Muzzleloader season is the last of Minnesota's gun deer seasons. When it closes at sundown Sunday the woods will be empty but for the remnant archers who will usher their season to a close on Dec. 31.
One shot and open sights make muzzleloading a challenge. Blow the shot and you might go without a deer this year. It's smart, therefore, to hunt where deer are plentiful.
For the past two years muzzleloader hunters in Crow Wing State Park have done well. The three-day season that closed Dec. 7 saw 38 hunters take 44 deer. Last year 37 hunters took 39 deer. Those are good success rates for any type of hunting, especially whitetail deer. But there have been tough years, too. Just 13 deer were shot in both 1998 and 1999.
State parks are game refuges. But Minnesota's burgeoning deer population has forced park managers to open their gates to special hunts. Over-grazing is the problem and special hunts are the best way to eliminate excess deer. This year 18 state parks hosted special hunts.
Crow Wing State Park's first hunt was in 1982. That was the first of four consecutive rifle hunts. The first muzzleloader hunt was in 1990 and there have been five since.
The DNR's Robert Morgan helped Scott Smith hoist a deer from the bed of his truck at Crow Wing State Park. Smith's brother Gaylin (left) shot the 125-pound doe, the first deer taken at the 2003 muzzleloader hunt. (Dispatch Photos by Vince Meyer)
"They've worked out really well," Park Manager Paul Roth said on the first morning of this year's hunt. "People are competent with their guns and it's a safe hunt. Every year we see many of the same guys and they're bringing their wives, sons and daughters. It's a good place for a family hunt."
The park's pre-hunt deer population was estimated at 150, about 110 more than the DNR would like. While driving through the park Dec. 5 Roth pointed to where deer had nibbled the tops of small white pines and boxelder trees.
Roth chatted with Jim Duffy, Hutchinson, on the first morning of the Crow Wing State Park muzzleloader hunt. Duffy reported seeing 15 deer in just the first few hours of the hunt, but he didn't shoot at any.
"For some reason they seem to really like the whites," Roth said. "But they'll eat jacks and reds, too."
Roth was pleased to hear the boom of muzzleloaders as he made the rounds. "A few guys must have one by now," he said as he pulled up to the check-in station.
There Roth found Gaylin and Scott Smith, brothers from Nisswa, who had a doe in the bed of their truck. With help from his assistant, Robert Morgan, Roth hoisted the deer onto a scale: 125 pounds. Gaylin, who shot the deer, said he would continue to hunt with his brother.
Paul Roth, Crow Wing State Park manager, examines the top of a small pine that had been nibbled on by deer. With an estimated population of more than 100, the 1,300-acre park has more deer than it can handle, thus the special muzzleloader hunt.
"I got another doe with my bow a couple weeks ago," said Gaylin, who was muzzleloading in the park for the fourth time. "It's no big deal if I don't get a buck. You can boil the horns for three weeks and you still can't eat 'em."
As the Smiths drove off more shots were heard. Roth said the hunters were spread evenly throughout the 1,300-acre park and that all had good chances of seeing deer.
Roth began another drive through the park and came upon several hunters who had left the woods for a break. All reported seeing deer. Jim Duffy, Hutchinson, said he saw about 15. Pete VanWombeck, Cottage Grove, reported seeing a deer jump into the Mississippi River and swim to the other side. "It broke through the ice in a couple places and I thought it might drown," VanWombeck said. "But it got to where there wasn't any ice and ran off just fine."
At the north end of the park Roth found a party of eight that already had five deer by 10 a.m., including a nice 8-point buck taken by Bob Bolen, Apple Valley. At the south end, Dan Wiczek, Crystal, was eating a sandwich in his truck and planning his strategy for the afternoon. He said he saw five deer but none he wanted to shoot. "I stayed on the ground this morning," Wiczek said, "but I think I'll hang a stand this afternoon."
This year 149 hunters applied for the 40 permits. Unsuccessful applicants have preference next year. The application deadline was Sept. 4 and if the park has a hunt next year the deadline will again be in early September. Because the park is in an intensive harvest area, a single hunter could have shot five deer this year. Several hunters got two but that was the most, Roth said.
Over three days at the Crow Wing State Park Muzzleloader Hunt the hunters shots 31 does and 13 bucks. Largest buck was an 8-pointer weighing 142 pounds, taken by Keith Schwichtenberg, Kimball. Largest doe weighed 135 pounds and was taken by Randall Schmidt, Holdingford.
At sundown on Dec. 7, after Roth and Morgan waved goodbye to the last hunter, the park was winter quiet. Skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers will be its only visitors until spring, when campers return again.
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