Idaho Big Game!

Idaho Big Game!

With a wide variety of habitat, and with mule deer and elk in virtually every county, Idaho offers plenty of action to hunters. And the best places for shooting a trophy buck are on public land. Here's where.

By Gary Lewis

A light crust of ice covered 10 inches of fine, powdery snow. Ranch guide Jeff Bruce, appearing as a tall, silent shadow sitting his saddle in the predawn darkness, took the lead. Nick Mosich followed him and I took up the rear. We rode a narrow trail, topping out on the ridge at 7,000 feet above sea level. Elk and deer tracks intersected our trail.

The snow that hung heavy in the branches of the fir trees blew in on the leading edge of an arctic cold front that still lingered. Daytime temperatures were in the single digits. The nights were bitter with cold.

Few people go this far into Idaho's backcountry at this time of year. From the end of summer to the middle of November, perhaps 25 people ride up these trails to watch moose and sheep, or hunt elk and mule deer up where the air is clean, clear and thin.

To the north, the high valley was in shadow, the tops of the ridgelines washed in the golden glow of morning. Where the trail flattened out, we tied our mounts to trees near a lookout point where we could see the valley below.

The rising sun illuminated meadows and old burns on the highest peaks. We glassed the openings until I spotted a group of elk more than a mile away on a high slope. One had antlers.

We rode ahead then tied our mules in a sheltered spot along the trail. Climbing around a rocky point, we sought to gain elevation to hunt down from above. So began a stalk that would last five hours.

The wind blew steadily uphill from the valleys. We found their tracks and beds on the hillside and a trail heading west. We followed, easing up over little rises, crawling when skylined, sliding over fallen trees, and using gnarled firs and deadfalls as cover.

Nick Mosich's 5-point elk came from the Shepp Ranch in the Gospel Hump Wilderness during the 2002 season. Photo by

Finally, Nick was in position to shoot at the bull. Jeff and I watched over his shoulder. Squeezing the trigger, he filled his tag and fulfilled a lifelong dream with a 5-point bull. I shook his hand, took pictures, clapped him on the back, and tried not to feel jealous.

Jeff set off through the snow to bring back the mules while Nick and I sat in silence on the shoulder of the hill. I was thinking about mule deer and trying to feel happy for my friend.

There below us, a mule deer buck fed into the open and then paused to look around. A quick glance through my binoculars confirmed 3 points on one side. He stood 140 yards away, downhill. I closed the bolt on a round, raised the rifle to my shoulder, steadied my aim, and squeezed the trigger, rocking with the recoil, hearing the sound of the shot echo down the long hills.

Nick was watching through his binoculars. "He's up," Nick said. Sure enough, a buck stood in almost the same place where my 3-point had been standing just 30 seconds before. "Shoot again," Nick whispered.

But it wasn't my buck. This one had 4 points. Nick went to get his rifle. In less than a minute we had two nice high-country mule deer bucks on the ground. There was no stopping the smile on Nick's face now. He had just completed a hunting day like no other, tagging a bull elk and a mulie buck less than an hour apart. I was smiling pretty big myself. I had been there to see him do it.

It had been a grueling, satisfying day in spectacular country, miles and miles from the nearest road.

Mule deer are found in every county in Idaho. The state holds mule deer in its mountain strongholds, where you can hunt them in aspens and thickets of lodgepole pine. In the valleys, you can find them in and around agricultural areas. Desert country, sage lands and grassy plains also hold mule deer. How you hunt them is determined by where you hunt them.

Habitat conditions caused a reduction in some of Idaho's herds in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In recent years, biologists note, most herds have bounced back. Aerial surveys show an increase in the numbers of mature bucks. In 2001, 52 percent of mule deer bucks taken were 4 points (per side) or larger.

Rocky Mountain Game & Fish knows how important it is that you get the latest, most accurate information, so this year we talked to the biologists and wildlife managers who watch these deer all year long. We asked about population trends and habitat conditions, and we identified the top prospects for your best Idaho deer hunting, this year and beyond.

