• Trail Rides

    Front and Backcountry Journeys

    See the best of Idaho on a trail ride

Summer is here! Time to plan a fishing trip or trail ride in Idaho!

Riding horseback into the Idaho backcountry is a memorable experience! Courtesy Mystic Saddle Ranch

Riding horseback into the Idaho backcountry is a memorable experience! Courtesy Mystic Saddle Ranch

By Steve Stuebner

As we’ve turned the corner from spring to summer in June, the weather is warming up into the 80s, the wildflowers are popping in the mountains, and the fish are biting on lakes and rivers in the great state of Idaho.

Now is a great time to reserve dates for an unforgettable horseback ride into the Idaho wilderness. Ride in a small group with family or friends on national forest trails into high mountain lakes to go camping, fishing and relaxing off the grid. Some outfitters offer the high-touch glamping experience as well. More about that in a moment …

Henrys Fork rainbow 3 Rivers Ranch“The Henrys Fork has been fishing real well right now,” says Matt Heck, a guide with Three Rivers Ranch in Warm River. “And it’s really popular, too … we’re expecting the green drakes to hatch in the next couple of weeks.”

Because of deep snowpack and high water on the South Fork Snake River, the world-renowned Henrys Fork is a great choice right now. Anglers can go out on day trips with a guide from Three Rivers Ranch for $590, and the guides will show them where to catch fish and what flies to use. Anglers also can stay at Three Rivers Ranch and fish multiple rivers over a period of several days.

“We’ll customize a trip to whatever the guests want to do,” Heck says.

Lake Charters knows where to find the big fish for their customers on Lake Coeur d'Alene. Courtesy Lake Charters

Lake Charters knows where to find the big fish for their customers on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Courtesy Lake Charters

In North Idaho, Lake Charters is taking people fishing for northern pike, small-mouth bass and crappie right now on Lake Coeur d’Alene.  Later in the year, the chinook salmon season heats up. Don Houk has been guiding fishing trips on the big lake for 40+ years. They take up to six people on half-day trips ($440 for up to 4 people) and full-day trips ($675 for up to 4 people), including lunch.

“We get customers from everywhere,” says Susan Houk of Lake Charters. “They come to town for vacation or a conference, and they go fishing with us for entertainment.”

Northern pike can run from 20-45 pounds in Lake Coeur d’Alene. You’ll know when you hook into one of those monsters. Lake Charters also pushes Frisky Jenny streamer flies for catching fish. The flies are so popular, they’ve branded them as a product and sell them in the open market.

Lake Charters can pick you up where you’re staying on Lake Coeur d’Alene or meet them at their boat dock. “Beautiful scenery, calm clear waters, wildlife, friendly people will assure you a wonderful and memorable trip,” Houk says.

Summer pack trips

Pretend you’re famed mountain man Jim Bridger and saddle up on horseback to go for a trail ride into the Idaho wilderness. Many outfitters in Idaho offer this experience in the St. Joe River country, the Lochsa River country, Sun Valley, the Sawtooth Wilderness, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, and the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Rawhide Outfitters takes people on trail rides on the Lewis & Clark trail ... they also do a combo trail ride/raft trip ... Courtesy Rawhide Outfitters

Rawhide Outfitters takes people on trail rides on the Lewis & Clark trail … they also do a combo trail ride/raft trip … Courtesy Rawhide Outfitters

You could even pretend you’re Lewis & Clark with Rawhide Outfitters based in Salmon, Idaho. They offer half-day and full-day trips on the Lewis & Clark Trail going up to the actual route traveled by the Corps of Discovery along the Continental Divide. They provide an interpreter on those trips to explain the history. They also do these trips by van. A half day ride (three hours in the saddle) on the Lewis & Clark Trail costs $85 per person, and a full-day ride costs $160 (five hours in the saddle), including lunch.

Rawhide Outfitters also does a “Saddle to Paddle,” trip, featuring a half-day ride on horseback, and a half-day paddle-rafting trip on the Salmon River, which costs $160 per person.

Idaho horseback outfitters are getting more creative all the time with their trip offerings. Storm Creek Outfitters in Hamilton, Montana, for example, offers “glamping” trips – short for glamour-camping trips – to folks who want more high-touch service and comfortable camping accommodations.

Storm Creek Outfitters offers "glamping" trips for guests who want more high-touch service and comfy accommodations.

