Kansas hunter’s first bull elk is a potential state-record

Elk bugling in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A dominant bull elk bugling in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
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A dominant bull elk bugling in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A Kansas hunter shot what may be a state record bull elk in northeast Kansas, and it was the first elk he’d ever seen outside of captivity.

Stories of a rogue bull elk showing up the past two Septembers at the same Jefferson County property where DJ Klenklen had just landed permission to hunt drove his imagination wild.

“If I see this thing, I’m buying a tag,” Klenklen, 28, said he told his wife during the summer months leading up to the season.

The landowner had told him about the elk and, knowing Klenklen was an avid whitetail deer hunter, asked him if he wanted to hunt it. But before he bought a tag, he wanted to make sure it was there.

Klenklen, of Lawrence, didn’t have to wait long. On opening week of dove season, he walked within 40 yards of the big mature bull, which was bedded down, and quickly backed out before he bumped it off the property.

“That was my moment of fear right there,” Klenklen said.

After seeking advice from a game warden and the landowner, he swapped out his shotgun and dove loads for a muzzleloader. He bought a $300 over-the-counter muzzleloader tag and headed back out with his younger brother to where he’d seen the bull.

On Sept. 6, he tagged out.

“We’re thinking of packing up, it’s about 6:45, and he bugles, man, and it made the hairs stand up all over my body,” Klenklen said.

“I heard him start coming through those trees and he was just coming like a freight train. I’ll never forget the sound of him coming through those trees.

“He’s making this noise — I don’t even want to try to replicate it, but it’s like a drum. And it’s really deep and short. And then he came out of the woods, and, man, I have never felt adrenaline like that in my life,” he said. “I was shaking so bad.”

Klenklen said he got two clean, broadside shots at the bull at about 60 yards, and the bull didn’t go far before it fell.

“All’s you could see in the milo was his antlers sticking up, and it was a beautiful thing,” Klenklen said.

But it wasn’t the antlers Klenklen was after, he said.

“I was looking at it from a meat perspective,” Klenklen said.

“I’d never seen one in the wild, up close, so I didn’t know what a big one was,” Klenklen said. “I’m a deer hunter. Compared to a whitetail, every elk is a monster.”

Klenklen said his family does not buy beef, so he relies on the deer he and his wife harvest during the year for their meat.

A mature Kansas whitetail buck typically weighs between 150 and 300 pounds. The average bull elk weighs more than 700 pounds.

It was only after he had started butchering his elk that he realized he might have a record bull, after a friend — who spends a lot of time and money hunting elk out of state — saw its antlers.

“The first words out of his mouth were not good words,” Klenklen said. “He’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, dude. There’s people that pay five or 10 grand that never even see a bull this big.’”

A game warden told Klenklen his bull could be a state record for antler size, which was set in 1990 when John Garrison shot a 376-inch Boone and Crockett non-typical bull in Riley County. According to KDWPT records, all five of Kansas’ record bulls were taken in Riley County, home of Ft. Riley, where the state’s largest herd has been slowly growing since 1986.

Elk are native to Kansas and were historically abundant throughout the grasslands of North America, but in the 1890s the large deer were extirpated from the state.

Since the 1980s, reintroduction efforts across the state have led to a slowly increasing elk population.

“We actually have good habitat for them now,” said Matt Peek, elk program specialist for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “But due to the potential for conflicts with agriculture, we maintain liberal hunting regulations so landowners can use hunting to maintain elk at acceptable levels.”

Peek said Fort Riley is the likely source of most of the elk in eastern Kansas, like Klenklen’s bull, which was shot about 100 miles east of the military base.

Kansas has averaged about 30 elk killed by hunters each year for the past five years, Peek said. About half of those animals are killed at Fort Riley.

There are also several smaller herds on private lands across the state, with elk populations ranging from just a few to about 60, Peek said. “Stragglers,” like Klenklen’s bull and a bull that was hit east of Colby earlier this month, can be found across the state.

‘A lot of people are going to say it’s cheating’

Although Klenklen’s hunt came as a result of a lot of luck, he had one advantage many other hunters don’t. The farmland where he shot his bull neighbors an elk farm, where about 15 to 20 cows were going into heat during the annual rut.

“I know a lot of people are going to say that it’s right next to an elk farm and it’s cheating, and all kinds of stuff. But any other hunter in my situation would have done exactly the same thing,” Klenklen said.

Klenklen said he spoke with the neighboring elk farmer prior to and after shooting his bull. The farmer said the elk was not one of his, which he tags, and encouraged him to shoot it.

Klenklen said, and Peek agreed, that the cows likely helped keep the bull in the area and brought it back year after year.

“Those cows are what kept him around,” Klenklen said. “I think he knew we were there, but he was worried about those hot cows.”

Peek called Klenklen’s hunt a “neat deal” and said it goes to show that great hunts can come from the few straggler elk in Kansas, which have been spotted in every county in the state.

But Peek said he understood why Klenklen hesitated to buy an over-the-counter elk tag based on a sighting or word of mouth.

“It’s a little bit of a risk. We’ve seen many cases where people will get photos of an elk in front of a trail camera, and then never see that animal again,” Peek said.

That’s because straggler elk, which are common throughout Kansas, don’t stay in one place very long, Peek said. They are often young males that have left Fort Riley or traveled from neighboring states searching for new territory.

Klenklen’s bull’s antlers will be officially measured on Nov. 5, after a mandatory 60-day waiting period. He would not give an estimated score, because he “doesn’t want to jinx it.”

But even if it doesn’t top the state record, Klenklen said it’s the bull of a lifetime.

“How many people get a big old bull in Kansas?” Klenklen said. “My friend said I’m the luckiest dog alive, but I never have been. Just this one day, I guess, but that’s all it takes.”

Chance Swaim: 316-269-6752, @byChanceSwaim