Its hard to beat the options for big game hunting in Idaho. From general and controlled hunts for deer and elk to controlled hunts for moose, sheep and other species, the state offers a diverse and exciting mix.
The ability to hunt so many animals in one state is rare. Perhaps even more so that we can drive to a sporting goods store on our way to camp and buy a license and tag for many big game hunts.
General, over-the-counter hunting opportunities are getting harder to find in the West, but Idaho is generous with its tags. However, they do come with compromises.
A REALITY CHECK
Any hunter can buy the same license and tag as you, so there is a good chance you wont be alone.
That often means fewer animals, a low percentage of mature animals, and a lesser overall hunting experience.
Add to that the exploding predation thats decreased some game herds, forest fires, development and other factors that have changed the landscape, and a modern hunter faces many challenges.
In reality, its history to think you can jump in the truck on opening morning and head to the familys traditional hunting grounds and expect to find plentiful game.
That reality is reflected in hunter success rates. On average, Idaho hunters will have more unfilled tags in their pockets after fall hunts than tags attached to antlers or hindquarters.
For example, Success rates for most elk hunts are typically less than 20 percent, meaning the average hunter will only be successful once every five years or so. But that doesnt mean you have to be average.
ITS NOT ALL DOOM AND GLOOM
You may be asking yourself, is it even worth going hunting?
My answer is a resounding absolutely! Amid all the challenges are rewarding experiences and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
With a strong desire to succeed, a lot of preparation, and a little luck, public-land hunting in Idaho offers something thats hard to find elsewhere, and now is the time to get out there and hunt!
If you want to be successful in todays game, you have to want it a little more than the average guy.
Its going to take extra scouting and conditioning, along with the mindset to be mobile, and the skill set to be effective.
The good news is you can consistently be successful during general hunts on public land if you make an honest effort.
Perhaps the most important factor for big game success is simple you must hunt where there are animals.
While that sounds a bit trite, its amazing how often hunters say they spent a week hunting and didnt see a single animal.
With gas prices still far above the comfort level, heading out on multiple scouting trips during summer isnt always in the cards.
But there is technology that aids scouting without breaking the bank, and it also adds confidence you will be hunting where there are animals.
When many of us think of scouting, we think of wrinkled topographic maps and worn out boots, but scouting strategies have changed in recent years.
While topo maps and hiking are still part of the plan, they have fallen behind technology.
I begin scouting at fishandgame.idaho.gov under the Hunting tab. If I am researching a new deer hunting area, I click on Game Species Information then Deer for seasons, rules, units, and even the records pertaining to deer hunting (You will find some units consistently produce record-book bucks.)
I am most interested in General Season and Controlled Hunt Harvest Statistics. It has statistics from every hunting unit for the past 12 years from success rates and hunter days afield, all the way to the percentage of mature bucks that were harvested.
That information helps me narrow the unit I want to hunt and gets me pointed in the right geographic direction.
From there, I move to google.com/earth, where I can download the free version of Google Earth.
If you arent using Google Earth for scouting, you are missing out. Its one of the most powerful sources available, and unlike gas, its free.
It allows hunters to do a fly-over of potential hunting areas using satellite images.
Roads, topography, cover, and water sources all the things you want to find when scouting are visible without spending a penny at the pump.
When using Google Earth, there are three main features that are critical to locate: food sources, water sources and bedding areas.
When all three of these features come together within 1/4 or 1/2 mile of each other, and are at least a mile off the nearest road, much of the guess work involved in scouting has been eliminated.
To locate food sources on Google Earth, I look for open ridges where the animals are more likely to feed in early morning or late evening. Water sources are pretty easy to locate on Google Earth as well.
Bright green patches indicate moisture, and by noting the date the satellite image was taken, you can get a good idea of how much water is in the area.
Animals typically bed on the cooler, north-facing slopes. Locate a heavily timbered hillside that faces north and you will have a good candidate for a bedding area.
As impressive as Google Earth might be, Im still not yet able to zoom in and actually see the game, so my next step in the scouting process after Ive identified several likely areas is to lace up the boots.
A summer hike into these areas is a great way to confirm your research. Water sources and bedding areas can be confirmed, and trails connecting the bedding areas to the food and water can be identified. It might also be worth locating vantage points to set up and verify the game activity from afar, both before and during the season.
Additionally, fresh tracks and droppings, as well as rubs from previous years, are good indicators the animals are not only there while scouting, but that they will be there during hunting season as well.
