Alan Helmin's heart pounded as the 14-point buck approached his deer stand last week.
"My bow was shaking,'' said the 34-year-old Milaca hunter. "He looked right at me. I thought he'd see me shaking and run off.''
But the monster buck, intent on following a doe that had just walked under Helmin's stand, continued toward him. At 10 yards, Helmin unleashed a broadhead, bagging the biggest deer of his life at the annual Camp Ripley archery deer hunt.
He is among thousands of hunters who come from near and far each fall to the sprawling 81-square-mile military reservation near Little Falls for a chance at big buck. It's an unusual event: The woods sometimes are crowded with hunters, whose names must be drawn in a lottery to hunt there. And they have only two days to hunt.
But that doesn't deter the 5,000 to 8,000 hunters like Helmin who apply each year. (This year, 7,300 hunters applied, the highest in at least 10 years, for 5,000 available permits.)
"I've hunted there five times, and every time I've seen a trophy buck, but never closer than 100 yards,'' Helmin said.
Until this year. He climbed into his stand around 8:30 a.m. Friday. No other hunters were around. He shot the 214-pound buck just an hour later.
"It's by far my biggest deer ever,'' he said.
Others had good luck, too. At least 19 bucks 200 pounds or larger were harvested during this season's first two-day hunt at Ripley last Thursday and Friday. That's more than they usually kill in four days. Some 2,400 hunters bagged 287 deer, the third highest on record for the camp's initial hunt, and a 13 percent success rate.
"It was a terrific hunt by any measure,'' said Beau Liddell, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife supervisor.
Perfect weather helped.
"We had a lot of antlerless deer taken, but the proportion of bucks was up, including big bruisers,'' he said. About 36 percent of the deer killed last week were bucks, up from 29 percent last year.
The second and final of the camp's two-day hunts is Saturday and Sunday, and, with good weather, Liddell said, hunters could have the chance to break the Ripley harvest record.
Why big deer?
The intent of the Camp Ripley hunt isn't to offer hunters a chance at a trophy deer.
"Deer control is the main purpose,'' Liddell said, though obviously the hunt is important for recreation. "We're absolutely not managing [Camp Ripley] for big bucks.''
So why are so many big deer taken, including the 32-point monster shot last year that set the hunting community abuzz and likely attracted more hunters to Ripley this year?
"We're talking 81 square miles,'' Liddell said. "And a lot is inaccessible.''
Those 51,800 acres are essentially a game refuge, except for the pair of two-day archery hunts and three other very limited deer hunts. So hunting pressure is far less than it is in most parts of the state.
"You're bound to have bucks that will escape the hunting pressure,'' Liddell said. "There's just no way you're going to get all of those animals" in a four-day season.
But that doesn't mean that lots of really old bucks are ambling in Ripley's woods
"You hear stories of bucks 7 to 10 years old, but most of the trophies that come out are only 4 to 5 years old,'' he said.
And Liddell said overall, the deer population is about 0.5 years older than the statewide deer population.
"It's not an old herd,'' he said. The average buck taken is 2.5 years old.
But the hunting restrictions and topography of the area mean deer densities, about 30 per square mile pre-harvest, is high. Hunters kill about 500 deer -- or 20 percent of the estimated 2,400 whitetails there.
Liddell said several factors -- including a wolf pack that roams the area -- explain why the population requires relatively little harvest to control. Also, deer-human conflicts, such as crop depredation, are fewer in the encampment than in the state at large. So intense efforts to restrict the herd's size aren't necessary.
For these reasons and others, there's little chance hunting opportunities will be increased.
Military officials, for example, can't forgo additional training days to allow more hunting, said Liddell, especially with wars still raging around the globe. The archery hunt also costs the DNR money, around $50,000 a year, or about $100 per harvested deer.
"That's pretty expensive,'' he said.
It includes an assortment of costs, including military fees, portable toilets and garbage pickup. And conducting the hunt is a huge amount of work for the DNR, he said.
"It keeps us from doing other things in the fall. Adding just one more weekend would be hard to justify.''
Another big one
Alan Helmin wasn't the only archer to experience a hunt of a lifetime at Ripley last week.
Dan Stavrum, 63, of St. Cloud shot his first deer with a bow and arrow there 45 years ago.
"I quit 20 or 25 years ago when they went to a lottery system,'' he said. Then, two years ago, he returned, bagging a buck and a doe.
He was drawn for a permit again this year, and last Thursday, he and a buddy avoided the early-morning crowd. Stavrum didn't climb into his stand until 9 a.m.
An hour later, he arrowed a 14-point, 224-pound buck at 30 yards.
"It was exciting,'' he said. "I've never shot one anywhere near that size.''
Stavrum likes the hunting access Camp Ripley provides.
"It's a good hunt. It makes sense. I just wish it was longer than two days.''
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org