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Elk hunt offers more than retirement trip

Travis Mathson, left, and Curt Howe, right, consider their options while elk hunting on Sept. 26 near Grygla. Brad Dokken/Grand Forks Herald

GRYGLA -- Curt Howe had banked on two elk hunts this fall, stashing money away every paycheck for the past three years to finance a guided trip to Alberta in mid-September and buying a license to join a cousin in Oregon on a November hunting excursion.

But he hadn't planned on a third hunt just an hour's drive from home.

That all changed in mid-August, when Howe, of Thief River Falls, got a call from his stepson, Travis Mathson, while on a fishing trip to Lake of the Woods.

The conversation, as Howe recalls, went something like this:

"You're not going to believe what came in the mail today," Mathson said.

"I said, 'Don't tell me we got an elk tag for Minnesota,' " Howe replied.

The answer, of course, was yes they had. The two had jointly applied for a single elk license -- Howe had applied for years without success -- and beat the odds to draw one of the 15 tags the Department of Natural Resources awarded this year near Grygla.

Their cow tag was for the second season, which began Sept. 26 and continued through Oct. 4. The DNR offered five tags in each of three seasons near Grygla, and all but two of the 15 once-in-a-lifetime licenses were for antlerless elk only.

Renewed hope

For Howe, 62, who retired in May as buildings and grounds supervisor for the Thief River Falls Parks and Recreation Department, the Grygla hunt offered renewed hope after an Alberta trip in which high expectations collided with harsh reality.

He'd driven more than 1,250 miles one-way to a hunting camp near Grande Prairie, Alberta, only to find that a September heat wave had put the elk in a funk.

In six hard days of hunting, Howe hadn't seen a single animal.

"Not a hair," he said. "We heard one bugle one night, but that was it."

Howe only was home for a day when he shifted his sights to Grygla, where things took a quick turn for the better. He and Mathson, 25, were scouting at dusk a couple of days before season when they spotted a small herd of elk grazing in a soybean field.

They didn't watch long to avoid spooking the animals. Howe talked to the landowner, who willingly gave them permission to hunt. That was his experience throughout the scouting process, he said. Grygla's elk herd has a checkered history, and many farmers have reported depredation problems over the years. It's in their best interests for the hunters with elk tags to be successful.

"I talked to a lot of people," Howe said. "I started calling the Friday after we got our permit. Everybody we asked was willing and very cooperative. They're nice people -- polite and willing to help."

The luck factor

The afternoon of opening day, Howe and Mathson were set up in the brush at the edge of the soybean field where they'd spotted elk a couple of nights earlier.

An observer who tagged along waited farther back in the brush, hoping for the sound of a rifle shot.

According to Howe, their plan was to try and take the first big cow elk that wandered into shooting range. If that didn't happen, he said, it wouldn't be because they hadn't done their homework.

The rest was up to luck -- and being in the right place at the right time.

That's always the wild card.

A warm, stiff wind continued to swirl as the sun dipped toward the western horizon. There was no shortage of signs that elk had been here. Large swaths of grass and willows were trampled in places. Huge tracks sank into relatively dry ground at the edge of the field.

But even the best-laid plans are prone to the unexpected.

The first strike was an old tractor working near the soybean field they were hunting. The tractor's loud "putt-putt" suggested an older-model John Deere.

The question was whether the noise would spook the elk.

The wind didn't help; it seemed to change direction every few seconds.

"All we can do is hope for the best, Trav," Howe said to Mathson. "I hope we didn't make a mistake by coming here."

Strike two arrived about half an hour later, when Howe spotted two people walking along the edge of the state land that bordered the soybean field several hundred yards away. One wore blaze orange, the other a gray jacket.

Might have been grouse hunters, might have been elk hunters.

Either way, they weren't a welcome sight.

Mathson stood up to signal his and Howe's presence, and the intruders left.

There was nothing to do but watch and wait and listen to sounds that seemed amplified hunkered in the brush: cars passing on a nearby highway, wind swirling through the trees.

A large bird, perhaps an owl, took flight from an unseen perch and nearly stopped the heart of the observer who'd joined Howe and Mathson.

They would see one elk this opening-day afternoon, an impressive bull that wandered out of the woods near the end of shooting hours. It stood less than 30 yards away, nibbling soybeans, occasionally raising its head in caution.

That went on for more than a minute before the bull decided something wasn't right and bolted for the safety of the woods.

With only a cow tag, all Howe and Mathson could do was watch.

Mathson said later he could have taken the bull with a bow.

"Too bad we didn't have a bull license," he said.

Strike three.

Tough season

Mathson hunted two more days before returning to his job at Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls, and Howe stayed through midweek. He saw more bulls, but the cow elk he thought would be so easy to shoot proved to be elusive.

The pair finished the season without shooting an elk, but they were in good company: Only two of the five second-season elk tags near Grygla would be filled.

"I scouted for weeks, and I thought this was going to be a piece of cake," Howe said. "It wasn't easy. These people who think they're going to come up here and just shoot an elk, they're mistaken. As much as I worked and scouted and talked to farmers, it was frustrating."

That was especially true the last couple of days, when the elk seemed to disappear, he said.

Still, even disappointment had its highlights.

"The experience of meeting new people around the whole Grygla area was just a lot of fun in itself," Howe said. "I met a lot of new friends."

Howe said he saw about 15 elk during the course of the season -- about 15 more than he saw in Alberta -- the majority being bulls. Besides the bull that delivered their third strike the first afternoon, Howe said he had a 4x4 bull standing at 40 yards one morning midweek. "If we could have shot bulls, we would have been fine," he said.

If. Could have. Would have.

That's hunting. And Howe still has the anticipation of his upcoming hunt in Oregon.

"If you're lucky, you're lucky, and if you're not, you're not," Howe said. "It's not all in getting the game; it's the experience."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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