While deer hunting north of Duluth on Saturday, Garrett Mikrut spotted a doe and fawn scampering his way.
"They were being chased,'' said Mikrut, 26, of Circle Pines. By a big white-tailed buck, he hoped.
Instead, two wolves appeared.
Instinctively, Mikrut shouldered his rifle and fired twice at one of the canines -- an 80-pound male -- killing it.
"My heart was pounding,'' he said Monday. "I was absolutely thrilled.''
Mikrut is one of 66 licensed hunters who have bagged wolves since Minnesota's controversial season opened Saturday. And with 3,600 wolf hunters licensed for a season that runs concurrently with deer hunting, the success rate thus far is less than 2 percent. It's a pace that wildlife officials expect will slow even further, with the early season harvest likely falling short of the 200-wolf quota.
Mikrut knows bagging a wolf was a long shot.
"We thought the likelihood was slim to none,'' he said. "I'd only seen one other wolf from my deer stand in 14 years of hunting.''
State wildlife officials will get their first look at harvested wolves Tuesday when hunters bring the carcasses to 21 Department of Natural Resources offices around the state so biological samples can be taken. Researchers say the data they collect will help shed more light on the iconic canines.
They'll take a tooth from each animal to age it, reproductive tracts of females to determine litter size and liver and kidney samples to test for diseases. They also will check for lead that wolves might pick up when they eat gut piles of deer shot by lead bullets.
"The information will be vital to us,'' said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager. "The age and sex ratios will help us manage the population.''
While the inspection is mandatory, not all wolves killed thus far will show up Tuesday. Hunters also can bring them in Nov. 13 or Nov. 19, or by appointment. Mikrut said he'll take his wolf for inspection on Tuesday, then he plans to have it mounted or its pelt made into a rug.
"This could be the hunt of a lifetime,'' he said.
Four of the five members of his group won wolf licenses in a DNR lottery. Though Mikrut was the only one to shoot a wolf, his dad, Paul, 54, of Blaine, saw a pack of four wolves Saturday and spotted three more Sunday while hunting in Superior National Forest. Having no clear shot, he held his fire.
"That's the first time he's ever seen wolves while deer hunting,'' Garrett Mikrut said.
The group has seen signs of wolves over the years. "And we hear them at night frequently,'' he said. "Clearly, they are having an effect on deer populations. It's gotten to the level where we need to intervene and control the population. I definitely don't want to see them wiped out, just kept at manageable levels.''
Mikrut later bagged a doe and his dad shot an eight-point buck -- making the weekend even more memorable.
Meanwhile, wildlife officials expect the wolf harvest rate to mirror that of deer as the season progresses. Sixty percent of the whitetail harvest occurs during the first three days of the season.
"After today, the wolf harvest will slow down,'' Merchant predicted, in part because fewer hunters will be in the woods. The average hunter pursues deer only about four days in a season.
Still, the number of wolves killed thus far raises some eyebrows. Dan Stark, DNR wolf biologist, had predicted early season hunters might take 70 wolves, but with up to 13 days left in the season, it appears they will exceed that number.
"I wouldn't say I'm surprised,'' Stark said Monday. He still doubts the early-season 200-wolf target harvest will be met.
"I don't think we'll get there,'' he said.
The DNR closed the east-central wolf zone Monday after hunters shot eight wolves there; the harvest target was nine. But the northwest and northeast zones remain open. As of Monday night, hunters had shot 29 in the northwest, where the target is 133, and 25 in the northeast, where the target is 58.
The second wolf season, which also will allow trapping, opens Nov. 24, and also has a 200-wolf harvest target.
Doug Smith • 612-673-7667