On the first day of deer season, Minnesota DNR conservation officer Matt Frericks got ready for work knowing it was going to be a long day.
“Everybody and their brother is out there,” he says. “That’s when we’re going to find a lot of our violations.”
For a while, he’d suspected a hunter out in the Eveleth area of deer baiting: leaving a pile of food – corn, usually – in order to lure the animal onto your property and shoot it. It’s illegal in Minnesota. First thing that morning, he checked out the hunter’s favorite spot. No luck. But when he came back that evening, sure enough, there was the hunter, and a freshly dead deer.
The conversation started the way they always do, Frericks says. Friendly. “Oh, officer, what brings you out here?” and “What can I do for you?”
“Any bait around here?” Frericks asked the hunter.
“There shouldn’t be,” he replied.
(They always say, “there shouldn’t be,” Frericks has learned.)
“You’re darn right ‘there shouldn’t be,’ but there is,’” he told the hunter, kicking aside the snow to reveal the bait.
This is just one of the ways Frericks catches hunters breaking the rules. He’s caught people trespassing, taking too many deer, taking a deer in the wrong zone, hunting without a license -- oh, if he only had a nickel for every time a hunter would pat his pockets like he was going to magically find a nonexistent license. He's even caught hunters sweeping through fields at night with a spotlight, hoping to petrify deer long enough to pop one off and bag an easy trophy.
Frericks and the DNR assessed this deer-baiting hunter a fine of a few hundred dollars, added another few hundred as restitution for killing a deer he didn’t deserve, and then snagged a trophy of their own: the guy’s gun.
Conservation officers seize hunting rifles as a deterrent to illegal hunting. Yeah, the hunter can just buy another one, but the added loss usually stings a little. They take the deer, too. If it’s in good shape, it’s gifted to anyone interested in taking it. If not, it's left out in a wildlife management area for scavenging animals.
What about all those guns? Soon enough, they're for sale.
Every year or two, the Minnesota DNR auctions off all the equipment they’ve confiscated. This year’s August auction, in Zimmerman, will feature roughly 200 guns, 30 or 40 bows, and a mess of fishing rods and other equipment, all taken off of crooked hunters in the past 18 months. They’re all guns that shot baited deer, or bows that took a pheasant out of season, or fishing poles that reeled in one fish over the limit.
“It’s about average, for a year and a half,” confiscation supervisor Patty Holt says. The last auction, the DNR had 387 guns.
The department can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars selling the confiscated equipment. That money's dumped directly into the state’s game and fish fund. Prices vary widely, depending entirely on the room. Some guns go for $10. Some go for $1,500.
If you’re in Zimmerman for the auction and you bid well, you could end up buying the rifle of Frericks’ Eveleth deer baiter. Or the Eveleth deer baiter could buy it back. That occasionally happens, Holt says: Hunters come back to reclaim what they lost chasing ill-gotten gains. It’s fine, she says; everyone is really well-behaved, and they’re allowed a shot at getting their equipment back, on one condition:
“They just have to be the highest bidder,” she says.