On December 12, 2010, Ryan Muirhead was whitetail hunting on the final day of Minnesota’s muzzleloader season. What he found was a huge 9 x 10 record elk pinned flat on its back, alive, with its massive antlers stuck in the mud. Even though the elk found stuck in mud was still alive and he was able to free the monster, it died from the ordeal two days later.
The elk found stuck in mud green-scored 475 5/8 gross, with a net of 456 4/8 on the Boone & Crockett scale. An updated score will be forthcoming after the 60-day drying period, and a special judging panel convening in 2013 would need to weigh in before anything becomes official. But based on the green score alone, the elk ranks as the third largest nontypical record elk in the world and the largest ever in Minnesota.
“We were planning to go out for the morning watch, but it was just too cold at 25 below,” he recalls. “We decided to drive around and see if anything was moving.” While driving to their hunting area, they spotted a bull elk stuck in mud, kicking in the snow. “He was on his back, chest heaving, steam pouring from his nose,” Muirhead recalls. “He’d been kicking for quite a while and he was worn out.” The huge bulls antlers were stuck in mud which pinned its head to the snow. “He’d stuck himself like turtle upside down. No way he was moving.”
They knew that something needed to be done. “He was an old bull and he wasn’t going to live forever, but you don’t want to see him die like that if you can help him.” They ran down a rancher, who supplied a two-by-four, which they used as a lever to pry the rack from the ground. “It took a few minutes, but we finally got him three-quarters of the way turned and he flopped over and staggered off. You could see by the holes in the ground how his antlers had been dug down in the mud 8 to 10 inches.”
“His legs were like Jello,” Muirhead says. “He kind of staggered to the fence and fell down. We all backed off and let him be. His back leg was bloody where he’d been kicking his antler, his chest was heaving. You could tell was worn out and not happy that people were close to him.” After resting a few minutes, the bull stood and began walking toward the woods.
After whitetail hunting the rest of the day, he couldn’t get the bull out of his mind. “I just had to go back; I knew he wasn’t going to make it far.” On Tuesday, December 14, Muirhead returned to the site with his wife, Josie. They found the bull 600 yards back in the woods. “He was hunkered down in the willows, and we got within 40 yards before he picked his head up and looked at us. He didn’t try to run. He was coughing, wheezing. He probably had pneumonia from being on his back that long in the cold. You could see where he’d dragged himself 25 yards through the snow to get back in the willows. At that point I knew he was done.”
Since the bull was on state land, Muirhead knew his best chance of claiming the rack was to be there when the animal died. For the next six hours he watched the elk from a distance. “It was sad to see a wild animal like that not be able to get up and run and do what he wanted to do. He’d pick up his head every now and then, but he could barely lift that rack. And finally he just stopped picking up his head. To stand there and watch him die, it was tough. It’s tough to see.”
Muirhead contacted the Minnesota DNR, and a conservation officer took the carcass in for a necropsy. Punctures were found in the skin cause by a broken rib and by drop tines that were pinned against its back while it lay upside down. “Being on its back for a couple of hours doesn’t work well with a large animal,” Huener says. “I really can’t imagine there would have been much to do for the animal. I’m guessing the initial impact of falling on its back pretty much did it in.”
The DNR praised how Muirhead handled the situation. “Calling the DNR was the right thing, because this was the only way he could possess the animal legally. Now he can have it mounted with pride and have all the proper paperwork.”