APPLETON, Minn. — His role as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife manager for the Appleton, Minn., area places him amidst some of the state’s most popular, public hunting lands in Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties.
And from his home overlooking the shores of Marsh Lake, it’s fair to say some of the region’s best hunting opportunities are found right out of Curt Vacek’s front door.
Yet he started this year’s hunting season at a trailhead at 9,400 feet elevation in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in northwest Colorado. With two llamas helping carry their load, Vacek and friend Alex Galt, a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Morris, Minn., climbed to more than 11,000 feet, making camp on Sept. 8 on an alpine landscape covered by 18 inches of new snow. A trophy mule deer was Vacek’s goal.
Just a few weeks later, Vacek and four others set up camp on the Great Plains of eastern Wyoming, where they were free to roam miles of open range land in search of antelope.
A desire for the challenges of big game hunting, adventure and the spacious, public lands found in our western states continues to lure Vacek west every autumn, this year of the pandemic being no exception.
“Always dreamt of it,” said Vacek of his passion for hunting western lands. He grew up in Silver Lake, Minn., where his father and an uncle nurtured his love for the outdoors and hunting. Family trips to his mother’s birthplace of Great Falls, Mont., introduced him to the open landscapes of the West. And without a doubt, his insatiable appetite for the hunting adventures he read about in the pages of outdoor magazines as a youth helped steer him West.
After high school it was off to Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minn., and a two-year degree in natural resources. It led to a series of seasonal, outdoor jobs from North Dakota to the Arctic National Range in Alaska.
But seasonal work without health insurance wasn’t cutting it. In 1994 he enrolled at South Dakota State University in Brookings for a four-year degree in wildlife management. He followed up his wildlife degree with graduate projects that led him to Hudson Bay, Canada, and to the ranch lands butting up against the Black Hills of South Dakota. Ranchers opened their lands to the eager hunter.
Opportunity opened up for him too. He joined the Minnesota DNR as an assistant wildlife manager in Sauk Rapids, Minn., before accepting his current manager position in Appleton.
Ever since 1998, he’s been starting autumn with western hunting adventures. Elk hunting in the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming, along with hunts for mule deer and antelope have become the staples. There was also a caribou hunt in Alaska, part of a 26-mile float down a wilderness river.
Galt did not have a tag to harvest a mule deer when he joined Vacek for their adventure this September, but he had the llamas. He purchased them just over a year and a half ago solely for their use as pack animals for hunting trips in the mountains.
“I think about western hunting a lot,” Galt said. Caring for llamas on his 15-acre property in Minnesota keeps him connected to it all year, he explained.
He said the opportunity to accompany Vacek meant he could learn from an accomplished hunter, and pick up on the nuances that cannot be learned from YouTube or podcasts. “It was an opportunity to see how he looks at the landscape in front of him,” Galt said.
Anyone can purchase lightweight gear and hike up in the mountains for a week, and maybe even spot the animals they seek. “But there is a big difference between just finding animals in that type of country and getting up close enough to ‘em to get a shot, whether it’s with a rifle or archery equipment.”
Vacek knows how to make the difference, Galt said.
Understanding your game is the starting point. Vacek said he realized long ago that if he wanted to hunt wildlife, he needed to study wildlife.
Western trails are busier than ever these days, and you’ll encounter more hunters in search of game, Vacek said. He advises being mobile and flexible.
Being successful doesn’t necessarily mean going the farthest into the wilderness. “Hunt smarter not harder,” Vacek said.
He’s been on plenty of elk hunts where he’s watched hunters trek far into the wilderness, disappearing as if they’re looking for the Northwest Passage. Yet if the one watering hole available to the elk happens to be near the main highway, all of that backcountry hiking may not produce, he pointed out.
Vacek said his preference tends to be the “sweet spot” in the backcountry between those not willing to venture too far from the trail head, and those who cannot get far enough from it.
He also knows the importance of scouting. His family's summer vacation this year was in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in Colorado, which he scouted in anticipation of the September hunt.
For the first three days of the hunt, Vacek and Galt glassed the rock strewn mountains for mule deer. They scanned 1,000 foot switchbacks. No mule deer were to be seen. Thanks to the llamas, they had a full nine days' worth of supplies.
True to Vacek’s strategy to be flexible, they made their way down to a portion of forest regenerating from a recent burn. It’s a habitat that Vacek knows mule deer like. They encountered their first mule deer as soon as they reached the burn scar.
And soon, Vacek saw the big rack moving through the brush. He maneuvered himself for a 15-yard shot. “Don’t screw up, don’t screw up,” he said he kept repeating to himself before squeezing the rifle trigger.
The velvet covered antlers will measure between 175 and 180 inches and with brow tines qualify as a five by five rack.
A few weeks later he claimed another trophy, this time a buck antelope he spotted and stalked over the open country of Wyoming.
He returned home with the best yet to come. Waterfowl and pheasant hunting on the home turf in western Minnesota, to be followed by whitetail deer hunting come November. His first hunt back home involved taking his son, Luke, and his pals in pursuit of geese.
All of the harvested animals become table fare at the Vacek home, where it’s rare when any meat other than wild game is served.
He married his wife Sara in 2001, and jokes that today she is a “recovering vegetarian.” While she had once favored a plant-based diet, she has more than endorsed his appreciation for harvesting wild meat. She’s become a hunter as well.
There's plenty of variety in their menu at home. An avid archer, Vacek hunts turkey exclusively with his bow. He has harvested some of his biggest game with stick and string as well.
And when he's not hunting, he's often casting his line for walleye and other game fish in area waters.
The freedom to roam public lands and harvest game is an American tradition. It takes planning and preparation, but he points out that it’s something that anyone with a love for the outdoors can enjoy.
He's already planning next year's adventure. He and a friend in Alaska are talking about Sitka deer in Prince William Sound.