If you started big game hunting in Idaho within the last five years, this season is going to look similar to other seasons.
If youve been here longer, its not going to look like the good ol days unless youre a whitetail hunter.
In fact, for whitetails its going to look better. White-tail harvest eclipsed the mule deer harvest last year for the first time since 1995. But were getting ahead of ourselves.
Overall, Idahos big game populations are doing slightly better than last year after a tough winter in 2010-11 killed a lot of animals, which meant fewer young bucks last fall. Those young bucks account for a large percentage of the deer killed by hunters.
But last winter was mild, which will give deer herds a chance to bounce back, especially those young bucks.
Elk are less prone to winterkill, and hunters will likely see similar elk hunting to what theyve seen in recent years.
A total of 118,639 deer hunters killed 41,739 deer last year for a 35-percent success rate with general hunts and controlled hunts combined.
General season hunters had a respectable 33 percent success rate by themselves.
But white-tailed deer accounted for a greater share of the harvest: 20,959 whitetails vs. 20,780 mule deer. Mule deer harvests dropped by 3,557 in 2011 compared with 2010.
Last year, deer hunters killed 44,328 deer, and the split was 24,337 mule deer and 19,031 whitetails.
Whitetails continue to grow in prominence for both hunting effort and harvest as they spread throughout the state, and mule deer harvests have also declined from historic levels.
To put last years harvest in perspective, deer hunters in 1981 killed about 50,000 deer, and 40,000 of those were mule deer and the remainder whitetails.
But the news is not all bad for mule deer hunters. Those two-points that were missing in action last fall should be back in higher numbers this year.
Toby Boudreau, Idaho Fish and Games deer and elk coordinator, said mule deer populations can double in as little as three years under the right conditions, so the effects of the 2010-11 winter could be short lived.
The recent mild winter didnt just benefit young bucks. Older ones will have better conditions for growing antlers because they came out of winter strong, which is always nice to see, he said.
Boudreau said one thing hunters can look forward to is some mature mule deer in any hunting unit.
The neat thing about Idaho is in any general unit you have the chance to take a great mule deer, he said.
While many hunters report seeing nothing but small bucks in some units, winter big game surveys reveal big ones do exist.
There are some really nice, mature animals, he said.
While people bemoan the drop in mule deer harvests, whitetail hunters dont seem to mind that their favorite quarry is doing well.
I think whitetail hunting should be extremely good this year, Boudreau said.
F&G surveys have shown that 89 percent of hunting units that have whitetails are at or above the departments management objectives.
That allows lots of hunting opportunities for whitetails, including many either-sex hunting options.
If a whitetail hunter were extremely dedicated (or extremely unlucky and a bad shot) he or she could hunt from Sept. 15 through Dec. 9 if theyre willing to travel around the state.
The Panhandle and Clearwater areas continue to be the hot spots for whitetail hunters. But the deer are found in 73 of the states hunting units, and there are general hunts for whitetails in 69 of those units.
Hunters with a general deer tag are reminded they can shoot whitetails during October. But to hunt the prime November rut, in most cases, they must buy a whitetail tag, which limits them to killing only a white-tailed deer for the whole season. Check rules for details.
It seems you cant mention elk these days without wolves coming up, so heres the deal.
A total of 84,765 elk hunters killed 15,135 elk last fall. Thats the lowest elk harvest since 1983, according to F&G historic data, and a substantial drop from 17,792 elk killed in 2010.
But before you go all Chicken Little, theres other factors to consider. There were 82,138 elk hunters in 2011, which is 2,627 fewer than there were in 2010. The number of elk hunters in Idaho has dropped by more than 10,000 since 2008.
There are a variety of reasons why there are fewer elk hunters, ranging from fewer nonresidents to the economy to gas and diesel prices. But the impacts of wolves (or the perception) tends to dominate the conversation.
It should also be noted that average success rates for general elk hunts typically fluctuate between 16 and 18 percent, and the overall average success rate (including controlled hunts) bounces between 20 to 22 percent.
Despite the lowest harvest since 1983, success rates for general elk hunts in 2011 was 16 percent, and overall success rate was 20 percent.
That means statiscally speaking, the odds of getting an elk have been fairly consistent in recent years.
But if you were lucky enough to hunt elk between the late 1980s and the mid-1990s when hunters routinely took between 20,000 and 28,000 elk annually, the hunting now does not measure up.
Meanwhile, hunters and trappers also killed 379 wolves in 2011 and early 2012, and theyve taken about 10 more since the wolf season opened Aug. 30.
Will there be a corresponding bump in elk herds this year?
Our wolf harvest is probably having some positive effects on some areas, Boudreau said.
But it will be difficult, if not impossible, to accurately measure because there are so many other variables to factor in, Boudreau said.
And hunters who want to blame wolves for their woes should also consider this: 20.5 of the elk hunting zones are meeting or exceeding Fish and Games management goals and 8.5 are below for cow populations and cow/calf ratios. For bull/cow ratios and mature bulls, 19.5 zones are meeting or exceeding objectives, and 9.5 are below.
So there you have the conundrum of elk hunting.
More herds are meeting or exceeding populations, objectives than not, hunter success is about average, and there are likely fewer wolves than last year.
But those pining for the glory days of Idahos elk hunting are still going to be disappointed.
Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors