HOVLAND (AP) -- Orvis Lunke moves like a predator, like a big cat or wolf on the prowl.
He's fast, but he's also quiet and stealthy. He stops, listens, scans the horizon. But mostly he walks, sometimes miles every day.
Lunke's technique is called still hunting in the old outdoor magazines, a misnomer to be sure because Lunke is moving more than he's still. The technique is used in western states for elk and mule deer but it's a lost art in most of the Midwest.
As Minnesota's firearms deer season opened recently, most hunters were sitting in stands in trees or walking on deer drives in group hunts. But on this warm and mostly sunny morning, Lunke hunted like he always hunts -- he walked and hoped to sneak up on a big buck.
"I like big country. I like to start with four or five square miles and then just go. I really don't care where I end up," Lunke said on the eve of the hunt. "Sometimes I'm paying attention to (deer) sign and sort of get misplaced. But I carry a compass and I always manage to get back to the truck, or at least to a road."
Indeed this is big country, with thick forests of spruce, pine, aspen and birch occasionally broken by big logging clear-cuts or grassy swamps. While chunks of private property exist, there are still miles and miles of state and federal land.
This area north of Hovland has about the lowest number of deer per square mile in Minnesota. But that's a trade-off Lunke and a few other stalwarts are willing to make.
"I like it this way. It's a lot different than hunting on the edge of a cornfield in a stand where you know deer are going to walk under," said Lunke, 56. "Here, you hunt them on their terms. You have to find them first, and even that can be tough."
Last year, Lunke hunted every day of the 16-day season, walked dozens of miles, and saw only five other hunters.
A century ago, mostly caribou and moose thrived in these woods in the coldest and snowiest part of the state. By the 1930s, extensive logging and big fires made it prime deer habitat. Wolves were being trapped and shot, which helped deer numbers grow. A string of mostly mild winters made this a deer hunting Mecca into the 1950s.
Then logging slowed and harsh winters hit in the late '60s. Wolves became protected by the 1970s. As the woods grew old, there was less young browse for deer to eat.
Still, things are looking up. There's been more logging over the past 20 years and three warm winters in a row have boosted the deer herd.
"I think these are the toughest deer around up here. They seem to be pretty resilient to the tough winters we have. And, the wolves might move them out and make them spooky, but these deer know how to survive," Lunke said. "But there still aren't a lot of deer. I talk to people who hunt (farther south in Minnesota) and they see 30 or 40 deer in a day. If I see that many in a season, that's fantastic. If I see 20 it's a good season."
But it's old bucks, 10- and 12-pointers with broad-spread antlers, that Lunke dreams about.
Every fall he takes a big chunk of vacation. Lunke tries to hunt every day during Zone 1 season and he moves around.
"The deer up here seem to move a lot. And some areas just don't hold deer. If you stay in one area and there aren't any deer in there, you can go days up here without ever seeing one," Lunke said while driving his big Ford pickup down a gravel road just before dawn recently.
There aren't many places in the eastern half of Cook County where Lunke hasn't been.
A native of Thief River Falls, Lunke has lived in Hovland for 30 years. He works as a state Department of Natural Resources forester and spends much of his time surveying land for logging and wildlife management, deciding what should be cut and what should be left.
"Have you ever been around anyone who spends a lot of time in the woods? Orvis spends more time in the woods than anyone I know. He just has a sense for everything in the woods," said Shawn Perich, a Hovland resident and deer hunter. "He's curious about what he sees. He's incredibly observant. He's just about the best woodsman I know. And that makes him about the best hunter, too."
Perich and his hunting buddies occasionally link up with Lunke for a day's hunt. But what that really means is just riding out in the same truck and then hunting in the same county.
"I've never seen anyone cover as much ground. He moves through the woods faster than anyone I've ever met," said Al Lutkevich of Duluth, who also hunts out of Hovland. "But he doesn't go so fast that he misses (seeing) the deer."
At least, not very often. On a wall inside Lunke's garage there are about two dozen buck racks, a testament to his hunting prowess. He doesn't brag about this wall of fame; you have to ask him to show it to you.
"I've gone a year or two without getting a buck. But sometimes I get two, or three." Lunke said, explaining he helps others in his hunting group fill their tags under Minnesota's party hunting rule.
Lunke said he probably moves too fast through the woods -- he wonders how many deer simply stay still and let him walk by. But enough deer never knew he was coming that he keeps a freezer full of venison most years.
"I'm walking more than I'm stopped. Either I catch them off guard ... or they make a few bounds and stop and give me that one chance," he said.
And one chance is usually all it takes.
"I think the way we hunt, where we try to find the deer, is about the toughest way to hunt whitetails anywhere. I learned a lot about it from my dad, but I've been taking my graduate work from Orvis," Perich said. "He taught me how to get the drop on a big whitetail buck, and that's a pretty damn hard thing to do."
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