Back in September, a bowhunter in Michigan notched a once-in-a-lifetime bull elk elk tag near the town of Wolverine, in Cheboygan County. Brandon Kantola bagged the big bull during an intense hunt with his brother Corey Kantola and close friend Shawn Braman. With a green score of 322 inches—Kantola tells Field & Stream—it’s the biggest archery-killed elk ever recorded in the Wolverine State.
Kantola found out that he drew the coveted either-sex Michigan elk tag on June 26, 2023, leaving him just two months for scouting and other prep work. “I’ve been putting in for this tag every year for the past 18 years,” he says. “I think I had about .66 percent chance of actually drawing, so I was shocked to get that letter in the mail.”
Archery or Bust
Kantola says he’s hunted elk before and took a cow with his bow in Idaho years ago. Before drawing a Michigan tag this year, he’d already decided to hunt with a bow should the rare opportunity arise. “Most people that draw this tag choose to hunt with a rifle just because there’s such a limited amount of time to get it done,” Kantola says. “My buddy Shawn and I had already spent some time hunting elk with our bows in Idaho, and we really wanted to do this our way.”
With tag in hand, Kantola began doing his homework. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) sent him a map of previous kill sites from recent seasons. He found a Michigan elk hunting Facebook group with a ton of valuable intel, he says, and a few local outfitters even offered him some tips. He ended up focusing the bulk of his scouting efforts on a 2,400-acre piece of state-managed property called the Lee Grande Ranch Nature Preserve.
“While we were scouting the property over the summer, we found some dark timber where they liked to bed and some beat-down trails they use to travel between their bedding area and nearby ag fields where they feed,” Kantola recalls. “On September 15, we entered the property just before daylight and hunted hard until about 9 a.m. without seeing or hearing any sign of elk.”
After the slow morning hunt, the crew decided to move closer to the bedding area Kantola had marked on his map. Soon, they were on a well-worn elk trail about 250 yards from the beds. “I said to Shawn, let’s just pretend that there are elk in here,” he says. “I threw out a couple cow calls and all the sudden I hear something coming right toward us. Then I saw movement and realized it was a cow on the same game trail that we were on.”
A Bull In His Sights
The cow kept coming until it was almost on top of them, only veering away when it was within 20 yards. Then a few more more cows ran in behind her before Kantola’s bull stepped into view. “I didn’t have an arrow knocked and my release was in my pocket,” he says. “Luckily, Shawn had his wits about him and threw out a cow call, causing the bull to stop.”
The bull had heard Kantola’s calls and was hoping to add another cow to its harem. It stood still long enough for Kantola to put his release on, knock an arrow, draw back his bow, and release a shot. “He wheeled around and ran out of there, but I could see the arrow sticking out of him as he went,” he says. “I was worried that I didn’t get enough penetration and that the shot hit too far up into the shoulder.”
After an hour or so, the hunters started tracking the bull. They found a piece of Kantola’s arrow that had broken off against a tree as the bull ran out of the area. Then they got on blood—but it wasn’t enough to indicate a solid lung or heart shot, Kantola says. “Then, after about 15 minutes of tracking, I heard Shawn shout ‘dead bull!'” he says. “He only went about 60 yards before falling over.”
Pending State Record
With help from a crew of friends, Kantola spent the next 12 hours breaking down and butchering the big bull. Field dressed, it weighed 700 pounds, and the MDNR estimated its age at approximately 6 1/2 years old. Two separate green scores put the bull’s rack at just over 322 inches.
If that holds up, it’ll be the biggest bull elk ever taken with archery equipment in Michigan, at least since the species was reintroduced in the early 1900s. “I’ve got the rack and skull plate in a climate-controlled room in my basement,” Kontola says. “I’ll be getting the official measurements done as soon as the necessary drying period is over.”
Though native to Michigan, elk were extirpated from the state by the mid-1800s. In 1918, seven Rocky Mountain elk were trapped in Colorado and transported to Wolverine, Michigan by rail. Those elk formed the basis for today’s herds, which are estimated at between 900 and 1200 individual wapiti—primarily in the lower northern peninsula. This year, the MDNR awarded just 260 elk tags to the pool of 49,000 resident hunters that entered the draw.