Jack Wilson

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Ron Wilson

This deer season we’ll hike by, and occasionally step in, an untold number of deer droppings. The unmistakable piles – deposited on skinny trails in cattail tangles, grassy sidehills, buckbrush patches and where we park the pickup – are as much a part of the rural landscape as wooden fence posts and multi-row shelterbelts planted years ago by hardworking hands.

These randomly discarded deer signposts are so commonplace, they rarely provoke conversation or much acknowledgement, save for the occasional nudge with the toe of a hunting boot.

For the once-in-a-lifetime cow elk hunter in western North Dakota, who has hiked many backcountry miles, fueled by water, jerky and peanuts stuffed in a backpack, but has yet to bump a single animal or spot one three or four draws over through binoculars, finding elk droppings in shaded timber an hour hike from the pickup, will stop you in your tracks, bring you to a knee for closer inspection.

Wildlife biologists will tell you that elk droppings look much like what is left behind by whitetail and mule deer, other than the pellets are, as we’ve seen over and over in states west of here, bigger and more oval shaped.

What they don’t tell you is how fired up you’ll be to find them. It’s proof to the 16-year-old with the cow tag in his pocket that the animals certainly do exist and that, at least on this day, where Billings and McKenzie counties bump up against each other off the driven path, we’re hunting in the right spot.

Which, of course, is a big confidence boost in a pursuit that often leaves you questioning whether you’re going about it entirely wrong.

North Dakota’s deer gun season interrupts our elk hunt out west and we welcome it. Not because we need a break, but because, like a lot of hunting families I suspect, we’ve been looking forward to this early November season for weeks, maybe longer.

Our oldest kids are flying in from out-of-state, Grammy and Grandpa are driving over from Grand Forks and a big gathering over smoked ribs and other fixings is set for Saturday night. And if it all goes as planned in the field, we’ll process deer in the garage on Sunday.

This early November gathering, this collection of likeminded family and a few hunting friends is something we never question because we know we’re going about it correctly.