Jay Crenshaw, the wildlife manager for the Clearwater, likes his region's diversity of habitat and hunting. The highest percentage of private land is found on the west side of the state. Heading east upstream along the Clearwater or Salmon rivers, the lowlands give way to rugged mountainous terrain, big blocks of public land and wilderness areas.

To change the age structure of the deer herd, to get older bucks and increase the total deer population, Idaho implemented several controlled hunts in the Clearwater Region. For the most part, limiting the number of people that hunt in some units has worked, according to Crenshaw.

Some units are not managed for controlled hunts because rugged terrain limits access. Units 19 and 20 are two examples. The country keeps out most people, and many animals never come in contact with humans.

Another bright spot in the deer herd is in units 13, 14 and 18. A trend survey averaged 180 to 190 bucks for several years. The same survey has found an average of 260 bucks in the area for the last few years. The buck-to-doe ratio is up to 25:100.

Under the controlled hunt framework, units 11 and 14 have had the highest success rates. Crenshaw suggests hunters consider those units along with Unit 13. He recommends Unit 18 in the Seven Devils range to hunters who are in good physical shape and are interested in hunting remote country.

To hunt in units 8, 8A, 10, 10A, 11, 11A, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 16A, 17, 18, 19 and 20, you must possess the Clearwater Region deer tag.


From the Panhandle in the north to the southern high desert, Idaho has some of North America's best elk hunting. Since 1982, Idaho elk hunters have averaged 24 percent success, and in the year 2001, 28 percent of the bulls taken were 6-point (per side) or better.


For herd management purposes, the state has been divided into 29 elk hunting zones. Hunters may buy a tag good in only one zone. Each zone (with a few exceptions) has two tags to choose from. You can buy an "AÃ" tag (better opportunity for archers and blackpowder hunters) or a "BÃ" tag (more opportunity for rifle hunters). In addition, controlled hunts are available in some units. The system works to provide maximum opportunity for all hunters, while protecting populations from overharvest.


Elk tags are limited and often sell out by September. Residents pay $28.50 for an elk tag, while non-residents pay $338.50.


In several units, deer and elk seasons overlap, giving hunters the opportunity to hunt deer and elk at the same time. Check the regulations to determine if elk can be hunted while you are pursuing deer.


By November, the elk rut is all but over. The largest bulls begin to pull away from the herds and form bachelor groups, leaving lead cows and satellite bulls to tend the herds. Snow in the high country helps with locating animals, but hunters may have to look at several herds before finding a bull.


In cold weather, watch the sunlit open faces of hillside meadows at first light. As the sun rises, watch for elk to feed into the timber. Pay attention to natural funnels that channel movement from feeding to bedding areas.


Though the rut is over, calling can help you locate the herd. Calf-calling may bring a response from a cow, while cow-in-estrus calls might elicit a response from a satellite bull -- Gary Lewis


If dry high-desert country is what inspires you, the Southwest Region might have the mule deer you're looking for.

Habitat biologist Neil Johnson reports that mule deer populations in his region are most robust in the mountain country, where better winter range has insulated deer herds from factors that have limited them in more-open areas. In the lowlands, forage quality has been in decline over the last several years, as drought has kept the bitterbrush and other important deer foods from producing as much new growth.

General-season hunters in units 41 and 42 are limited to taking 2-point (forkhorn) bucks. Controlled deer tag holders are allowed to take bigger bucks. According to Johnson, Unit 39 is one of the top three mule deer units in the state. Unit 32 will give hunters a good chance to take a spike or a forkhorn buck.

Some of the Southwest Region's best elk hunting can be found in units 33, 34 and 35. Though not known for their deer hunts, these units can hold some big bucks.

Along the Snake River, units 22 and 31 have produced good numbers of big bucks in the past. The rugged country will ensure that these units will continue to provide good opportunities in coming years.

Randy Smith, the wildlife manager for the Magic Valley Region, reported a decline in the quality of deer habitat in some of his units.

