The deer was only 50 yards away, but in Saturday’s early morning darkness DNR conservation officer Tim Maass reached for his binoculars to make it out.

“Six-point. Nice one,’’ he said. “Notice where it came from?”

Maass pointed to a suspected bait pile located a mere 100 yards from the township road where he was parked inside his DNR-issued pickup truck. Hunting over bait is the No. 1 deer hunting offense in Minnesota, and Maass was staked out, ready to write his first citation of the traditional firearms season.

But when the sky brightened in the woodsy exurbs of East Bethel, Maass saw that the suspect’s deer stand was empty. He vowed to keep checking it over the next 16 days.

The former West Hennepin policeman was one of 185 DNR enforcement officers dispatched Saturday to uphold game laws, answer public concerns and look out for animal welfare on the busiest hunting day of the year.

In the course of a five-hour ride-along Saturday morning, Maass exited his truck more than a dozen times while on patrol with a second officer in the northern tiers of Anoka and Washington counties. They checked hunters for licenses, investigated rifle shots fired inside a shotgun-only zone, searched two pieces of land for reported trespassers, opened a deer poaching investigation and warned the tipster in the poaching case to stop baiting whitetails with molasses.

Maass planned to rest for two hours Saturday afternoon, then return to work at night to look for “shiners.” Opening weekend is prime time for deer hunters who were unsuccessful during the day to illegally stalk and shoot whitetails at night, he said.

“It’s a busy area up here,” Maass said. “It’s just outside of that metro ring, and it’s kind of like the Wild West.”

Leading up to the opener, Maass worked with other officers to remove seven shooting stands erected illegally on public hunting land west of Hugo. In the same vicinity, he came across a group of waterfowl hunters who drove off road in full-sized pickup trucks to a small lake hidden in the woods. Group members were cited for hunting without duck stamps, using toxic ammunition, shooting with unplugged shotguns and operating an unlicensed ATV.

Maass, a deer hunter himself, did some unexpected sleuthing Saturday morning when a rural resident south of Big Marine Lake called to say there was a dead buck on his property. The caller said he suspected a poacher shot it Friday.

Walking onto the landowner’s plot of 10 wooded acres to observe the buck, Maass and his fellow conservation officer (who asked not to be named because he works some cases undercover) found an empty gallon container of a molasses-based deer attractant called “Deer Likker.” Twenty feet from the discarded container was a darkened stump and matted grass where the syrup was dumped. The site was directly in front of a shooting stand.

“Is that illegal?” the landowner asked.

Maass later explained that they didn’t cite the man and his teenage son because they had done the right thing by tipping off the DNR to a case of poaching. They ordered the two to immediately get rid of the stump and remove the drenched soil and grass.

“When you come across something they’re doing that’s illegal you can’t ignore it,” Maass said.

The morning ended on a good note. On the side of a county road near Hugo, the officers spotted a group of orange-clad hunters gathered in the yard of a private residence. They were admiring the carcass of a 10-point buck hanging near a giant oak tree.

The officers turned into the driveway, and the hunters walked quietly to greet them. There was tension, then smiles all around after the successful hunter displayed his hunting license and asked the officers to take a closer look at the buck. It was correctly tagged.

“After the job is done it’s fun to see people happy,” Maass said. “The whole fall season is by far my favorite time of the year. It’s the time for true conservation officer work.”