CAMP RIPLEY -- One of these years I'll guess right.
So I thought as I settled into my treestand on the afternoon of Oct. 17.
In seven previous hunts in Camp Ripley I hadn't shot a deer, and judging from how this hunt had started it looked as if the drought would continue.
After getting through the checkpoint at 7 a.m. I had spent the entire morning searching for a place to hunt. Every spot I had hunted in the past was taken. In keeping with long-standing Ripley tradition, it was time to improvise.
Improvisation is thrust upon many in Ripley. Though the reservation is big -- 53,000 acres -- 2,000 hunters are admitted for each two-day hunt, for an average of 26.5 acres per hunter. On this day it looked as if that distribution ratio was about right.
When 11 a.m. rolled around and I had yet to set foot in the woods I was desperate to hang a stand somewhere, anywhere. Then I recalled advice from Bill Marchel, a veteran Ripley bowhunter.
"One of the biggest mistakes guys make in camp," Marchel had said, "is setting up anywhere just to get set up. Keep moving until you find a reason to stop."
Bill was talking about deer sign, but I was on the verge of being stopped by something else: wet, heavy snow that made the roads slicker than oil -- not ideal conditions for tooling around in a 2-wheel drive Ford Ranger. One brief off-road foray in which I nearly got stuck convinced me to stay on the main roads.
Well, if nothing else I would have had a novel reason for getting skunked in Ripley.
An hour later I found woods that were semi-private. In Ripley this means the nearest other vehicle is more than a half-mile away. I went forth, found a deer trail, followed it to where it intersected with another trail and hung my stand. The location might not have satisfied Marchel's definition of hot sign, but it would do.
Almost immediately I knew I would move on. Something about the spot didn't feel right. Plus, I heard another hunter nearby. The clanking of metal on wood was the unmistakable sound of a treestand being raised or lowered, but I wasn't sure which.
I pulled my stand and got back to the truck at 1:30 p.m. only to discover I had another problem -- a flat tire. Somebody had knifed one of the Ranger's rear tires.
As I struggled to jack up the truck with the lousy little jack Ford issues as standard equipment I wondered who would do such a thing. Is this what's become of the Ripley bowhunt? I've clashed with other hunters in the past, but this was the first time somebody had slashed my tire.
I recalled a recent conversation with Beau Liddell, the DNR wildlife manager who runs the Camp Ripley hunt. I had written a column in which I criticized the special youth hunt Beau had helped create. I said a special youth hunt was unnecessary, that youths would be better served by learning to hunt with all the rest of us. Beau disagreed, saying the hunt was intended to give kids a quality hunting experience in which they wouldn't have to deal with the ills common to the other hunts. As I struggled to loosen the rusted tire lugs on the truck, I concluded that maybe Beau is right.
Spare tire installed, I got back on the road only to realize the spare was low on air. It was now almost 2 p.m. It took all the inner resolve at my disposal to prevent a detour to the Canteen, where the amber malt would help soothe the frustrations of the day. But the tire had enough air to limp along and the best hunting hours of the day were yet to come. Ripley is open two days per year if you're lucky enough to draw a permit. Might as well make the most of it.
Nearby was a spot I had meant to hunt for several years. Now was the time. There wasn't a vehicle parked near the woods. Unless a hunter had walked in from a different road I would have the spot to myself.
I walked to where the woods necked down between a low ridge and several potholes. It wasn't a classic funnel, but by hanging a stand between the ridge and the potholes I would be within shooting range of any deer that passed by. The brush was thick but had openings enough to snake an arrow through.
At 3:30 p.m. a deer appeared to my left. I hadn't heard it approach; it was just there. It came from behind my stand and was directly downwind of me.
When I saw the rack I instantly I reached for my bow. Usually I don't move unless I'm sure the deer won't see me, but here the shooting lanes were so limited that I feared he would slip past before I could shoot. I tried to free my bow from the holder, but the two-prong holder, convenient as it is, proved to have a shortcoming: A bow can't be removed unless it's tilted at just the right angle. In this case the right angle couldn't be achieved unless I bent my knees and crouched low. This is more movement than I like to make when a trophy buck is near.
I got the bow loose, came out of my crouch and looked toward where the buck had stood. Gone. Had I spooked him? If so, chalk up another one to the Ripley gremlins. Last year I missed a shot at an 8-pointer because I failed to trim a branch that obstructed my bow. This year it appeared as if I had missed a bigger deer because my bow was stuck in a holder. What next?
Footsteps behind my tree told me the buck hadn't spooked, but rather had changed his course and was angling behind the tree. I looked down to see him pass below my stand. He was at full trot, obviously alarmed. Perhaps he had got wind of me, or perhaps that sixth sense that big bucks have had told him something wasn't right. Whatever the reason, the buck had picked up the pace and was on his way out.
I drew my bow, whistled and the buck stopped 25 yards away. He turned and looked at me. I released the arrow and it hit his shoulder. Fifteen minutes later I got down from the stand, followed the blood trail and found the buck about 100 yards away.
With help from three members of the National Guard I got him out of the woods right before dark. At the scales he weighed in at 235 pounds -- the biggest deer taken in Camp Ripley during the first two-day hunt. The next day a local taxidermist measured the antlers at 152, more than enough to make the Pope and Young record book.
Many things might have prevented me from getting the buck. He might have gotten wind of me on first approach, seen me reach for my bow, kept going when I whistled, stopped behind brush or jumped the string. But none of that happened.
After seven years in Camp Ripley, I finally had guessed right.
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