Wearing a blaze-orange vest with “Conservation Officer” emblazoned on the back, Brent Grewe slipped into the small patch of woods in Corcoran at sunrise on Saturday and found what he was looking for.
“Corn, apples and pumpkins right below the deer stand,” Grewe announced, holding some of the evidence when he returned to his truck.
But though it was Minnesota’s firearms deer opener, there was no hunter on the stand to cite for illegally baiting deer.
“I thought for sure they’d be out here,” he said. “I think they’ll be back.”
Grewe certainly will be. “I’ll check it again later,” he said as he headed down the road, looking to check other opening-day hunters.
He was one of about 170 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, including supervisors, who worked Saturday’s deer opener — an annual tradition that draws nearly 500,000 people into the woods.
And while the vast majority of hunters adhere to the rules and regulations, some don’t.
“It’s a fraction of the hunters that cause problems,” Grewe said.
Baiting deer has been problematic for several years, despite increased penalties. Last year, officers issued 150 tickets and 48 warnings — about the same as 2013 and down a bit from 2012.
Hunters who put out bait to attract deer now lose their hunting privileges for a year in Minnesota and 46 other states that have joined a wildlife violator compact. They also can have their gun or archery equipment seized and face a $300 fine, plus court costs.
“It comes down to fair chase, and we’re concerned baiting can spread disease because of nose-to-nose contact of deer,” Greg Salo, DNR enforcement operations manager, said in an interview last week. Contributing to the problem is that many deer products sold at Minnesota retail stores contain food, such as molasses, making them illegal to hunt over.
“It’s not illegal to feed deer, it’s illegal to hunt over that food,” Salo said.
Officials thought that when they began seizing guns and archery equipment from violators several years ago, the number of baiting cases would drop.
“We found losing their right to hunt was a bigger deal,” Salo said. Still, baiting violations have remained steady.
On Saturday, Grewe, who normally covers the west metro area, headed north to the 31,000- acre Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge area near Zimmerman to help fellow officer Mitch Sladek check the many deer hunters who flock there.
Sladek found a bow hunter Saturday who was hunting over apples. After first denying he placed the fruit near his stand, the hunter finally confessed, Sladek said.
“I seized his bow and trail camera and wrote him a ticket for hunting over bait,” he said. The hunter later called Sladek, asking for the return of his bow.
“I told him it was too blatant of a violation,” Sladek said. “He can go before a judge and plead his case.”
Sladek made news last year when he busted a hunter who illegally killed 13 deer, including several trophy whitetails, in Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge. The man’s Minnesota big game hunting privileges were revoked for three years.
Meanwhile, Grewe checked several hunters who bagged deer Saturday, including 18-year-old Patrick Fabel of Sartell, Minn., who was hunting with his dad, August.
“It walked right up to me,” the younger Fabel said, and he shot it. “I was lucky.”
They decided to use August Fabel’s buck tag on the whitetail, but dragged it to the highway before validating the tag at the kill site, as required. Grewe explained the regulation, issued a warning and wished the pair luck for the rest of their hunt before heading down the road.
It was the only warning or citation he issued Saturday morning.
Bridget Benhardus of Rice, Minn., was all smiles as she showed Grewe the five-point buck she shot — her first-ever deer.
“It was exciting,” she said.
“Nice going,” Grewe said.
Grewe, 36, grew up in Alexandria in a family that hunted and fished.
“My dad, Dave, taught me hunting ethics,” he said.
Grewe went into law enforcement and was a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy for 8½ years before landing a job as a state conservation officer in 2012.
“I have a love and passion for the outdoors, so it’s a really good fit for me,” he said. “It’s what I always wanted to do.”
As for confronting hunters and anglers: “I have more positive experiences than negative ones,” he said. “I try to approach everyone with a smile.”
He is planning to hunt either ducks or deer with his family on a day off later this week. But before then, he will check back on that baited deer stand in hopes of nabbing the illegal hunter. He was tipped off by another hunter.
“We rely on tips from ethical hunters,” Grewe said.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. firstname.lastname@example.org