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Idaho outfitters expecting a promising big game hunting season

Elk hunting is expected to be excellent in Idaho this year. (Courtesy IDFG)

Elk hunting is expected to be excellent in Idaho this year. (Courtesy IDFG)

By Steve Stuebner

It’s September — the temperatures are cooling off, the nights are getting chilly in the mountains, and the spine-tingling bugle call of Rocky Mountain elk is echoing in the forest. That means it’s time to go hunting!

Idaho outfitters who lead big game hunts are optimistic about a promising hunting season this year. “For elk, it should be a good strong year,” says Dale Denney, owner of Bear Paw Outfitters. “The deer numbers may be down a little bit after the big winter, but elk will be strong. I’ve been seeing a consistent increase in elk numbers in recent years.”

Denning hunts out of Wallace, Idaho, in the Idaho Panhandle for elk, and he leads mule deer hunts in Southeast Idaho near Preston.

Idaho elk“We’re expecting a really good success rate on elk,” adds Daniel Butler, owner of Spring Cove Outfitters in Bliss, Idaho. “I saw 15 trophy bulls when I was out scouting last week.”

Butler hunts in the Unit #45 in the Bennett Hills, a low-slung mountain range north of the Magic Valley. There’s no general season hunting in the Bennett Hills, it’s all control-hunt tags, so if you go with an outfitter, they have some allocated tags from Idaho Fish and Game for their guests. “All of my clientele are people who drew a tag or we’re using one of my allocated tags,” he said, adding that he is booked up for this season, but not next year.

Archery big game season kicked in at the end of August/beginning of September in Idaho, and then in mid-September, wilderness hunts begin, where big game hunters can bugle in the elk in wilderness hunting units, even if they’re hunting with a rifle. That’s a prime opportunity to bag an elk in the rugged Idaho backcountry. Hunting seasons continue through October, and then there are seasons for mountain lions and wolves in the winter, as well.

Elk hunting with Mystic Saddle Ranch near Stanley, Idaho

Elk hunting with Mystic Saddle Ranch near Stanley, Idaho

Mystic Saddle Ranch guides hunters in wilderness hunts in the Middle Fork Salmon River area, and they are excited about this year’s season. “We’ve been seeing some nice elk herds when we’re out scouting, so we’re optimistic,” says Landon Dunivant, a guide for Mystic Saddle. “The Middle Fork is really rugged terrain, and being able to bugle in the elk really helps bring them into range.”

The classic backcountry hunt is one of the core offerings that Idaho big game outfitters can provide with the extensive wilderness that Idaho has in Central Idaho. The 2.3-million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the 1.2-million-acre Selway-Bitterrroot Wilderness are two areas where big game hunters can go with outfitters, stay in a heated wall tent, hunt on foot or on horseback for a week, and know they won’t likely see another human or hunter when they’re out hunting.

Around the edges of the wilderness, there are many more hunting opportunities.

A nice bull taken with Castle Creek Outfitters ...

A nice bull taken with Castle Creek Outfitters …

Shane McAfee, owner of Castle Creek Outfitters, takes hunting clients into the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Unit #28, northwest of Challis. They have 100 square miles of hunting terrain to work for trophy elk and mule deer. “For elk, we are expecting to have a 50 percent success rate,” McAfee says. “The mule deer hunting is quite good right now … we might even exceed that percentage for our deer hunters.”

McAfee also is booked for the season, but he has a few private land hunting areas where he could take people whitetail deer hunting.

In North-Central Idaho, the Flying B Ranch is gearing up to take their elk hunters on a classic backcountry hunt in the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest. They’ve had some archery hunting clients in early September, and then they’ll switch to rifle hunters later this month. “Our hopes are pretty high,” says Jeremi Syron, “We saw quite a few elk last year … most every guest got to see them, and some of them were able to harvest an elk as well.”

Nice mule deer buck taken at the Flying B Ranch near Kamiah, Idaho

Nice mule deer buck taken at the Flying B Ranch near Kamiah, Idaho

Flying B takes elk hunters into the Selway River country and the North Fork of Weitas Creek. For deer, the ranch has an extensive 5,000-acre spread for pursuing white-tail and mule deer on a private land hunt, and they also offer upland bird hunting in the ranch preserve and steelhead fishing on the Clearwater River. As a preserve, their bird hunting opens early on Aug. 15th and runs through April 15.

“If our guests tag out on a deer hunt, they have the option of getting out on a bird hunt or to go steelhead fishing,” Syron says.

Another option in Idaho is that hunters can buy a deer tag for their elk hunt in case they run into a white-tail or mule deer, and that deer tag also can be used to harvest a black bear, mountain lion or a wolf.

“Idaho has by far the best hunting options for anyone going hunting,” Denning says.

To find an outfitter to take you big game hunting in Idaho, go to http://huntingidaho.org/.

Here’s a link to the big game roundup from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

We hope you have a productive big game hunt in 2017!

Elk hunting with Bear Creek Outfitters – “Trip of a Lifetime”

Ken Francisco BBQ’s some fresh elk back straps after a client harvested a 6×6 bull elk in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness this year.

We woke up around 6 a.m., as usual, drank some coffee and hot chocolate in the heated wall tent, and saddled up the horses to go hunting. It was just starting to get light as we rode out of camp on Oct. 25, with snow falling ever-so-quietly in the cedar trees surrounding our camp.

We rode for an hour, tied up the horses and started walking up a meadow. It had snowed several inches overnight, and it was still snowing, making it easy to walk quietly. We hadn’t walked more than 50 yards when my guide, Jim, whispered, “Did you hear that? I just heard a bull bugle.”

We hid behind a scrawny tree and noticed that at least 5-6 cow elk were bedded down low on the mountainside about 150 yards in front of us. Whoa-baby! My big chance! We figured there might be a bull among the group, bedded down out of view. “Get down by that rock, and get ready to shoot,” Jim said.

The Bear Creek drainage is rugged and heavily forested in the bottom of the canyon. The elk were hanging out in the higher elevations during our hunt in late October.

I laid flat in the snow, got my rifle balanced on top of the big rock slab, and looked into the scope to line up the shot. I was excited. Heavy breathing fogged up my scope. I took a deep breath off to the side, wiped the scope clean with my bandanna, and lined up the shot on one of the cows lying there in the brush. I was ready. We waited. And waited … for more than an hour. Finally, one of the cows stood up, shook the snow off her tan-colored winter coat, and started to amble up the mountain.

“Get ready,” Jim whispered. I had my eye trained in the scope, and watched as about a dozen cows and calves got in a line and walked up the slope. I was ready to fire at the first bull I saw, but I never saw a rack. They were all cows and calves. Dang!

In a week-long elk and deer hunt with Bear Creek Outfitters in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho, that morning was my closest moment to pulling the trigger on a trophy bull. We saw quite a few cows and calves, and numerous deer tracks, but we never saw a bull during our hunt in late October.

Curtis Coonce of Missouri got his bull during a late September rifle hunt. Guide Jim Daine is on the left.

In a late-September rifle hunt during the rut, Todd Ward from Jackson, Mo., had a different experience. “We saw or heard bulls every day,” Ward said. “On the third day, my hunting partner shot a 6×6, and on the last day, my guide Jesse bugled in a 4-point bull. It was the closest shot I’ve ever had in my life. We were in the brush, and he was 10 yards away. The hardest thing was finding him in my scope.”

Ward and his friend, Curtis Coonce, were hunting the first time with Bear Creek Outfitters. They had researched 15 different outfitters in several western states, and settled on Ken  and Barb Francisco’s outfit after checking multiple references. “These guys are the real deal,” Ward says. “Our trip was everything I expected and then some. It was a trip of a lifetime for me.”

The Selway River country produces some nice bull elk.

