Sometimes, they hunted from blinds. Sometimes, they hunkered down in tall grass, waiting for the perfect elk.
This is a story of generosity, long odds, patience and insane luck.
Every year, about 40,000 hunters in Michigan apply for an elk license, but only about 200 receive one. Despite those odds, over the last year, two brothers -- Brendan and Kevin Thelen -- were both awarded an elk license because two generous hunters had donated their licenses for a youth hunt.
And both brothers bagged an elk. Both of them were successful on a Friday the 13th, months apart.
"It's pretty long odds," said Brent Rudolph, the deer and elk program leader at the Michigan DNR. Rudolph has never heard of two teenaged brothers getting an elk in the same hunt. "We've only been hunting elk for about 30 years here in Michigan. We don't have a big long history of hunting, so it's pretty unique in that stretch."
For the hunt of a lifetime, patience was crucial.
"One time, we sat in a tree line and I would say we had a 12-yard experience with a five-by-five that wanted to come kick our butts," said Chuck Thelen, the boys' father. "He had smelled us and wondered what it was. He came all the way across the field, and he came within 12 yards of us."
Brendan Thelen rested his gun at his hip. Just 14 years old at the time, he was trying to make the most of his rare chance to hunt an elk in Michigan.
"Don't shoot him unless he charges," Chuck Thelen said to his son.
"Yeah, Dad, I got it."
The elk was young and curious.
"Finally, we moved, and you could see the hairs in his nose flaring when he was breathing because he had been running through that field," Chuck Thelen said.
The elk was probably 450 pounds, but Brendan didn't think he was big enough.
"As soon as we flinched," Chuck Thelen said, "he got stiff-legged and took off."
And so, they waited more.
BRENDAN'S ELK QUEST
After hunting for five days, Brendan had seen 12 bull elk but decided none of them were big enough.
"I had a mind-set of what I wanted to get and some of them were a little too small," Brendan said. "And some were kind of far away or after light hours, and we couldn't shoot."
On Sept. 13, a spotter saw a huge bull in a field on private property in Johannesburg -- east of Gaylord -- in Otsego County. Brendan Thelen and his father rushed to the field.
"I had to crawl under a gate, crawl through the woods a little bit and then sneak out," Brendan said.
His heart was pounding. "I was trying not to think about the bull and how big it was, because then I get really shaky," he said.
Brendan walked quietly, holding his rifle in his right hand. He came through an opening in the woods, turned to his right and placed his rifle on a shooting stick. The elk was across a field, more than 200 yards away, but it was still within range.
"I could see a lot of rack, so I knew it was big," Brendan said.
Five seconds later, he aimed and pulled the trigger. Brendan might be young, but he is an accomplished hunter and a dead-eye shot. He shoots about 2,000 rounds a year and has taken six deer and countless small game.
"I knew I hit it," he said. "I had full faith in that shot."
Chuck Thelen stood behind him, videotaping the moment. In a review of the video, you can hear Chuck breathing loudly from the adrenaline.
"Hit him again," said Trent Skiba, a guide.
"It won't load," Brendan said, trying to load another bullet.
"Just wait, let him turn," Skiba said. "He's a big boy."
Brendan loaded his rifle and took another shot from over 200 yards.
"Are you kidding me? Wow," Chuck Thelen said, coming up to the monstrous elk, which had a massive rack with six points on each side. "I gotta quit shaking this damn camera."
Brendan posed for pictures and talked about how thankful he was to the anonymous person who donated the license. "I really want to meet him and say thank you. It was a really great hunt," Brendan said. "It was one of the most fun hunts I've ever been on."
It had better be. In Michigan, a hunter is allowed to take only one bull elk in his lifetime. So this is it for Brendan. At least in this state. The reason the rules are so strict is because the population of elk is so tightly controlled.
Elk disappeared from Michigan around 1875. But seven animals were released near Wolverine in 1918. The herd grew in the 1960s and became big enough for the DNR to allow an elk hunt. Poaching decimated the heard in the 1970s, dropping the number to about 200 animals in the winter of 1975.
