FLOODWOOD, Minn. — If you hunt deer in the woods north and west of Duluth and think you might be getting away with something this season, you might want to watch over your shoulder on Saturday morning, Nov. 9.
Jake Willis may be watching you.
On Thursday, as deer hunters across Minnesota began heading north to open up their deer shacks and check deer stands in advance of the Saturday opener, Willis, the Minnesota conservation officer who works the so-called Brookston Station, was busy checking for potential violations before they happen.
Especially baiting. It turns out that not only is baiting the most common violation during Minnesota’s firearms deer hunting season, it’s also the No. 1 phoned-in tip made by other hunters to the state’s Turn in Poachers hotline.
“We get a lot of tips on baiting. When somebody sees their neighbor trying to break the rules, they love to call it in,’’ Willis said.
His goal is to use the anonymous tips, find the bait piles in the days before the season starts and then come back on Saturday to catch the baiter in the act of hunting over corn, apples, pumpkins or whatever. That will be a $300 fine, loss of the rifle and loss of hunting privileges for one year (two years if a big buck is down near the bait pile).
“I think a lot of people who do it (baiting deer) are mostly lazy. It’s not hunting, really. It’s waiting to shoot,’’ Willis said.
Willis has four or five potential baiting spots ready to check on Saturday morning. After that, he’ll be busy responding to 911 calls on trespass violations, people shooting too close to someone else’s home or cabin, people shooting from trucks or across a road, or poachers using lights to shine and shoot deer at night.
On Thursday he was pre-checking a spot where a brother-and-sister property line feud had been getting ugly. He was hoping to lay down the law to keep the family from fisticuffs once the season started.
“I’ll probably work 120 hours over the 16 days’’ of deer season, Willis said.
But it’s a labor of love. Willis, an avid outdoorsman, is a Duluth native who went from being a Duluth city (and previously UMD) cop to game warden, trading his downtown beat for a backwoods patrol. He loves the freedom of his new gig. He’s been at the Brookston station about 20 months.
“It’s something different every day,’’ he said.
His favorite part of the job is the one-on-one contact with perfectly legal hunters and anglers, snowmobilers and ATV riders — the kind of good-natured connection that helps make friends out of potential foes. On a logging road north of Duluth, Willis stopped to talk with Rick Misiewicz of Saginaw and Misiewicz’s dog, Lucy. The duo were out checking Misiewicz’s deer stands.
Misiewicz wasn’t expecting to see many deer come Saturday. But he also didn’t seem to mind.
“I’ve been deer hunting for about 50 years now and now I don’t really care if I get one,’’ he said. “I like seeing deer. It’s fun getting out. But it’s been a few years since I got a buck up here.”
Willis also ran into University of Minnesota Duluth students Austin Kanner and Payton Zirpel getting in a little grouse hunting after classes and before deer hunters take to the woods.
“I might try to sneak out (deer hunting) after this weekend. But I think it’s going to be pretty crazy on this state land on opening day, and I really don’t know where to go,” Kanner said.
Willis said his station is some 860 square miles, one of the largest among the 155 conservation officer field stations statewide. It covers most of the southwestern corner of St. Louis County, from western Duluth to the Aitkin County line.
His big ¾-ton diesel GMC pickup is his office: “I live in this thing,” he noted. A fully licensed police officer, as all state wardens are, he may respond to a drunken driver call one hour, a domestic dispute the next and then reports of shots fired near a house — all between his contacts with orange-clad hunters.
“For the next 16 days virtually everyone I have contact with will be carrying a loaded rifle. We have to be aware of that,’’ Willis said while driving down a back road. “But, you know, most everyone is good. Most people are obeying the laws and having a good time. That’s what makes the job fun.”
Still, Willis said he also likes the sleuthing part — like walking five miles through a spruce swamp the night before to find one more bait pile that one illegal hunter probably thinks is too far out in the woods to ever get caught.
At another deer camp just off a highway, Willis investigated a report of a deer feeder near the hunting shack. The feeder was indeed there, but empty. The camp hunters were abiding by state law to stop feeding deer near hunting areas at least 10 days before the season starts.
“I will admit one of the fun parts of the job is sneaking around and catching’’ the bad guys, Willis said. “At least once in a while.”