Another helpful tool to use during on-the-ground scouting is remote trail cameras. They verify the animals using the area, both in terms of quantity and quality.
Placement of the camera is important. A well-placed camera will tell you how many animals (or lack thereof) are using a particular water hole or trail, as well as an indication of the size of the animals in the area.
A camera set up on a water hole will often capture good, clear photos of animals, but beware, placing a camera along a trail will often result in blurry photos, or missed pictures as the animals move past the camera.
When checking trail cameras, its also important to understand what you are looking for.
For hunting elk during the rut, having a picture of a big bull on a trail camera in July isnt always a good thing. Bulls will often move several miles from their summer grounds to find the cows in the fall.
Focusing on large groups of cows and calves will usually be more productive for an archery elk hunter because the bulls will likely come to these areas looking for the cows when the rut kicks in.
GET IN SHAPE
Animals are working out year-round, and if you expect to go head-to-head with them on their turf, a dedicated training regimen is to your advantage.
Because anyone can buy a license and big game tag, getting away from other hunters can be a real challenge. Hunting pressure often pushes animals farther from roads and scatters them into smaller, and harder-to-find herds.
To comfortably get farther away from roads and cover the miles necessary to find game, it helps to be in shape.
There are thousands of books and websites devoted to physical conditioning I wont tell you that you need to run 100 miles to successfully hunt public lands, but I will say that if you can run 100 miles, you will have a greater advantage.
The goal is to improve your level of conditioning before the season, and it may take a year-round effort.
Beginning daily walks around the neighborhood in August to get ready for a September elk hunt isnt going to have you in tip-top shape when it is time to hunt. It is, however, better than doing nothing at all.
Incorporating workouts into your schedule throughout the summer, or better yet, throughout the year, will absolutely make you a better hunter.
As my good friend Cameron Hanes says, The more work, sacrifice, and dedication you offer up in the name of hunting, the more success you will have.
It is also important to be well-rounded in your workouts. Lifting weights is great, but it wont produce the cardio you need to oxygenate those muscles at high elevations where the big bulls and bucks roam.
Running several miles is awesome, but running alone wont prepare your legs and back for carrying a heavy pack up the mountain.
Find a way to improve your overall physical conditioning each day. Set realistic goals that match your time and ability, then work hard to achieve them.
Being physically prepared will give you the confidence to go farther in search of big game.
BE A VERSATILE AND EFFECTIVE HUNTER
Once your hunt starts and youve done all you can to prepare, there are two things that will improve your odds of success: be mobile and be efficient.
In the ever-changing landscapes we hunt, it is important to be versatile.
Wolves can move into an area and turn it from good to bad in a matter of minutes.
Wildfires like the ones burning across the state this summer can close off hunting areas that produced results in the past.
Other hunters who scouted the same herd of bucks all summer can move into your area and dampen opening morning excitement.
When considering these challenges, multiple back-up plans are important. Its easy to fall into the rut of hunting the same area year after year.
If it was good last season, why take a risk and move?
Simply stated, if you arent seeing game (or at least fresh signs), move. Dont waste precious hunting time looking for game that isnt there. If the game moves, you have to follow.
Lastly, learn to be effective. Opportunities for success on public land are often rare. The chance to connect with a legal big-game animal may only happen once per season, or if youre lucky, a few times.
Learn to be an effective hunter and capitalize on every opportunity you are given.
CONFIDENCE IS KEY
Increase your confidence by practicing frequently. Dont buy a pack of broadheads on your way out of town. Dont shoot three shots from your trusty 30-06 at a gallon jug and call it good.
Know your weapon, and have complete confidence in it.
Employ the most effective hunting method for the time of year and the area you are hunting.
If the elk arent responding to bugling during your archery hunt, adjust your tactics, such as sitting near a wallow or waterhole.
Learn the habits of the animals, as well as the features of the terrain. Know what the wind is doing at daylight and during the middle of the day, then plan your hunt accordingly.
Pay attention to the sign you are seeing. Is there new sign since your hunt yesterday morning? Fine-tune your skills and knowledge of the animals and areas you hunt.
Be ready take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.
SUCCESS IS A CHOICE
While we are blessed with diverse hunting opportunities, we also have to accept and overcome many challenges.
But those challenges can not only make us better hunters, they add a new level of fulfillment and achievement when we tag a hard-earned animal.
While game populations may be down in some areas (and populations are constantly changing), there is still plenty of game to be found if youre willing to make the effort.
Another way to look at a 20 percent success rate is one hunter in five gets an animal. With preparation, dedication and an open mind, that hunter can be you.