Storm Creek Outfitters offers “glamping” trips for guests who want more high-touch service and comfy accommodations. Courtesy Storm Creek Outfitters.

Folks stay at Storm Creek’s base camp near Paradise, the trailhead for the Selway River, in tent cabins with wood floors, real beds, carpeting and more. Food is prepared by an actual chef. During the day, the guests go out for trail rides on horseback or go walk-and-wade fly fishing on the Selway, and then return to the comfy camp for a scrumptious feast with fine wine in the evening.

“We’ve been offering those glamping trips for about eight years,” says Mike Burson, a guide with Storm Creek. “They’re turning out to be pretty popular … people come from all over the country to do these trips.”

In the Sawtooth Wilderness, Mystic Saddle Ranch offers a wide variety of trips in terms of half-day trail rides and full-day trail rides, but they also will pack in float tubes for anglers who are serious about catching fish in the high lakes, and they’ll even pack in sit-on-top kayaks for guests. They also will carry gear for hikers who’d rather not carry their camping gear on their backs.

Fly fishing is part of the experience with Mystic Saddle Ranch in the Sawtooth Wilderness ... courtesy Mystic Saddle Ranch

Fly fishing is part of the experience with Mystic Saddle Ranch in the Sawtooth Wilderness … courtesy Mystic Saddle Ranch

“We had a group that hiked the whole length of the Sawtooths from north to south over 13 days, and we carried their camping gear for them between each camp,” says Rebekah Cain, co-owner of Mystic Saddle Ranch.

Mystic Saddle also does fully catered deluxe backcountry trips with fine food and table linens in a wilderness setting. Folks ride to a high mountain lake and stay there for several days, enjoying the peace and quiet of the wilderness while fly fishing for trout in the lakes, day hiking or peak-bagging, depending on personal preference.

“We’ll do pretty much whatever our customers would like to do,” Cain says. “We have a large staff and over 50 head of horses, so we’re able to serve a lot of different groups at the same time.”

Day rides range from $134 to $205 per person, and multi-day trips range from $277 to $555 per person per day.

The higher parts of the Sawtooths won’t be accessible this year until mid-July, but Mystic Saddle is offering half-day and full-day rides in the front country of the Sawtooths right now.

On the south side of Galena Summit, Sun Valley Outfitters offers trail rides on mountain trails throughout the Wood River Valley. Half-day to full-day trips are available as well as overnight trips. Fees range from $125/person for the half day rides (most popular) and $475/person/night for overnight rides.

Trail ride with Sun Valley Outfitters ... many options for trails and experiences! Courtesy Sun Valley Outfitters

Trail ride with Sun Valley Outfitters … many options for trails and experiences! Courtesy Sun Valley Outfitters

Like many of the outfitters, Sun Valley specializes in smaller groups so families and friends can stay together on the same trip. “We specialize in smaller groups,” says Kyle Kimball. “People like the smaller-group setting, and the guides can give each guest more personal attention.”

For high lakes fishing, they take people to Norton Lakes on an overnight journey. They also take people to Pioneer Cabin, which is two hours by horseback each way, riding 3,000 vertical feet to an unforgettable view of the Pioneer Mountains and the surrounding countryside.

Anglers should know that Sun Valley Outfitters recently purchased the fishing outfitting license from Sturtevants in Sun Valley, so they also will be offering fishing trips on the Salmon River and on the upper Big Lost River in Copper Basin.

Fishing for native cutthroat trout is one of the fun activities at the St. Joe Lodge ... courtesy St. Joe Outfitters

Fishing for native cutthroat trout is one of the fun activities at the St. Joe Lodge … courtesy St. Joe Outfitters

It’s always a rare treat to ride into a backcountry lodge and stay multiple days. In North Idaho, St. Joe Outfitters takes guests to the St. Joe Lodge in the stately Bitterroot Mountains. Trips range from four to eight days, with a maximum of eight guests. Trip fees range from $1,548 to $2,850 for everything. Fishing is a mainstay for these trips on the famed St. Joe River, which is known for quality native cutthroat trout fishing.

People ride about six miles to St. Joe Lodge, and then the guests can do whatever they want from there. “We get people coming here from all over the world,” says Barbara Judge. “We have a couple of openings in July and August, but we’re wide open in September, which can be the best time of the year. Beautiful blue sky, Indian summer days and chilly nights.”

