ‘why weren’t they drawn?’

“It’s very stressful. It’s always difficult if they (hunters) have performed poorly ethically and we’ve had to answer to the military. They have an important priority and purpose of the camp. We’ve had some people who were difficult to handle. When there are that many people you have those people there. With 2,000 people (for each two-day hunt) it still takes two hours to get them in (each day during the hunt) and two hours to get them out. Those are long days. You’re wanting the hunt to go well.”

That the hunts continue is proof that, for the most part, they have gone very well. But there have been some trying moments.

“One year there was a lost hunter from St. Cloud,” Johnson recalled of a man who hid in the field overnight to avoid having to come in the first day and out again the next morning. “He didn’t want to be found. He wanted to have an early hunt (the next morning). That was an expensive search for a guy who deliberately (broke the rules). And there have been some injuries, most tree-stand related — falling from tree stands or jumping off tree stands. And in ’89 or ’90 we had someone die ... of a heart attack right at the check station. That was really difficult.

“There is a lot of frustration on behalf of the bowhunters that we had all those rules. We understand that. But the system breaks down if you don’t have those controls. They can line up the day before. That’s when they party. But the military helps with that (enforcement). We’ve had some fisticuffs between people claiming the same deer. And we used to have a scale board and a kill board, but there were such tremendous crowds that we couldn’t register the deer. There were a mess of people, but we stopped doing that in the late ’70s or early ’80s. We still have problems managing people and crowds. It takes about 10 DNR people. It’s a big effort.”

And a big draw for a number of reasons.

“Word of mouth and (the allure for) trophy hunters,” Johnson said of the popularity of the hunt. “And one of the appeals is it’s centrally located and you don’t have to be skilled. You can come up never having hunted before and be successful and be very skilled and get nothing. There are some very skilled archers that go anywhere and take trophy deer, and since it’s open to everyone, there are many inexperienced hunters, too.

“We have people problems, those who don’t understand hunter ethics, and also have some of the best people. There’s such a mix of habitat and some of the attraction for everyone is there’s enough people and enough deer moving all day. There’s generally excellent conditions and it’s centrally located in Minnesota where it’s a two- to two-and-a-half-hour drive for anyone and the climate is usually mild (in late October). I don’t know if there’s anything else like it.”

Last year, 4,294 hunters harvested 507 deer (187 bucks, 228 does and 92 fawns) in the two two-day hunts — the third-most since 1981 — for a success rate of 11.4 percent, well above the average of 9 percent since ’81. The biggest deer weighed in at 253 pounds. The previous year, a hunter bagged what was thought to be a 32-point non-typical buck. It later registered at 25 points, according to Beau Liddell, current DNR wildlife manager for the Little Falls area, still a state non-typical record, Liddell said.

“There is a lot of trophy hunting and it’s a big social event,” said Liddell, who took over for Johnson in 2001. “It’s organized chaos.”

While Ripley has gained a reputation as a major trophy hunting destination, Liddell debunked that notion.

“People think there are a lot of big bucks out there (at Ripley), but there’s not,” he said. “There are 2,000 to 3,000 deer out there (at Ripley), and of those, we’ve never harvested more than 10 to 20 big bucks.”

Instead, deer management and a healthy Ripley deer population is the ultimate goal of the hunts.

“Our goal is 450 deer,” Liddell said of the harvest for the either-sex hunt — each hunter may also purchase one bonus permit. “We’ve been able to achieve that. If there are 2,000 or more hunters coming through the gates (for each of the two hunts) we should hit pretty close to 500. We started allowing bonus permits a few years ago. But it’s very rare for anyone to take two deer in camp. We’ve never had more than up to 20 take two.”

While Johnson hunted in the early years of the event — “I was (an archery hunter) when I came, but it was too much like work” — Liddell and Drotts have yet to participate in the event that has consumed so much of their time over the years.

“It’s not my idea of a fun hunt,” Liddell said. “It’s not the experience I’m looking for. But if you know what to expect (at the Ripley hunts) and don’t mind that, you’ll enjoy it just fine.”

“After I retire I may go out there and hunt just to see what’s happening,” Drotts said. “I have a lot of fond memories (of the hunts). It was a good part of my career. I’m happy with it. But it would drain on him (Johnson).”

Indeed. But over a cup of coffee Tuesday at the Randall Cafe, just down the road from Camp Ripley, Johnson seemed very much at peace with that lengthy chapter of his life.

“It’s very stressful. We’re going through a chaotic process,” he said of the hunts. “And then we would do a potluck on the grill. I got a chance to mix with the other conservation officers that aren’t usually a part of the area. And we developed some good friends with some of the archers.

“I guess the thing that stands out is the coordinated effort between the military and the many DNR people. We manage the hunt to control the deer herd. That’s why we do it.”