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Decoys deflect illegal hunting

Conservation officer Randy Hanzal had been getting more calls this fall about hunters shooting at deer from roadways. So, he loaded up his deer decoy and headed for the woods.

Hanzal is a Duluth-area conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Deer decoys - some with moving parts - have long been a tool that conservation officers use. Hanzal, along with some fellow conservation officers, teamed up to use it during Minnesota's firearms deer season.

"We use it when we get a lot of reports of people shooting from the road," Hanzal said.

Hanzal reminds hunters that it's illegal to shoot at big game from an improved road, which includes the roadway, the shoulder and the entire ditch.

After placing the decoy off the road some distance, a conservation officer typically waits nearby, and other officers also are nearby in their vehicles, Hanzal said. Hunters' antics, when they see the handsome buck, are completely unpredictable.

"You see everything. It's pretty comical," he said. "We sit in the ditch and giggle like girls sometimes."

Once, Hanzal was sitting about 20 feet away in the ditch when a hunter got out to shoot the decoy.

"He said, 'I smoked that deer,' " Hanzal said. "And the deer was still standing there. I thought, 'Is he looking at the same deer I am?' "

In one case, two hunters got out of the car, Hanzal said. The first began sneaking away from the road to try to ambush the buck legally. But his partner couldn't wait.

"He yelled, 'I got it' and shot it from the roadway," Hanzal said.

Different groups take different approaches when they see the fake buck.

"Some people stop and honk, trying to scare it, trying to get it to run," he said. "Or several hunters will line up and be firing all at once. Sometimes, a guy will yell (to his buddy who has missed the deer), 'You're a bad shot.' Then he'll step out and take a shot."

Some cases are more disheartening to Hanzal.

"The more disturbing ones are, literally within seconds of stopping, shooting right out the window," Hanzal said. "The other thing I saw this year, you'd see a person with quite a few juveniles in the car, and one actually took a shot."

"Last year, someone from a camp called to complain about hunters shooting from the road. I didn't tell them, but I went out to that area and set up the decoy. We ended up getting one of the guys in their camp."

Shooting from a roadway is dangerous, Hanzal said, because hunters often don't know what's beyond their target. One woman, hunting legally from within her enclosed deer stand, told Hanzal that the bullet from another hunter's rifle, fired from a nearby road, tore through the brush right below her stand.

Shooting from a road also can lead to trespassing issues, Hanzal said.

Hunters engrossed in shooting at the decoy are sometimes hard to distract, he said.

"They get pretty fixated," Hanzal said. "We've had officers walk right up behind them and almost tap them on the shoulder and ask them to quit shooting."

Once caught, most hunters are embarrassed. Many utter an expletive or two about the DNR.

The decoys, as you might expect, get beat up in a hurry. A decoy can cost between $1,200 and $1,500, Hanzal said. The DNR has considered adding a restitution charge to the fine a hunter pays for shooting at a decoy just to cover replacement costs, Hanzal said.

Hanzal said the law that was changed two years ago allowing hunters to carry uncased guns in vehicles has led to more road hunting and shooting from the road.

"I think it (the law) gives additional opportunity to the bad people, the people who want to violate," he said.

Numbers up

Minnesota hunters have registered 171,000 deer since the firearms season opened Nov. 6, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported Tuesday.

With more deer to be registered and the muzzleloader deer season under way, hunters are on pace to exceed the 195,000 harvested in 2009, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program coordinator.

New rules allowing telephone and online registration of deer that are shot have given the DNR quicker numbers on deer shot. Fifty-four percent of hunters are using the new registration system as opposed to taking their deer to a registration station.

The muzzleloader season runs through Sunday.

Ice not ready

DNR officers are warning that everyone should be careful when it comes to ice conditions. Here are a few reports filed Sunday demonstrating the dangers of this ice:

Tricia Plautz (Henning) reports anglers are venturing onto the ice. Ice conditions vary and people should be very careful. The officer and a deputy were able to free a deer that had broken through the ice. The officers broke a path using a canoe and a pry bar so the deer could get to shore and out of the water.

Jeff Johanson (Osakis) assisted the Douglas County Sheriff's Office dive team rescue a deer that had fallen through the ice. The dive team used a hovercraft to get to the deer and bring it to shore.

Brad Schultz (Cook) reports a snowmobiler broke through thin ice in a swamp and had to be rescued.

Lisa Kruse (White Bear Lake) assisted Washington County and Lake Elmo Fire Department with a deer stuck on the ice of a local lake. Unfortunately, the deer didn't survive the incident.