Sixteen-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Wink harvested her 1,000-pound bull on October 19, following months of planning and scouting. It was a special moment for her family, and for elk conservation in the state. Photo contributed.

Local teen harvests 1,000-pound bull elk

In a state of nearly 6 million people, only eight lucky individuals won the opportunity to take part in this year’s elk hunt. Four were members of the Ojibwe tribes, who declared their elk according to treaty rights within the Ceded Territory. The other four were state-licensed hunters who won their tags through the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ annual lottery.

One of them lives right here in Mount Horeb. Sixteen-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Wink harvested her 1,000 pound bull on October 19, following months of planning and scouting and five days of hunting in Wisconsin’s northern elk zone, which covers portions of Ashland, Bayfield, Price, Rusk and Sawyer counties. The northern herd’s area includes the 1995 reintroduction effort, which began with 25 elk from Michigan. The northern elk herd population is projected to reach 355 animals this year. The central elk herd is estimated near 155 elk this year, bringing the statewide post-calving population above 500 elk. 

This hulking, iconic animal, one of the largest cervids in the world, is native to Wisconsin and is making a strong comeback. One creature can feed a family for a year and the Winks have freezers full of meat and hearts full of memories that will last a lifetime.

The tag was initially won by Izzy’s father, Brian. The Winks are passionate conservationists who donate both their time and money to a variety of causes, including elk management.

Elk applications from Wisconsin hunters contribute directly to the future of the state’s elk population. For each $10 application fee, $7 goes to elk management, habitat restoration and research. In 2023, some applicants chose to give amounts above the $10 fee, and their additional donations totaled more than $8,000. Most were happy with a bit of hope – however slim – as well as the knowledge they are actively supporting the state’s wildlife. The Wink family got an unexpected surprise: the chance to hunt.

“In our family, we apply every opportunity we get,” said Brian. “You have to be pretty lucky to draw a tag. It’s like winning the lottery.”

It was late spring when Brian received a call from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Shortly after that, I thought it would be a pretty unique opportunity for our whole family,” he said. So he reached out to the DNR and asked if he could transfer the tag to his daughter. They said yes, and it was all arranged. Izzy received the elk tag as a surprise on her birthday in August.

“I was ready to help him,” said Izzy. “I was super excited for him. I was so surprised when I learned it was going to me that I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to take away from his experience, but I was extremely grateful.”

The family spent much of the ensuing months researching the northern Clam Lake herd and its habitat. The area they planned to hunt includes 1,600 square miles, much of which is public.

“I’m one for boots on the ground scouting,” said Brian. “Walking, hiking, driving; just trying to put together a mental picture, investing a ton of time.”

When the season opened, Izzy, Brian and a family friend spent four-and-a-half days hunting without seeing an elk. Then, as the sun began to set on their fifth day, everything happened in a flash.

“There were three of us, one of my dad’s friends was there as well, and we were spread out about 50 yards apart so we could all get our eyes on different areas. It was probably six o’clock, the sun was going down, and I was starting to lose hope.”

But then, after several days without seeing a single elk, they saw a lot of them.

“I just started shaking,” she said. “I grabbed my pack and my tripod and my rifle. The only path was across a bunch of rocks. I looked over and there was a field full of elk.”

“I was trying to be as quiet as possible, and I didn’t have much cover,” she continued. “I had the cow call in my mouth and I was making noise. A bunch of the cows looked up and I was like, ‘I’m busted; it’s over.’ But then I saw this big bull, and I set down my tripod. I was shaking – elk fever, I guess – and I just kept calling and calling. Then the bull starts running toward me. He stopped and turned broadside.”

Standing between 70 and 100 yards from the animal, Izzy fired, sending a 140-grain 7mm-08 bullet through the bull’s vitals. He spun 180-degrees and she fired again almost immediately, ensuring a quick and ethical death. The two bullets hit less than two inches apart from one another.

DNR officials confirmed that the six-year-old animal she harvested, which was wearing a tracking collar, was the herd bull. He had traveled three miles that day and crossed a river to get to the spot where they found him.

A local farmer helped them load the bull, and they headed south. Izzy drove the truck with her bull, and her father followed her. On their journey, people pulled over and stopped to take pictures.

They turned the carcass over to the DNR, then it went to Outdoor Addiction in Blue Mounds to be processed. Soon after that, they sat around the table as a family and ate their first Wisconsin elk steaks together.

“That is something that’s very important to us,” said Brian. “We don’t hunt for antlers. We harvest animals to consume and be respectful of the animal that gave up its life for us.”

The meat will last a long time. But even after it’s gone, this local family will have a special experience to relive and retell, again and again. And because of the efforts of conservationists and hunters like them, wild elk will roam Wisconsin for generations to come.

“Honestly, the best part of this whole experience was, well, the whole experience, but also the fact that, as I’m getting older, I get to spend less and less time with my family. We’re all busy, you know? And this gave me a chance to spend extra time with my family. Time to be together. Honestly, that was my favorite part of the whole thing.”

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