GRAND FORKS — His once-in-a-lifetime elk hunting opportunity was in its waning hours, but Jason Laumb hadn’t given up hope on filling his North Dakota cow elk tag.
Assistant director of Advanced Energy Systems at the UND Energy and Environmental Research Center, Laumb, of Grand Forks, had already spent 14 days hunting the rugged Killdeer Mountains area of western North Dakota in elk unit E2. He’d walked more than 100 miles of hilly terrain and burned thousands of calories — as many as 5,000 calories some days, according to his brother’s fitness watch — and had yet to take the safety off his .300 Win-Mag rifle.
Laumb says he knew going in that he was in for a tough hunt. According to statistics from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, elk hunters during the 2019 season spent an average of 10 days in the field, and the success rate in E2, where Laumb hunted, was 50%.
Still, the grind of days afield without seeing an elk he could shoot – he saw plenty of bulls – weighed on him, at times, both physically and mentally, Laumb says.
“Then you remind yourself that, ‘Hey, this is once-in-a-lifetime, I need to put a once-in-a-lifetime effort into it,’” he said.
The second-to-last day of the season, Dec. 30, might have been the low point of the hunt, Laumb says. But something felt different when he left his brother’s house in Dickinson, N.D., before daylight Thursday, Dec. 31, the final day of North Dakota’s 2020 elk season.
His hunch – for lack of a better word – was about to pay off.
Laumb had spent the previous four days hunting more than 2,500 acres of private land he’d gotten permission to hunt and knew the elk he’d seen – but couldn’t hunt – on neighboring property had to move sooner or later.
He also knew that another hunter scrambling to fill a tag would be hunting that neighboring land.
“I woke up, and I went, ‘All right, here we go – this is the last push,’” Laumb recalled. “What’s going to happen is going to happen, and I had what I thought was a pretty good plan for that last day.”
After so many days in the field, Laumb says he also had a pretty good idea where the elk would go if the hunter on the neighboring property spooked them.
“And so I told myself, 'I’m going to sit on the landscape all day.' And that’s what I did,” he said.
A good sign
With daylight just a promise on the horizon, Laumb spooked a bull elk in a woody draw as he walked toward the ridge where he’d spend the morning scanning his surroundings.
“I stood there and watched him, and he just kind of walked away, and I thought, ‘Well, this is a good sign,’” Laumb recalls. “I looked off to the east, and there was just a brilliant sunrise, just as red as red can be, with purple streaks and pink streaks going up the clouds.
“For the last sunrise of what has been a challenging year in 2020, I thought, ‘Wow, this is fantastic,’ and so then I took some photos of that sunrise, and again, the day just had a different feeling about it.”
About 12:30 p.m., Laumb decided to walk to a different hill overlooking another draw when he heard a rifle shot to the west on the other property being hunted that day.
“I immediately grabbed my binoculars and saw approximately 10 elk running straight at me,” Laumb said. “They were about a mile and a half away.”
He knew he had to get to higher ground but didn’t know what route the elk would take to get to where he expected them to go.
“I ran down one hill, ran up another hill, and I’m not in the greatest running shape,” Laumb said with a laugh. “So, I was a little winded when I got to the top of the hill, and then I couldn’t find the elk – couldn’t figure out where they went.”
Watching and walking
With the clock ticking on his hunting season, Laumb says he sat on top of the hill for another hour or so, watching two draws he thought the elk might use.
He didn’t see anything so he decided to walk in the direction he’d last spotted the elk and start looking at some of the small dips and wooded areas that dotted the landscape.
“I just methodically picked through them,” Laumb said. “It took me probably an hour and a half to do that and I didn’t find (the elk).”
Knowing they had to be somewhere, he decided to head back to the hill where he’d started the day to finish out the season.
That’s when it happened.
“There was this little area just right below the hill – it’s like someone took an ice cream scoop and just scooped out a little bowl in the ground,” Laumb said. “And I peeked up over that hill, and staring back at me on that side of the hill were about 10 elk.”
They were about 150 yards away – within easy range.
“You can imagine my surprise – 15 days of going out there and hiking, and there’s the opportunity right in front of me,” he said. “I immediately hit the ground and crawled to the edge of that bowl.”
Lowering the bipod on his rifle to steady his aim, Laumb surveyed the small herd through his scope.
The first elk he saw in the crosshairs was a small bull, but the rest were cows and calves. By this time, they were starting to get nervous.
“I decided at that point in time, the first one that was not a bull that gave me an opportunity to shoot, I was going to shoot,” Laumb said. “One of them walked out from behind the tree in that little bowl, and I shot her.
“She immediately hit the ground.”
In that moment, all of the long days, the miles of walking and the hours afield without raising his rifle paid off with the filling of his once-in-a-lifetime North Dakota elk tag in the final hours of the season.
As storylines go, it doesn’t get much better.
“It’s probably cliche to say, but it was just surreal,” Laumb said. “I sat there on that hill for about, I don’t know how long, I’m guessing three or four minutes, and I just sat there and just stared at that elk laying on the ground maybe 150 yards from me.”
At first, Laumb says he thought the elk he’d shot was a calf, but a close-up look told him otherwise. The landowner’s son-in-law helped retrieve the elk, Laumb said, but because he was hunting alone, the only photo he has in the field is a selfie he took with the elk before the hard work of field-dressing and quartering the animal began.
The rollercoaster ride of a hunt had ended in hard-earned success.
“Hunting can be strange that way,” Laumb said. “I’ve told several people, when you’re at your lowest low when you’re hunting, just be on alert, be ready, because your highest high can be right around the corner.
“I’ve seen it happen so many times.”
Laumb, who processed the meat himself, said he ground up about 75 pounds of burger and packaged another 60 to 70 pounds of steaks and roasts, a tasty reminder of a memorable hunt.
“It’s a lot of meat that ended up being around 140 to 150 pounds, give or take,” he said. “Those quarters are heavy. I’m not a small person, and I had all I could do to walk from my screen porch to my kitchen and put (a quarter of meat) on the counter. I should have weighed one of them.”
Looking back on the hunt, Laumb says he wouldn’t change anything. The time in the field, the frosty mornings, the brilliant sunrises and sunsets, and his interactions with the landowners he met are memories he’ll always treasure.
The hunt would have been difficult without his brother’s connections in western North Dakota, Laumb says.
“Without that help, I know I wouldn’t have gotten an elk,” he said. “I met a lot of really nice people out there that just bend over backwards to help you.”
The only hunting experience that tops it, he says, was the moose his daughter, Hannah, shot in October 2018.
“It’s the highest hunting high I’ve had for myself personally, but second only to watching her shoot that moose,” Laumb said. “I can’t describe what it was like going through all of that work and being successful.”