Grand Forks hunter Derik Zimmel recalls experience of drawing once-in-a-lifetime elk and moose tags in the same year
Derek Zimmel had what he called a "fortunate misfortune" last spring, when he got an email from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department with the news he'd drawn both moose and cow elk licenses for the fall hunting season.
Elk and moose tags both are once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunities in North Dakota, and Game and Fish issues the licenses by lottery.
The odds of drawing even one of the licenses, much less two, are slim, at best; especially in the same year.
"It's a little overwhelming when you have that, and you're not sure how to divide your time," said Zimmel, a lieutenant for the Grand Forks Police Department. "Obviously, I still have a full-time job and things I need to take care of, as well."
Zimmel had drawn a bull/any moose tag for Unit M5 north and west of Grand Forks and a cow elk tag for Unit E1E in the far northeast corner of the state.
He was one of 50 hunters from among 196 applicants to draw a cow elk tag in E1E and one of only five hunters selected from 304 applicants for a moose license in M5.
Those are odds of 25.51 percent for cow elk in E1E and a mere 1.64 percent for moose in M5.
"The moose was almost an afterthought," Zimmel said. "I put in for elk because we'd been hearing rumblings about the Cavalier herd growing in size, and I thought, 'Well, as long as I remembered about the elk, I'll throw in for moose, too.'
"Area M5 only has five tags so there's no way I'll ever get one of those."
Faced with the challenge of two once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunities, Zimmel began reaching out to landowners and others with contacts in the two hunting areas to develop a plan for the two seasons.
Unlike previous years, there'd be little opportunity for Zimmel to enjoy fall fishing and upland bird hunting. The regular moose season in M5 opened Oct. 12 and continued through Nov. 5, while the E1E elk season opened Oct. 6 and continued through Dec. 31.
Moose season closed first so that was Zimmel's initial priority. By the time season opened, he'd gotten a line on a huge bull in the Honeyford, N.D., area. A landowner had gotten photos of the moose on a trail camera, and the bull's rack was massive, Zimmel recalls.
"His tracks were bigger than my boot tracks," Zimmel said. "It was a big animal."
The season got off to a promising start when Zimmel spotted a small bull standing in a cornfield about 45 minutes into opening day.
"I passed on him because I had visions of grandeur, and the next live moose I saw was about 45 minutes left in the season," Zimmel said.
Unit M5's proximity to Grand Forks offered the opportunity to hunt at least a few hours every day but four throughout the moose season, Zimmel said. But as the days ticked off the calendar and the pressure grew, Zimmel said wasn't even finding any tracks in the snow that fell later in the season.
"I'm circling groves and running tree lines, I'm circling cornfields and doing everything I can, and I'm just not seeing anything," he said. "Either that, or it's three or four days old."
Going through the motions
By the last day of season Nov. 5, Zimmel says he'd mentally given up on filling his moose tag.
"I'm out here going through the motions and it's like, 'What am I doing? This is stupid,' " he said.
Frustration turned to faint optimism in the waning hours of the season when Zimmel spotted fresh moose tracks crossing a road onto private, unposted land. He followed the tracks and came across a maze of trails and beds.
"I see that track, and it's just like, alright," Zimmel said with a sigh.
The moose obviously had convenient access to water, corn and browse, Zimmel said, but a look through the binoculars revealed nothing initially.
Then he saw movement through the trees on the far side of the field about 600 yards away.
A cow moose.
Three or four steps, and she would have disappeared into a standing field of corn, Zimmel recalls, so he slowly worked his way to about 275 yards and settled into a tree row, where he was able to get a good shot with his .300 Weatherby Magnum.
Fortunately, Zimmel only needed the three bullets he carried with him because he'd left the rest of the cartridges in the truck.
"You say a little prayer to yourself before you squeeze the trigger the third time—let this be the one—because other than that, I've got nothing else to do but watch and hope," he said.
In the closing minutes of a season he could have ended 45 minutes into the opening day, Zimmel had his moose, an adult cow.
He recalls his reaction to the kill as a mix of gratitude and relief; he didn't get a photo of himself with the moose because he was hunting alone.
"At that point, I was just grateful for the opportunity and grateful that I made a good shot," Zimmel said.
Shifting to elk
That still left one tag left to fill, and while Zimmel had ventured north to hunt elk one day during the moose season, North Dakota's deer gun season limited his opportunities to go afield the second and third weekends of November.
Distance also was a factor, but Zimmel arranged long weekends by taking vacation time.
Hunting mainly public land, Zimmel said the closest he came to seeing an elk in the 17 or 18 days he hunted was a baseball-sized patch of brown he saw through a wall of brush barely 40 feet away.
He never saw its head or rack, Zimmel said, but he assumes the elk was a bull.
"It's not often you feel hoofbeats in your chest," he said. "He was a big animal, and eventually you hear the 'crash-crash,' and he wandered off."
There was plenty of elk sign in the area, Zimmel says, but hunting alone limited his options for trying to chase an animal out of the brush and into shooting range.
Gaining access to moose hunting land was relatively easy, while phone messages he left for landowners in elk country rarely were returned.
The two hunts were very different, he said, which probably accounts for the contrast in hunting success. Moose hunters in 2016 had 97 percent success, while elk hunters had 56 percent success, Game and Fish said.
"The elk season turned into a bit of a grind," Zimmel said. "People talk about these massive herds. You see sign all through the area and then the season hits, and they're ghosts. It gets to be a long season."
Zimmel says he may never hunt moose again, but he plans to pursue elk in other states when the opportunity arises.
For other hunters who have the "fortunate misfortune" of drawing North Dakota elk and moose tags in the same year, Zimmel says scouting and making landowner contacts is crucial.
"Ask and ask and ask some more," he said. "Put on miles in the summer, and knock on more doors than you think you'll ever need. You simply can't do enough of that—especially if you don't have ready access to unpressured land."