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Thief River Falls elk hunter finds long-elusive success on a cold day in January

Curt Howe (right) and Travis Mathson, Thief River Falls, celebrate the end of a successful elk hunt Jan. 3 near Grygla, Minn.

If ever there was an elk hunter who deserved to taste sweet success, it would have to be Curt Howe.

This guy definitely paid his dues.

For Howe, 62, of Thief River Falls, the elk quest started in mid-September when he drove more than 1,250 miles one-way to Grande Prairie, Alta., for a much-anticipated guided hunt. Howe retired in May as buildings and grounds supervisor for the Thief River Falls Parks and Recreation Department, and he'd been saving for the Alberta hunt for three years.

Expectations collided with reality on the trip, thanks to a mid-September heat wave, and in six hard days of hunting, Howe didn't see a single elk.

But still there was hope. Howe and his stepson, Travis Mathson, found out in August they'd drawn a cow tag for the Grygla zone in northwestern Minnesota. Scheduled for late September and early October -- just days after Howe returned from Alberta -- the once-in-a-lifetime hunt was practically in their backyard and surely they would be able to fill their tag so close to home.

Howe also had scheduled a November trip to Oregon to hunt elk with a cousin.

I tagged along with Howe and Mathson the opening day of their hunt near Grygla. It was warm and windy that late September afternoon -- hardly ideal conditions -- and the two hunters were posting at the edge of a woods and a soybean field where elk had been feeding.

There were plenty of mosquitoes feeding as dusk approached, but there'd be no elk hanging from the meat pole that night.

Stalking the elk in the brush wasn't an option. As Howe would say later, "the leaves were so thick you couldn't see your hand in front of your face when you got in the woods."

The rest of the week went pretty much the same way.

Strikes two, three

Despite the time they'd spent scouting and making contact with landowners in the Grygla area, the season ended without Howe and Mathson shooting an elk.

More than once, Howe said, they could have had their pick of big bulls. But with only a cow tag, that was of little consolation.

That left only November's hunt in Oregon.

If you detect a trend here, you're not mistaken. Howe said he saw plenty of elk in Oregon, but none of them had antlers with three or more points per side as the law required.

Howe's elk-hunting experience seemed destined to end that way. But then, in early December, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it was giving hunters who hadn't filled their elk tags a second chance to go afield during a late season set for Jan. 2-10.

Enough hunters had experienced the same lack of luck as Howe and Mathson, and six of the 15 tags in the Grygla zone didn't get filled. The DNR also offered the extended season in Kittson County's two elk zones.

Maybe, just maybe, the fourth time would be a charm.

Fourth try

The late elk season just happened to coincide with the nastiest cold snap of the winter. When Howe and Mathson hit the woods near Grygla before daylight Jan. 2, the air temperature was 40 below zero -- about 110 degrees colder than it was the day I joined them in September.

Nothing was going to come easy this time, either.

"We sat out there from 6 a.m. to 7:30 and froze our butts off," Howe said.

It was so cold, he said, that the action on Mathson's .30-06 rifle would barely move to eject the bullets.

Howe said the hunters who'd gathered in Grygla to try and fill their elk tags figured they'd have their best shot at success by working together. That second afternoon, about the time the Minnesota Vikings were pummeling the New York Giants, Howe was huddled in a deer stand in a swamp northeast of Grygla while one of the other hunters followed the trail of several elk known to be in the area.

Mathson was set up in a field about 50 yards from Howe's stand.

That's when it happened -- one of those moments Howe always will remember.

Elk seemed to be everywhere.

"There was a whole bunch of them -- about 10 cows in one herd that ran about 150 yards from me," he said. "They were running all over the place.

"And after I shot, two spike (bulls) and two cows came out right after that."

At last, success

Howe says he never saw an elk drop, but he knew he'd connected with one of the cows when he got down from the stand and spotted blood along the trail where the elk had been running.

About 100 yards into the brush, he saw the cow elk laying dead.

Howe estimates the big cow weighed 500 to 600 pounds. It took four men, he said, to turn the animal.

"Trav and I couldn't even tip it over when it was laying in the brush," he said.

After the three previous hunts, Howe admits he was relieved to shoot the elk, even if it meant waiting until a bone-chilling afternoon in early January to do it.

"I was happy for both Trav and I that it was finally over," Howe said. "That was probably the main thing.

"It's nice the pressure is off. Now I can look forward to doing something else."