Scott O'Konek shoots his bow 300 days a year, dreaming that someday in the woods somewhere in Minnesota a white-tailed buck of memorable proportions will stride beneath his tree stand.
For O'Konek, 29, dream and reality blurred last week at Camp Ripley when a 32-point buck -- bearing perhaps the largest non-typical rack ever taken by archery in Minnesota -- ambled toward him.
Forty-four yards from O'Konek's perch, the statuesque whitetail stood a moment, shaking snow from its back as leaden skies drizzled rain. This was about 9 a.m. during the first of two special Camp Ripley archery hunts.
Oblivious to being watched, the buck with the ornate antlers stepped away. As it did, a carbon arrow carrying a razor-sharp stainless steel broadhead caught up to it from behind, entering just beneath its rib cage and piercing its heart. Death followed instantly.
A dream, this monster buck? Real? O'Konek, of South Haven, Minn., wasn't sure.
"I was shaking," he said. "I didn't know what to do. I sat there in my stand and said, 'Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.'"
When O'Konek finally climbed down from his stand to approach the deer, he hovered over it a full 45 minutes, studying the animal intently but not bending to touch it, leaving alone even its elaborate headgear.
"I would have shot a doe, had I seen a doe," he said. "I don't want to make too much out of this 'big buck' thing. Bow hunting is important to me. It makes me calm. If I see a red squirrel or a bird fly by, it makes my day. This was a bonus. It's the stuff we dream about as hunters."
O'Konek's buck scored a preliminary 228. If that measurement holds (the current archery record dating from 1989 is 225, according to the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association), it would be the state's largest archery-killed non-typical (asymmetrical) rack. A conclusive antler score will follow in 60 days, when the antlers have dried.
A freak of nature, this animal?
"It looks like an elk," said Lou Cornicelli, Department of Natural Resources big game coordinator. "It's weird to see all of those points coming off other points."
An estimated 5-year-old deer that field-dressed at 192 pounds, O'Konek's trophy is a relative granddaddy among Minnesota whitetails. About half of male deer born each year in Minnesota are killed before their second birthdays, usually at the hands of the state's approximately 500,000 deer hunters.
But at Camp Ripley, O'Konek's buck, while a standout, isn't so unusual. In fact, the chance to bag a whitetail of a lifetime is what attracts as many as 5,000 archers to the military installation each fall. Nonresidents also hunt during two two-day hunts, and each year archers from as far away as Florida travel to Minnesota to do so.
The camp measures about 53,000 acres, or about 81 square miles.
"There's nothing unique about Ripley, except that it gets lighter hunting pressure than other places in Minnesota, and because it's so large there's a greater probability that bucks will live longer there," said Beau Liddell, DNR area wildlife supervisor in Little Falls, whose office oversees the Ripley hunts.
Archers harvest as many as 450 deer at the camp each fall over four days. Last week's two-day hunt was slowed by rain, snow and muddy roads, and 171 deer were killed, 71 percent of which were antlerless.
O'Konek had hunted Ripley four times previously, and had killed does there, but never a buck.
His wife, Susan, and her uncle, Jason Cleveland, also hunted last week. The three of them towed an ice fishing house to Camp Ripley for sleeping, joining the usual hodgepodge of tents and RVs -- some barely habitable -- that hunters deploy at the central Minnesota enclosure for their two overnight stays.
"Bow hunting runs in my family and in Susan's family," O'Konek said. "Susan's 70-year-old grandmother, Karen Cleveland, has been out four times already this year."
O'Konek initially counted as many as 37 points on his buck. "When I called my wife on her cell phone I told her I had a big buck and that I think it had 37 points. She didn't believe me.
"Then I called her uncle and said I needed help with a buck that I thought had 37 points.
"He said, 'Really? Thirty-seven? Mine has 52.'"