Units along the border with Nevada and Utah are not as good as they were 10 years ago. Wildfires in the late 1980s wiped out big stands of bitterbrush, while juniper encroachment is keeping browse plants from thriving. Overall, numbers of deer in the southern units are down, but buck-to-doe ratios are within management objectives.

In the north, deer populations are strong. Liberal antlerless deer seasons have kept buck-to-doe ratios in balance and Smith expects buck hunting to be good this season and into the near future. Units 44, 45 and 52 offer some of the best buck hunting in the state, but Smith also likes the opportunities to be found in Units 43, 48 and 49, where a high percentage of public lands allow good access.

Southeastern Idaho is famous for its big bucks. That is not expected to change anytime soon, but the winter of 2001-02 saw a significant reduction in deer numbers in some southeast units. In the spring of 2002, stressed adult does delivered fewer fawns. Deer herds in the higher elevations, where better cover and more moisture can be found, had less winterkill.

Carl Anderson, the regional wildlife manager, is concerned but optimistic. Last winter's herd survival was the highest he's ever observed, and habitat conditions appear favorable for a good recovery. Again, the best hunting will probably be in the higher elevations, where rugged country limits access. Units 66A and 76, along the Wyoming border, should be the best bets. Units 74, 75, 77 and 78 should also provide good hunting.

Regional wildlife manager Daryl Meints reports that general-season deer hunting opportunities in the Upper Snake will be reduced this year. Because of drought conditions in 2001, mule deer went into the winter in poor condition, and several deer herds in the Upper Snake sustained high winter mortality.

Meints is optimistic, however, because eastern Idaho has long been known for good deer habitat and herd genetics. "Our deer have a tendency to bounce back pretty quickly," he said.

In one zone this past spring, Meints said they counted 90 fawns per 100 does, the highest fawn count ever conducted there. Buck-to-doe ratios are also at or above management objectives.

General-season tags are available over the counter for those who don't draw a tag. Controlled hunts in the Upper Snake Region are coveted for the opportunity to hunt mule deer during the rut in late November.

Known for its rugged mountains, the Salmon Region holds good prospects for success with mule deer. The terrain and lack of hunting pressure allow backcountry mule deer bucks to grow old.

The terrain in most of the region is rugged. Grassland and sagebrush steppe give way to high-country timberlands. Look for more timber on the north-facing slopes. Some units have good road access, while others have very few roads, giving the hunter a chance to get away from crowds.

Habitat is the key to good numbers of mule deer, and habitat biologist Greg Painter pays close attention to the trends that affect wildlife in the Salmon Region. According to Painter, his deer herd has come through a series of mild winters and has seen very little loss. Fawn mortality has been low and good numbers of deer can be found across the region.

The Salmon Region is a good bet for the hunter who likes to see a lot of deer with lots of opportunity for young to average-size bucks. Many hunters take advantage of the general season in this part of the state, but controlled hunts allow hunting later in the year and a good opportunity to pursue mule deer in the rut.

To hunt big game in Idaho, residents and non-residents must purchase and possess a hunting license and the appropriate big-game tag. A resident adult license costs $11.50 while the non-resident license is $128.50.

The deadline for applying for a controlled hunt is May 31 each year. Results are available by July 10. For a controlled hunt or general-season deer tag, the resident pays $18 and the non-resident is charged $235. If tags are still available, hunters can purchase a second tag at the non-resident price.

Under the Junior Mentored Hunting program, children aged 12 to 17 that hunt with an adult can pursue deer and elk at reduced rates. A license costs $6.50, a deer tag is $9.75 and an elk tag is $15. The price is the same for resident and non-resident youths.

Thanks to a law passed by the 2000 Legislature, you can use a non-resident deer tag to take a black bear or mountain lion instead of a deer, as long as the deer season is open and the season is open for the species taken.

For more information, call the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, (208) 334-3700, or online at For rules booklets and non-resident license applications, call 1-800-635-7820.

(Editor's Note: To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis' latest book, Deer Hunting - Tactics for Today's Big-Game Hunter, send $24, which includes shipping and handling, to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. The 208-page book is packed with valuable information and nearly 100 photos.)

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