But it has rebounded ever since. Most of the herd is centered in the Pigeon River Country State Forest Area in parts of Otsego, Cheboygan and Montmorency counties.
The current elk population is estimated at 668, based on an aerial survey.
"Our goal in our elk plan is to maintain 500 to 900 elk," Rudolph said.
If the population grows more than that, there could be problems with elk-car accidents and elk damage to crops and forestland. To keep the herd under control, a limited hunt is held each year.
"The elk hunt does play an important role in managing the population overall," Rudolph said. "We can't keep them exclusively on state land. Obviously, they cross over boundaries."
KEVIN'S TURN NEXT
Let's not sugarcoat this.
It's not easy when you love to hunt and your little brother gets an elk.
"I was quite jealous," Kevin Thelen said after his younger brother was lucky enough to get an elk license.
Kevin, then 16, went to the orientation with Brendan and even tagged along on some of Brendan's hunts.
"It was quite the experience just seeing it all go down," said Kevin, who attends Lakeland High School. "There is a lot more regulations. You have to work around them. It's kind of cool.
"(Elk) are cool-looking, seeing them in a bean field from 100 yards away is like seeing a deer in a field 30 yards away. They are huge. It was awesome. I wasn't even behind the gun and my heart was beating."
About two months after his brother got his elk, Kevin was informed that he had been selected to receive an elk license, too.
"I thought there is no way, someone is pranking me," Kevin said. "My mom made me listen to the voicemail. I was like, 'No way. This is awesome.' "
Kevin did not have the same license as his brother. He was allowed to shoot only a cow elk, which does not have antlers.
He said he passed on more than 40 elk, waiting for the perfect one. "I just didn't get a shot at any of them," he said. "I couldn't get clear shots. I could still see them, the outline. But there were so many twigs and branches, every time I wanted to pull the trigger, I never had a clear shot."
He began running out of time. On the morning of Dec. 13, he woke up afraid that he wouldn't get one. "We only had three days left in our season," Kevin said. "I was definitely nervous. I woke up that morning thinking, 'Man, it's starting to look a little dark for me.'"
Kevin was hunting the Canada Creek Ranch, a private hunting, fishing and recreation club of approximately 13,500 acres in Atlanta, Mich. It's about an hour's drive northeast from Gaylord.
A spotter saw several elk on a golf course on the southern border of the ranch. "We got in the truck," Kevin said. "Drove down the road 10 minutes. We had permission to hunt on the golf course because the elk get on the course and just tear everything up."
The elk was feeding on the fairway. "I sat down on my right foot," Kevin said. "I got my left knee up and rested my gun on my left knee. I don't really use shooting sticks that much."
Despite his age, Kevin has vast hunting experience. He has harvested 11 deer. Still, his heart was racing from the adrenaline.
"It was beating so fast," he said. "I felt like I was going to pass out, I was so excited."
He shot twice, both times over 100 yards. "I don't really like the killing part all that much," Kevin said. "I don't enjoy it. But I like the hunt. That animal's life is important. The importance passes through it and gives us strength. We definitely respect that animal.
"This hunt was definitely something different. It meant a lot. I don't think I could ever compare it to something else."
Both brothers said they were extremely fortunate to get their elk licenses and are thankful to the anonymous donors.
But this is the key to keep hunting alive in Michigan. To get younger hunters interested. To keep the sport alive.
For the brothers, it was like winning the lottery. A lottery where the same number kept coming up.
Brendan got his license at the age of 13. He shot the 13th bull that he saw, getting it on Sept. 13, 2013, at 8:13 p.m., and his first shot was from 213 yards.
Three months later, Kevin also shot his elk on Friday, Dec.13, 2013, from 113 yards away on a golf course.
Fittingly enough, for this pair of Friday the 13th boys, the elk was taken on the 13th fairway.
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