GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) -- Ryan Muirhead and a couple of deer hunting buddies were driving the back roads of Kittson County on Dec. 12 - the last morning of Minnesota's muzzleloader deer season - when they came across a spectacle of nature they'll never forget.
There in the snow, just a few yards off the road, was a bull elk lying on its back, its massive antlers mired 8 to 10 inches in muddy ground that still wasn't frozen, despite an air temperature of 25 below zero.
The tracks in the snow suggested the bull had been with a herd of elk that jumped a fence and crossed onto state land. The bull made it across the fence, but somehow tripped and landed on his back.
It had been there at least two hours, Muirhead said, based on reports from others who had seen it cross the road about 6:30 a.m.
"We drove up, and here he was on state land," Muirhead, of Roseau, said. "He landed upside down just like a turtle."
The bull was still alive, and Muirhead and his hunting partners walked up and considered their options for freeing the big animal.
"Everybody was standing there going, 'What do we do?'" he said.
They didn't know it at the time, but the antlers eventually would measure among the largest ever scored by Boone and Crockett, the organization that has recorded the scores of trophy animals since 1830.
They hadn't been there long when some local residents came driving by. A crew of people soon was there with a 10-foot 2-by-4, which they got under the bull's antlers to pry its head out of the mire and turn the animal on his side.
The job, he said, took eight people.
"We got him rolled over thinking he was going to dart, but he was so tired, he had no steam left," Muirhead said. The elk staggered to the fence but fell to the ground.
"Finally, he got up and stopped and looked back at us," Muirhead said.
He drove back to the area the next day but there was no sign of the bull.
He drove back again the next morning - this time with his wife, Josie - and they walked into the woods where he'd last seen the elk. They'd gone maybe 600 yards when Josie spotted the bull bedded in the snow. They walked within about 25 yards, he said, but the bull was so exhausted it couldn't stand.
He snapped a few photos, and they went home.
Muirhead returned alone later in the day. More than 48 hours now had passed since they freed the bull from the mud, and it was obvious death was at hand. With the temperature barely above zero, Muirhead held vigil for six hours until the elk had taken its last breath late that afternoon.
Muirhead, who was interested in keeping the big bull's antlers, contacted the Minnesota DNR and conservation officer Ben Huener of Roseau responded.
After examining the elk Huener gave the animal to Muirhead.
Muirhead said he isn't sure if they'll be able to use the meat because the bull was so stressed.
The Muirheads took the cape and the head of the elk to Sportsman's Taxidermy Studio in East Grand Forks, where they planned to have it mounted. Randy Dufault, an official measurer for the Boone and Crockett Club, green-scored the rack at 456.5 inches. The antlers have to dry for 60 days from the time of the green-score measuring before they can be officially scored.
The rack, Dufault said, will score as a 6x7 typical with some non-typical points, even though it had 9 points on one side and 10 on the other with an asymmetrical pattern.
By any measure, Dufault said, the rack is the largest he's ever scored. If the score holds up after it dries, Dufault said it would rank No. 5 in the world. The world record non-typical elk - taken in Utah and certified in 2009 - officially scored 478 5/8.
"I've only done one over 400 in my whole life," Dufault said - in New Mexico, a state known for producing elk with trophy racks. "To be 456, that's just amazing."
"I've seen a lot of bulls way wider than this and way higher than this, but I've never seen this kind of mass," Dufault added. "This is really big. You never see one like this in Minnesota."
The Muirheads, meanwhile, have shown the antlers to numerous visitors since taking possession of the bull. The antlers are so massive a full-grown man couldn't get his hands around the base, which measures 13 1/8 inches on the right side.
"It's definitely something to see," Muirhead said.
Huener, the DNR officer, said it might be a sad ending for the bull, but at least the antlers will be preserved for people to enjoy. Fortunately for the Muirheads, they have a 22-foot cathedral ceiling in their living room. They're going to need a lot of space to display this trophy.
"I'm from Montana, and I've never seen anything that big," Josie said of the bull's rack. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."