CAMP RIPLEY -- In its 12th year the longest running Disabled Veterans Deer Hunt in the nation is getting bigger and better.
An all-time high 50 disabled veteran hunters came to Camp Ripley Oct. 8-9 for the chance to shoot a whitetail deer. Twenty-five among the crew were here for their first time. Some hadn't hunted deer in more than 30 years. Ten went home successful.
Interest in the hunt extended beyond the veterans who participated. Retired Gen. Gary LeBlanc, a former Camp Commander at Camp Ripley, returned this year as a hunting guide.
"He took great pride in the program and wanted to help out," said Dennis Erie, who coordinates the hunt from the Veterans Administration Hospital in St. Cloud. "We suggested he guide. It's a great way to get in the field and spend some time one-on-one with a veteran."
LeBlanc wasn't the only new face this year. New DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam showed up. The Brainerd Sertoma Club sponsored a dinner on behalf of former member Craig Dugas, a Brainerd resident who died this year. The club will host a dinner in Dugas' memory for the next three years and also donated a 20-gauge shotgun. The Brained Elks served breakfast one morning.
Jeremy Hage and Jeff Sherman, who operate Sportsman's Plus in Cokato, brought an invention that is certain to be used at this hunt. The Illusion Trailer, a fish house/deer blind on wheels (it won "Best of Show" at the Minnesota Inventor's Congress) sits on an independent torsion suspension system that can be raised 8 feet for deer hunting or lowered to the surface of the ice for fishing.
Anthony Roy, Minneapolis, pointed to the spot where the doe he shot was standing. Roy was the first veteran to shoot a deer at this year's hunt. He hadn't shot a deer since he was in high school, more than 30 years ago. (Dispatch Photos by Vince Meyer)
"We designed it with the handicapped hunter in mind," said Hage, who quickly assembled a deer blind. "A guy in a wheelchair can pop it up himself. We're working on a pontoon model that will convert into a duck blind."
In the woods one of the new blinds was being used by Jerry Klem, Forest Lake, and his guide, Ron Welle, Melrose.
"This is the ideal setup," whispered Klem, who was hunting deer for the first time. "This camo screen (made of Cordura) hides my movements and the trailer frame makes for a nice gun rest."
Down the road in another blind was Leo Buchholz, Fergus Falls, who was on his second hunt.
"I used to hunt in the Badlands until I became disabled 10 years ago," Buchholz said. "It's a lot of fun. I haven't seen anything yet. We saw some fresh tracks on the road coming in, so odds are good we'll see something. I missed one last year."
On the road to the next hunting site, Erie said Fort McCoy in Wisconsin is establishing a veterans hunt. "Military reservations are perfect for these hunts because we can control access," Erie said. "We don't have to worry about other people walking into the area. We can monitor the sites from year to year and weed out those that aren't producing."
On the way back to Range Control a flock of wild turkeys crossed the road in front of the van. This was mentioned to Beau Liddell, the DNR area wildlife manager who presides over the special hunts at Camp Ripley, who said the DNR is considering a special Camp Ripley turkey hunt for veterans.
Due to the large number of troops training at Camp Ripley -- 800 are to be deployed soon -- three of the four Camp Ripley deer hunts almost were re-scheduled, Liddell said.
"We were looking at having the DAV hunt in September and the two regular archery hunts on the first and last weekends in November," Liddell said. "The youth hunt would have stayed the same."
As Liddell spoke his two-way radio crackled with urgent news: "Deer down!"
The message came from 6 miles down East Boundary Road, where in a nearby oak woods Anthony Roy, 58, who lives at the Minneapolis Veterans Home, had shot his first deer in more than 30 years.
"It came out right there," said Roy, pointing to a clearing in the oaks about 50 yards away. "I thought I missed her 'cause we couldn't find any blood. We walked around all over. Then Bob (Hill, his guide) took a look in some brush off the trail and there it was."
Turns out Roy made a good, clean shot right behind the shoulder, a hit that normally results in a good blood trail. But not in this case.
"I haven't shot a deer since high school," said Roy, a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam aboard the USS Kitty Hawk. "Last year I missed two, so I kinda made up for it."
Roy said he will donate the venison to next year's game feed at the Veterans Hunt.
Now another matter had to be dealt with: what happened to Bob Hill's glasses?
"Geez, I hope I didn't drop them in the woods someplace," Hill said as an impromptu search party was assembled. Moments later, Hill called out, "Found 'em!"
He emerged from the brush with a pair of eyeglasses that were smeared with blood. "They were laying right on the gut pile!" Hill said with a shake of his head. "Must have fallen off while I was gutting the deer."
So it goes at the Disabled Veterans Hunt, where excitement about deer hunting sometimes gets in the way of minor objects like eyeglasses.
Fifty hunters harvested 10 deer, about average for the hunt. The success rate each year has been around 26 percent.
The best years were 1994 and 2000, when 14 deer were taken.
Over 12 years 450 veterans have participated in the hunt.
Veteran Ken Nelson, who had made 10 of the previous 11 hunts, was not among the gathering, having died earlier this year.
Retiring camp commander Terry Dorenbush was honored at a banquet on Oct. 9.
The two-day hunt is fully funded through proceeds from charitable gambling at VFWs, American Legion and DAVs throughout the state. Other veterans hunts are scheduled for the Carlos Avery, Lac qui Parle and Sherburne Area wildlife areas. Over the years 12 various deer hunting associations have donated 10 guns to the hunt.
Veterans interested in taking part in the DAV hunt should contact Dennis Erie at (320) 255-6365.
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