Brad Penas had never hunted elk and had never seen one in the part of northwest Minnesota where he hunts deer.
So, when Penas, 45, of Moorhead, Minn., received notification this summer that he’d drawn one of the only two elk tags in the Caribou area of northeast Kittson County, he knew a challenge awaited him.
“It’s really odd,” said Penas, a Greenbush, Minn., native who heads the investigative division for the Moorhead Police Department. “I’ve spent a lot of time up there. The first 20 years of my life I lived up in Greenbush and have hunted in that area for many years ever since, and I had never seen an elk in the area prior to going up and scouting when I drew the license.
“I knew it was going to be a real tough hunt.”
With help from hunting buddy Marty Lieberg of Greenbush, who owns a cabin nearby, and some friends who run Blooming Valley Outfitters bear guiding service, Penas began putting together a game plan for the Sept. 14 opener, talking to area landowners and scouting the countryside.
Penas said he and Lieberg saw a big elk the weekend before season. When his bear hunting buddies spotted a large bull in the same area a few days later, the plan for opening day was set.
“We felt it was the same elk, and it definitely appeared to be a trophy,” Penas said. “So we turned our focus specifically right on that area.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but that plan would set the stage for what likely will be the biggest elk ever taken by a hunter in Minnesota.
The stiff southwest wind that blew opening morning was completely wrong for reaching the area he wanted to hunt, Penas said. That forced him to walk in from the opposite direction, skirting the edge of the woods to avoid spooking any elk that might be in the area.
“I’d heard if they spook, they may leave the area and not come back for a few days,” Penas said. “The goal was to keep the wind in my favor, walk quietly and not spook him.”
Joined by Lieberg, he started walking along the edge of the brush and swampland about 6:30 a.m. on land owned by The Nature Conservancy. They’d walked about a mile when the sound of a bugling bull elk rocked the morning.
It came from the direction they were headed.
“That was pretty cool,” Penas said. “It got the adrenaline going.”
Continuing through the thick woods, they had walked maybe another quarter-mile when things got interesting.
“I could see over the heavy timber and heavy trees there was an opening in the woods,” Penas said. “I whispered to my buddy, ‘there’s an opening ahead.’ So we slowly walked our way up to it, not knowing if anything was there.”
There was — only about 70 yards away — and it was big.
“It was the first opportunity we had to see anything, and wouldn’t you know it — I walked up, and all I saw was the neck, head and rack sticking up over the low-cut brush,” Penas said.
According to Penas, everything happened so fast he didn’t have a chance to get nervous. An hour into season, he pulled the trigger on his .270 Remington 700 rifle, and his once-in-a-lifetime Minnesota elk hunt ended with a trophy bull.
“I just couldn’t believe he was standing there,” Penas said. “He never knew we were there. My goal was to take a shot in the vitals. I’d prepared myself for that, but because of the underbrush and heavy thick, green grass, I couldn’t really see that area so I took aim at his neck.”
According to Lieberg’s watch, Penas fired the shot at 7:35 a.m. of opening day.
“It was just an unbelievable feeling,” Penas said. “What a large beast. My first instinct was to give my buddy a high-five, but I know enough about hunting that when you take a shot, and a deer hits the ground and you don’t pay attention, they sometimes get up and run away.”
Instead, Penas made a “beeline” to the elk, which tried getting up, and took a second shot to kill the bull.
The work begins
TNC doesn’t allow motorized vehicles on its land, but the elk had fallen within about 70 yards of private property. Penas knew the landowner and got permission to drive to the border of the TNC land. His friends from Blooming Valley Outfitters then came to help him and Lieberg and Lieberg’s son, Ben, drag the bull to the private land.
They loaded the bull onto a trailer and hauled it to Greenbush, where Penas registered the elk with the Department of Natural Resources and brought it to Custom Cuts for processing.
The elk weighed 820 pounds field-dressed, and the 6x7 rack had a gross green score of 433 inches and a net green score of 404 inches, based on the measurements by Greenbush taxidermist Paul Agre, who caped the elk for a full head mount.
Randy Dufault of East Grand Forks, a certified measurer for the Boone & Crockett Club, said the rack appears to have been measured correctly but can’t be officially scored until after the mandatory 60-day drying period.
Dufault said the elk most likely will be scored in the “typical” category for symmetrical antlers.
If the score holds, or at least comes close, it very likely will be the highest-scoring elk ever killed by a hunter in Minnesota. According to Jack Reneau, director of big game records for the Boone & Crockett Club in Missoula, Mont., Minnesota only has a handful of entries in the typical category for elk. The largest, which scored 371 6/8 inches, was taken in 1996, Reneau said, and the other two, which scored 362 3/8 and 360 4/8, were shot last year.
The largest Minnesota elk in the Boone & Crockett books scored 458 4/8 nontypical and died in December 2010 after tripping over a fence and getting its rack stuck in deep mud.
No coincidence, perhaps, that bull — which also ranked No. 4 in the world — came within three miles of where Penas shot his potential hunting record.
Finding a place to hang the massive rack is going to be a challenge, Penas admits.
“The wall space and ceiling height is definitely going to be an issue with the few options my wife would allow inside” the house, he said. “I may have to update my garage a bit, which has a 10-foot ceiling.”
Penas said he couldn’t have succeeded without help from the Liebergs, friend Jason Solberg of Blooming Valley Outfitters and the rest of the bear-guiding crew.
Area landowners also were a big help, he said.
“The people that live up there were very helpful and accommodating, and I really appreciate the time they took to stop and talk to me,” Penas said.
The hunt, he said, was like winning the lottery. Twice.
“First getting drawn and second the opportunity to see an animal like this and getting an opportunity to harvest it,” he said. “I’d never elk hunted before, and there’s probably no reason to ever go again because I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to top this.”