Big Buck Contest to help raise funds for United Way

If a deer hunter tells you they spend two weeks in a tree stand freezing their fingers and toes just to fill the freezer with meat and not to bag a trophy buck and show off a little, they are probably lying.

I speak from experience.

It’s an undeniable part of the deer hunting experience.

But deer hunting is about more than bragging rights and big bucks – it’s also about family, tradition and community.

Erin Shay, the Executive Director of the United Way of Northeastern Minnesota most likely understands all of this, which helps explain why she and officials from UWNEMN have decided to turn to deer hunters to help raise some money for a very popular program in the area via their first ever Big Buck Contest.

Money raised from the contest will be used to help fund the Imagination Library – a program where free books are mailed directly to enrolled families’ homes on a monthly basis. If a child is enrolled at birth, they end up with a library of 60 books by the time they enter kindergarten.

“We wanted to try something new to engage with our local community members, especially since we aren’t able to connect with our donors in the workplace as we have in the past through our annual fall campaign,” Shay said. “Deer hunting is one of Minnesotan’s favorite pastimes and something that unites a lot of people across our region.”

The idea to tap into the hunting market grew out of a need to find alternative ways to raise funds due to restrictive Covid-19 gathering rules in place in Minnesota for much of the year.

UWNEMN officials traditionally raise money for the library program during the organization’s women’s Power of the Purse event each January. They also have many donors from area companies add an additional amount to their annual contribution to support the program.

But uncertainty about whether Power of the Purse can be held this year and the inability to talk with potential contributors about the program, has officials expecting to see a decline in annual contributions for Imagination Library, Shay said.

The program costs the local United Way about $70,000 each year to fund with an average of about 2,700 children enrolled at any given time.

UWNEMN has been supporting the Imagination Library program locally since 2007. It’s extremely popular with families that have benefited from it, Shay said.

“We know that learning to read is the single most important step a child can take to be successful in school, and for parents the earlier you can foster the interest in reading and books the better,” Shay said. “One of the best things about the program is that it is open to all families regardless of income. Our goal is to get books into the hands of every single child in our region. This becomes even more important when so many of us are at home so much more often, due to the pandemic.”

Here’s how the Big Buck contest works.

Hunters register online at or by mailing in a paper registration form before the rifle season starts on Nov. 7. Kids who hunted in the recent Youth Firearms Deer Season are also eligible to enter this contest.

Entry is $10 for youth and $20 for adults. Everyone entered is automatically put in a drawing to win one adult and one youth Minnesota Lifetime Hunting License. That’s a $500 to $750 value depending on age.

When registration is submitted, hunters also receive instructions on how to upload buck photos.

Hunters who bag a buck upload a photo using the link provided to be entered to win prizes. Big buck prizes (L&M supply gift cards) will be awarded for biggest buck in the following divisions: Adult male hunter 18 or older ($250); adult female hunter 18 or older ($250), and youth hunter, ages 10 to 17 ($100)., Adult (18+) Female Hunter, and Youth (10-17) Hunter.

There will also be a $100 gift card for the most nontypical rack.

A panel of judges will review buck photos for most points and biggest spread to determine the winner of each category and judging will be broadcast on Facebook Live on Dec. 1.

The only other rule: You have to live or hunt in the UWNEMN service area which in St. Louis County covers Saginaw north all the way to the Canadian border which then enters into their territory in the Koochiching County region. They also cover the western part of Itasca county which is Pengilly to Keewatin.

“We just want to make it clear that people can live, work or hunt in our service territory to be eligible for the contest,” said Shay. “So for example, if someone lives in Duluth, but hunts in Gheen, they can register. If someone lives in Ely, but hunts in Southern Minnesota they can also register.”

The contest was planned on relatively short notice and announced the first week in October. Nonetheless, the response so far has been excellent, and Shay is hoping it becomes an annual tradition.

“We had a flurry of registrations come through shortly thereafter and they continue to come in daily so I would say we have pretty good interest in the event so far,” Shay said. “Being a new event, it may take a year or two to build the registration base, but we definitely think the event will be a success and we plan to host this each fall moving forward.”


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