Member’s Hunt: A Priceless Deer

posted on April 8, 2023
MH A Priceless Deer Lead

By Dan Nygaard, Big Lake, Minn.

The annual gathering of bowhunters at the 53,000-acre Camp Ripley in Minnesota is one of the world’s largest public hunts. Each year thousands of arrow-slingers gather at Camp Ripley to chase legendary bucks and to partake in the craziness. I participated in the hunt for years before releasing my first arrow.

For the three-day hunt, approximately 2,000 hunters mass at the gate waiting for the morning tree-rush. Hunters line up 24 hours in advance so they can claim their secret spot before 50 other people do. Although Camp Ripley is enormous, there are only so many places 2,000 people can go. One morning, someone was in the exact tree I had targeted.

People camp in various structures, from fancy to bizarre homemade shelters. While I’m usually one of the campers, one year I decided to drive up at 3 a.m., which put me near the back of the 2-mile-long line. When the gates opened hours later, the line crawled since we are required to stop and hear the same speech we hear every year about leaving on time and staying out of areas where they drop bombs; after all, Camp Ripley is military base.

I breached the gate past daybreak knowing people were already shooting deer. Shortly after climbing my tree, I noticed a big buck running on the next ridge over before disappearing. When that same deer came back along the same line 10 minutes later, I wished I was 100 yards north. Almost on cue, the deer turned sharply and headed right at me.

I stood up and grabbed my bow. As it came within range, I grunted and it froze 18 yards away. The arrow hit the mark and the big buck bolted over the ridge. Although it is a good practice to give a hit deer time to expire, the rules change when there are 2,000 other carnivores in the woods. I found a blood trail and began a very slow track. Being colorblind hinders my tracking speed unless it’s a gusher.

Two hours and 100 yards later, I worried that I wasn’t going to find the buck I knew was dead. When I glanced in the direction the buck was headed, I saw another hunter standing next to a pond. I called to him and asked if he saw the big buck I was tracking. My anguish transformed to joy when he said the big buck was down.

After scooting down the hill, I asked him where it was. He pointed to a brown hump in the middle of the pond. Two hours ago he saw the buck race downhill, jump in the pond and expire in the middle of it. He was hanging out wondering if anyone was going to claim the prize. 

With the temperature of the air and water just above freezing, there weren’t many options. After asking my new friend if he would stick around to rescue me if needed, I stripped down to my underwear and braced myself for the shock. The water felt like a frozen acupuncture treatment as I floated the buck to dry ground. After reaching shore, I stood there shaking, hoping I could dry off before getting dressed. At that moment, it struck me that the scene may seem odd to passing hunters, so I decided wet clothes were better than no clothes.

That was the last time I was cold that day. My new friend left and I dragged the 200-pound, 10-point buck to the nearest road, 10 feet at a time. I even dragged it under the stand of someone who made a call while pretending he didn’t see me. His friend greeted me at my truck by claiming he hit the same buck miles away and suggested I give the deer to him. After finding only a minor flesh wound on the deer, his tone changed before offering to buy it. He really wanted that deer.  

After striking out for years, driving two hours, waiting in line four hours, tracking the deer two hours, taking a polar plunge and dragging it out for another two hours, that buck was priceless.

Do you have an exciting, unusual or humorous hunting experience to share? 
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