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Big deer lurk in unexpected places in Minnesota River bottoms

Renville County offers a special archery hunt during November and December in five of its parks in the Minnesota River Valley. It's a chance for those selected to harvest a big buck in a county best known for farming, but the hunters are also drawn by the beauty and quiet they enjoy in the river valley woodlands.

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Ben Trochlil harvested this eight-point buck in Renville County's Skalbekken Park in 2014, the first year the special archery hunt was offered in Renville County parks along the Minnesota River. Contributed photo
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OLIVIA, Minn. — Just about everyone knows that Renville County produces big crops of corn, soybeans and sugar beets.

There are whitetail deer hunters who know something else about this ag country county: It can produce some big-antlered deer.

They’re found in the woodlands of the Minnesota River Valley along the county’s southern border.

It’s where Tim Werner arrowed his 11-point buck on Nov. 11. It was 100 yards away when Werner first spotted the big antlers cautiously moving through the woods and brush. He didn’t expect to get a shot.

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Tim Werner arrowed this 11-pointer in Renville County's Skalbekken Park on Nov. 11, 2021. Contributed

All of a sudden, when the buck was about 75 yards away, it stopped and changed course toward Werner. He was perched in a tree stand with his bow at the ready. When the buck was about 30 yards out: “I got him to stop and put a good shot on him,” said Werner.

He had the woods pretty much to himself that day. He was hunting in Renville County’s Skalbekken Park along the Minnesota River, just a few miles from his home. He was among 32 hunters who were chosen earlier in the year by lottery to participate in a special archery hunt allowed in the parks from Nov. 1 through year’s end.

By the luck of the draw, each hunter selects one of 32 zones spread out among five different parks: Skalbekken, Beaver Falls, Vicksburg, Mack Lake and Anderson Lake. It assures that there is no crowding or interference for each hunter.

Ever since 2014, Renville County has opened up more than 1,100 acres of its wooded parklands along the river for the archery hunt.

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Five Renville County parks in the Minnesota River Valley host a special archery hunt in November and December. Each hunter is assigned a zone to hunt. The hunters pick the available zones by the order in which they are drawn in the lottery held to award the 32 available locations in the five county parks. Map shows the zones in Vicksburg Park, one of the five. Contributed

The hunt helps manage a deer population so they do not over-browse the diverse, native plants in the parks, according to Jesse Diehn, supervisor for the parks.

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The hunt is also seen as a way to help introduce people to the parks and provide more opportunities to enjoy them. “You’d be surprised at the number of people (who have) these parks in their backyards and they don’t even know about it or have never been through them,” said Diehn.

There are a variety of special hunts offered in Minnesota each year, from firearm hunts in state parks to archery hunts in some municipalities. Diehn said Renville County chose an archery hunt because it can be offered safely.

It didn’t take long before word got out about the chances of harvesting big deer in the river bottoms. In the first year of the hunt, Ben Trochlil harvested a wall-hanger and photos of him and the deer circulated quickly.

While the river valley holds a good deer population, hunters definitely have to work for their opportunities in the parks, said Diehn. Since its start, the average total harvest by the hunters has been only four deer per year.

Diehn suspects that the low average is due to the practice of many hunters to pass on antlerless deer in hopes of getting a big buck. In previous years, the Deer Permit Area for the parks had a one-deer limit.

This year the area allows a two-deer limit, and harvest numbers are already higher. Larry Gunderson had a parade of nice does saunter by his stand on the first day of his hunt in Mack Lake Park, and he picked the best one.

“I was home by noon,” said Gunderson, who is retired from farming in the central part of the county. “That’s just the way it happens.”

Gunderson hunted another county park the year before and never got a shot, he said. He saw lots of nighttime images of nice deer on his trail camera, but never had one come within proper range.

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Park hunter Dave Fisher, a member of the county's Park and Trails Committee, said he appreciates having a place that he knows he can hunt. He has access to hunting land owned by friends, but getting drawn for the county park hunt gives him a place certain for his fall bow hunting, he explained.

The chance to get a deer is part of it, but not all, he said.

“I enjoy the outdoors. Enjoy the parks. Always have,” he said.

He hunts from a ground blind. He’ll sit quietly with a novel in hand, reading while also scanning for movement outside the blind. On Nov. 3, he glanced up to see a very nice doe about 20 yards out.

“I thought that will look good in the freezer,” said Fisher.

He was very happy to take the doe, knowing too that he can return and try for a buck with a two-deer limit in the area this year.

“Some of the guys kind of wait for the bigger horns,” said Fisher. “I’m more of a meat hunter myself.”

Diehn said the hunters who apply for the hunt do so for a wide variety of reasons, but share one thing. Just about all of them let him know at some point how much they appreciate being out in the parks.

He said most of the participants are experienced hunters, but not all. Two years ago, he said a mother and her 13-year-old son gave it a try.

All hunters must show completion of the Minnesota archery safety program, and submit copies of their archery license when applying. The number of applicants each year has been in the 40s. Those not drawn get preference points for the next year’s drawing.

A true measure of how much the hunters enjoy the hunt is seen in the number of repeat applicants each year, said Diehn. Whether successful or not, most of the hunters apply every year, he said.

It’s also why a lot of these hunters tend to keep quiet about the hunt. As a member of the county’s Park and Trails Committee, Fisher said he loves to promote the parks and the hunt.

“I like to promote it, but hate to see too many people want to join it,” said Fisher. “I might not get in.”

Information on the parks and the hunts is available on the county’s website .

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Kevin Sponsier is shown with the nice buck he harvested in Renville County's Beaver Falls Park in November 2021. The county has permitted some hunting in its parks along the Minnesota River. Contributed photo

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