Brian Krebs has experienced elk hunting in Montana and Wyoming, but none of the three hunts he had been on before carried quite the same weight as the rifle hunt he experienced in early September.

Montana and Wyoming are typical western elk-hunting destinations that hunters think of when they dream of chasing screaming bulls through the mountains. North Dakota? No as much. Residents have very limited odds of drawing a license, and when they do, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime tag. Whether they take an elk or not, their chance is up.

Krebs, an Alexandria native who lives in Fargo, N.D., applied for a tag in Unit E3. There were 6,140 applicants in 2018 for that zone and only 51 tags handed out.

“It was an interesting moment,” Krebs said of seeing he had drawn the tag. “I was kind of struck with disbelief. The way North Dakota does their big three is they draw the elk and the moose right away and then the bighorn sheep comes out at the end of the summer.”

Krebs had applied for all three through the lottery, and the information he received listed three different results.

“Unsuccessful, successful, submitted,” Krebs said. “The first thought that hit my mind was did I mess up and apply for a cow tag instead and that’s why I got it on my first try? I had to double check my application and make sure I applied for what I intended to. Then I was riding on cloud nine for the rest of the week.”

Going all in

The E3 Unit in western North Dakota features nearly 2.2 million acres of land centered around Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The landscape features a couple hundred feet of elevation change with a lot of steep, bald clay faces on the south sides and a mix of cedars and spruce trees. Private land is scattered across the terrain where elk tend to gravitate near the Little Missouri River.

Krebs, 24, was already working hard to get himself physically in shape for an archery elk hunt in Montana this September when he found out he drew the tag to hunt his home state. That provided even further motivation as he dropped 51 pounds by the end of the summer.

It was part of going all in on his hunt. Krebs made the nearly 330-mile drive west multiple times throughout the summer and spent 16 days scouting.

Brian Krebs' truck is packed down with meat and the antlers from his North Dakota bull. (Contributed photo)
Brian Krebs' truck is packed down with meat and the antlers from his North Dakota bull. (Contributed photo)

“I had a mix of emotions going on,” Krebs said. “Everyone I talked to that had this tag in the past told me it would be very hard to find elk. They didn’t see any elk scouting and there’s not a lot of activity in the summer. Then I asked them about their hunt, and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. I shot a bull on the second day.’”

Krebs found a lot of elk during his early scouting -- about 160 across the summer and some of them really good bulls that he was excited to go after. Then August came.

“I lost all of the bulls I was chasing,” Krebs said. “I couldn’t find any mature bulls to save my life. My confidence was starting to waver as the summer went on.”

Krebs had identified one bull in particular that really caught his eye. It was a big 7-by-8 that he figured would easily eclipse the 380-inch mark. The problem was where he was located.

“I had thought about it a lot as the summer went on. How much time do I give this bull?” Krebs said. “I decided I wanted to give him a fair shake come season. Once we got out there and got into that valley we found him in, that’s a peninsula of public that is surrounded by private and the park itself wasn’t too far away. I knew it was a little bit of a risk.”

The chances of finding that bull on public land in season did not seem good, and that’s how it played out. Krebs and his parents, Alexandria’s Jerry and Sandy Krebs, were out there with him over the opening few days of the season in early September.

Jerry and Brian worked together to try to locate that bull with no success. After a couple days of no elk sign or bugling to be heard, Brian decided to change his focus with a cold front moving in that he hoped would get more elk sounding off.

“After two days of that, it was a pretty clear decision, especially with the cold front moving in, that we were going to have a good opportunity in other areas and it was time to pull the plug and move on,” Krebs said.

Preparation pays off

Krebs woke up at 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 8 to make an hour-and-a-half drive to the opposite side of the unit. The roads were slick from the rain that had covered the area the day before and he was running late with a 5:50 first light looming.

Krebs passed a valley where he had spotted plenty of cows grazing during his summer scouting. An infamous phrase among elk hunters came to mind -- “Never leave elk to find elk.”

