Thousands of Minnesota deer hunters will take to the woods for the season opener this weekend, but many people don't wait for the season to shoot a deer. The DNR says poaching is on the increase and poachers kill hundreds of deer illegally every year, some for money, some apparently just for fun.
It's just getting dark as Minnesota Conservation officer Al Peterson drives to meet partner Greg Oldakowski between Detroit Lakes and Park Rapids.
Peterson says a local farmer has reported hearing gunshots at night. Like many tips it's not much to go on.
"A set of headlights or tail lights; a rifle shot, maybe a spotlight," he says, "there's no way to identify anybody from that. So it just gets us into the area knowing it's going on."
“And then there's trophy hunters too. You find the headless ones.”Greg Oldakowski, DNR
The plan is to set up a deer decoy near the road and see if anyone stops to shine a spotlight on it, or take a shot.
They get permission from the farmer, and head to a spot they scouted earlier along a narrow gravel road.
A cold rain falls as they carry the deer decoy through the ditch and set it up. The decoy has a remote controlled head and tail to add realism.
The setup is mostly done in the dark, with just a small flashlight. Peterson says stealth is critical to catching poachers. Once the decoy is in place the officers drive about a quarter mile with lights out and park their trucks out of sight on a trail. They hike back to where they can watch the decoy and wait in the rain.
Oldakowski and Peterson talk about recent calls reporting dead deer. They've all been the work of poachers, and Oldakowski says people are not illegally killing deer for the meat.
"What I'm seeing is more deer shot and laid. I used to find drag marks out to the road and stuff like that," Oldakowski says. "I'm not seeing as much as that. They're shooting them [and] letting them lay.
"And then there's trophy hunters too. You find the headless ones."
There is a strong market for trophy deer antlers. Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Executive Director Mark Johnson says a large set of antlers can sell for thousands of dollars.
Johnson says the Deer Hunters Association will ask the legislature next year to increase fines for poaching. He says if a trophy rack sells for thousands of dollars and the fine for poaching is only a few hundred, there's no economic deterrent for poachers.
As the officers watch the decoy, a sudden flash of light from the opposite direction reflects off the low hanging clouds.
The sound of an engine floats across the countryside. The officers guess the vehicle with a spotlight is a half mile to a mile away. But the driver never approaches the decoy, instead turning on to another of the maze of roads winding through the trees and fields. The officers know from experience it would be futile to chase a spotlight when they're not even sure exactly where it is.
That's just one of the frustrations of chasing poachers.
Another is uncooperative landowners. Some landowners do whatever they can to help catch poachers, but that's not always the case.
Greg Oldakowski recalls a man who called to complain he'd found two dead deer in his field, so Oldakowski asked for permission to set up a deer decoy. He said the man asked if he could tell his brother.
"Already knowing the answer to the question, I said, so what you're telling me is you want me to catch all the poachers except your brother?" Oldakowski says.
The man never called back.
Oldakowski says this is similar to other complaints as well. Another man who called about dead deer, but wouldn't let them put a decoy out because they gave his father a ticket the previous fall.
Al Peterson says other people worry they'll get a reputation among neighbors as a rat if they help the DNR.
After standing in the rain for a couple of hours, the officers load up the decoy and go their separate ways, to stake out other locations where poaching activity has been reported.
Al Peterson writes warning tickets for two teenagers he catches shining a spotlight into a field. They don't have a gun in the car, so they avoid more serious charges.
A couple more times during the night spotlights flash across the sky, but none are close enough to pursue. It's hard to quantify how many deer are killed illegally in Minnesota.
"We don't know how much goes on out there because people get away with stuff and we never hear about it," says DNR Enforcement Division Director Jim Konrad.
There are about 145 conservation officers covering Minnesota. That means each officer covers a large area. Al Peterson says he's trying to cover several hundred square miles of woods and prairie, and that means most poachers will likely not be caught.
But Peterson will be waiting in dark fields many more times this fall, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to catch a poacher in action.