Idaho’s reputation as a premium elk hunting destination has been hurt in recent years because of concerns about Rocky Mountain gray wolves preying on the state’s elk herds. But Francisco and his guides continue to deliver for clients. Francisco hasn’t seen any wolves or wolf tracks this year. The walls of Ken and Barb’s log cabin, and the walls of their bunkhouse for hunters are crammed full of framed pictures of trophy bull elk harvested in the Selway River country, as well as bull moose, mountain lions, black bears and even a few wolves taken in recent years.

“As long as you have the good-quality elk habitat, the elk will take care of themselves,” Ken Francisco says. “We provide trophy elk hunts in a wilderness setting. You’re pursuing them on their own ground in a truly wild environment. It’s as sporting as it comes.”

Photos of bull elk taken by clients with Bear Creek Outfitters on the “wall of fame” in the hunters’ bunkhouse really get you psyched before the hunt.

After 30+ years of guiding hunters in his 200,000-acre hunting area in the 1.3-million-acre wilderness, Francisco and his guides know where the animals are likely to be hiding and hanging out, and when they come across a set of fresh tracks, they become totally focused on hot pursuit. “Ken and his guides are almost like professional athletes. Those guys are in such good shape,” Ward notes.

For $4,500 per person, Bear Creek takes hunters into the backcountry on horseback, with a number of pack mules carrying their gear, and shuttles them into one of several base camps for 8 days of hunting. Bear Creek offers one-on-one hunts — one guide for each hunter — or two-on-one hunts, one guide for two hunters. The hunting guides wear multiple hats — they cook, handle the horses and pack stock, tell jokes, and take care of hunters’ every need.

The best hunting camp locations depend on the weather and the year. Typically, Francisco has numerous camp locations to choose from.

This year, however, the 14,500-acre Pettibone wildfire burned over the top of their normal base camp location at the junction of Cub Creek and Bear Creek, a couple of miles from the Selway River. Numerous burned trees fell down over the Bear Creek trail during and after the fire, making it impossible for Francisco to even reach his base camp. The Pettibone fire didn’t get extinguished until rain and snow storms arrived in mid- to late-October. “The fires came pretty close to shutting us down,” he says.

Hunters ride horseback into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness to hunting camp, and then most of the hunting is done on foot.

But because Bear Creek has a large operating area permitted through the U.S. Forest Service, Francisco had options farther up the Bear Creek drainage. He set up camps next to Granite Creek and Wahoo Creek, and hunted those areas instead. During our week in the area, we never saw another hunter. Pretty much the classic “private Idaho” experience.

Two hunters from Pennsylvania stayed in the Wahoo Creek base camp the week I was hunting with Bear Creek, and they were wowed by the whole experience. “Just being here was absolutely fantastic,” said Bob Herrold of Spring Mills, Pa. “The food was fantastic. It’s impressive what these guys go through to let us hunt in this country.”

“I can’t wait to get back home and show my friend some of my pictures,” adds Larry Lingle of Bellefont, Pa. “We hiked a couple of thousand feet into the mountains every day, looking for elk and deer. The cowboy thing riding into camp was really cool, and the heated tent-camping was a lot of fun. This is the real deal!”

In fall hunts in the Selway-Bitterroot, hunters can buy tags to harvest an elk, deer, mountain lion, black bear and wolves. That provides lots of options for hunters.

Larry and Bob didn’t get a chance to shoot an elk this year. Bob had a cow elk and a calf walk right up to him while he was hiding out, watching for a bull or a buck. “She came up to within about 10 feet of me, trying to figure out what I was,” Bob said. “I was hoping that a bull might come up behind her.”

“We saw a lot of tracks, but it just wasn’t meant to be this time,” Lingle says. “But it wasn’t for lack of effort. It was the ultimate hunting experience.”

Bear Creek also offers mountain lion hunts in the winter, spring black bear hunts and summer trail rides.

For more information on hunting with Bear Creek Outfitters, go to http://www.bearcreekoutfittersonline.com/

For more information on big game hunting in Idaho, go to the Idaho Outfitter and Guides Association hunting page: http://ioga.org/hunting/