He had not seen any elk in the area he was planning to hunt that day, so he put his truck in reverse and parked on the side of the road. He made it 200 yards from the truck when he heard what he thought was the sound of a faint bugle on private land behind him.

Krebs took out his bugle tube and a reed and made his first call. A minute passed and a response came in front of him on the public he was hunting.

Krebs hurried over a ridge and saw his first elk of the morning -- two smaller bulls and a few cows. As he was capturing some photos of the elk with his camera, another bugle rang out. Krebs again gave chase. He dropped into a draw and climbed up a muddy face before reaching the elevation needed to see the next ridge and the source of that bugle.

“A great looking bull and his cows were working their way from a ridge into what looked like a draw with some feed in the bottom,” Krebs said. “I had a clay peak in between us with a sage bench off one side that I figured I could sneak up behind and then crawl across.”

Krebs moved up until he got to where he could not go any further due to the open terrain. The cows were nearly 400 yards away and easily within sight. That big bull was hanging back, tearing up a cedar tree with its antlers. Now it was a waiting game.

Krebs placed a cow decoy out in front of him so he could sit up and get his bipod ready. The cows fed their way to about 350 yards. Every five to 10 minutes, the bull let out a deep, throaty bugle that spiked Krebs’ heart rate all over again.

With the bull falling further behind the feeding herd, a cow finally turned and let out two of the loudest calls Krebs had ever heard one make.

“I looked over the cedars to the area I'd get glimpses of ivory every now and then as he beat up on that cedar,” Krebs said. “To my surprise, they were moving. I briefly wondered, is the sound that cow made the elk version of, "Let's go. We're going to be late!"

Krebs had shot many times throughout the summer with his Tikka T3 .300 Winchester Short Mag on the range. He felt comfortable under the exact right conditions in making a 500-yard shot. The bull was closing the distance to an opening now at about 375 yards.

Krebs dialed in his Vortex Viper PST Gen II scope for the correct yardage and went through his shot process. He settled the crosshairs right behind the bull’s shoulder before the shot rang out.

The rifle cartridge as Brian Krebs found it after taking the bull on public land in North Dakota. (Contributed photo)
The rifle cartridge as Brian Krebs found it after taking the bull on public land in North Dakota. (Contributed photo)

The impact sent the elk tumbling down a hill before getting back to his feet. Krebs found out later it was a double-lung hit. Not wanting to take any chances, he chambered three more rounds to put the bull down.

Bittersweet ending

Anyone who has hunted big-game animals knows the range of emotions that come after a kill. Krebs felt them all in what he called a bittersweet feeling as he walked up on the bull.

“This was my first elk, so right off the bat there’s a whole flood of emotions from finally being successful after four years of elk hunting,” he said. “The magnitude of the bull, you’re kind of in awe. Then to put all the work into it and for the hunt itself to go so fast, that feeling of closure that this is the last time, it’s the end of my North Dakota elk hunting. I’m disqualified from even applying again. All of those emotions are kind of going on at the same time.”

The bull had an unofficial gross score of 351-1/8 inches. Krebs had help from his dad in breaking down the elk and making the nearly mile-and-quarter trip back to the truck.

“Definitely a sense of gratification and accomplishment washes over you when that last load hits the tailgate,” Krebs said of the grueling work on packing the animal out.

With seven total tags this fall between elk, whitetails and mule deer, this was just the start of Krebs’ hunting season. The rest of those trips have a lot to live up to.

“My time in the field with a rifle was short, but I count the 16 days behind glass, the hours spent scouring maps, the rounds sent downrange dialing my rifle, every step on a stair climber or weight on a bar, all the elk hunting podcasts and phone calls, the miles across I-94 and the conversations with elk hunters as part of the hunt,” Krebs said. “In that regard, it truly was the hunt of a lifetime.”