In the Lochsa River country, Lochsa River Outfitters takes people on multi-day pack trips to a cabin or base camp in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. They’ll take groups up to eight people maximum. The minimum stay is three days. Openings are available.

They cater to groups of guys who are serious about fishing, and families who just want to get away. “It’s beautiful country – off the grid – perfect for rest and relaxation,” says Sherry Nygaard.

Back to fishing

Mountain River Outfitters out of Riggins offers a wide variety of fishing trips on the Salmon and Snake rivers during the summer. Guests have the option of multi-day trips by staying at the China Bar Lodge on the Main Salmon –  River of No Return or the Ram House at Mackay Bar, also on the River of No Return.

Small-mouth bass in Hells Canyon are super fun to catch, and you can catch them all day long! Courtesy Mountain River Outfitters.

Small-mouth bass in Hells Canyon are super fun to catch, and you can catch them all day long! Courtesy Mountain River Outfitters.

Anglers catch sturgeon, bass and trout in Hells Canyon, and small-mouth bass on the Salmon River.

“To stay in a lodge in the middle of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is pretty amazing,” says Brenda Baugh with Mountain River Outfitters. “It’s a trip that you won’t soon forget.”

Mountain River Outfitters has rafts and jet boats for taking anglers out on the rivers. High water conditions will be receding in June, and July and August will be the heart of the fishing season.  See their web site for pricing information.

Have fun on your summer adventure! For more information about Idaho outfitters who offer fishing and summer pack trips, see ioga.org.

Deep mountain snow gets outfitters excited about Idaho whitewater season

Pipeline Rapids, Lochsa River 2016 photo by Dani Smith Three Rivers Rafting

Lochsa Falls on the Lochsa River (courtesy Three Rivers Rafting)

BOISE — (March 14, 2017) – Mother Nature blessed Idaho with deep snow in the mountains this winter, ranging from 98 percent to 180 percent of normal statewide, setting up an outstanding year for fishing and whitewater boating on Idaho’s world-class rivers.

“We’re pretty excited! Things are shaping up to have one of the best seasons in a long time,” said Erik Weiseth with Orange Torpedo river trips, which offers multi-day trips on the Salmon and Owyhee rivers in Idaho. “This is going to be a season for the record books.”

In a year with robust snow, all of Idaho’s key river basins, including the Salmon, Snake, Lochsa, Owyhee, Bruneau, Payette, Henrys Fork, St. Joe and Moyie will have a full season. Idaho is known as the “whitewater” state with hundreds of miles of fun rapids and scenic canyons.

Jon Barker, owner of Barker River Expeditions, is booking Owyhee and Jarbidge-Bruneau trips through April and May right now. The desert canyons are spectacular, but they don’t always have enough snow for a long season. Right now, the Owyhee has 117 percent of normal snowpack and the Bruneau has 120 percent.

“I think it’s looking really great,” Barker says.

Owyhee River

Owyhee River (courtesy Barker River Expeditions)

Barker takes customers on the river, and he also offers multi-day guided canyoneering trips in the Owyhee Canyonlands. Idaho Public Television recently tagged along for program titled “Canyonlands Calling.” IPTV called the canyons “some of the wildest and most beautiful country in the West.”

This year, Barker is offering a 17-day, 206-mile trip down the full length of the Owyhee River, from top of the East Fork Owyhee River to the Middle Owyhee and the Lower Owyhee. “I’ve always wanted to offer that trip, and this year is the perfect time to do it,” he says.

Hells Canyon Adventures runs jet boat and float boat trips in Hells Canyon. They take families, reunions, business groups and tour bus groups down the mighty Snake River through big and fun rapids like Wild Sheep and Granite Creek. “I’m pretty pleased, the water looks really good and our bookings are strong,” says Mark Yates, jet boat captain.

Popular day trip rivers like the Lochsa in North Idaho, the Salmon in Stanley and Riggins, and the Payette will offer whitewater trips as the snowmelt comes off in the spring, and the deep snow will make for a very long season.

Snowpack in the Clearwater River Basin, for example, is about 112 percent of normal, just slightly above average. “We like average, average is what we want,” says Marty Smith, owner of Three Rivers rafting company in Lowell. “We should have good flows into June this year. We’re hoping we’ll also have a longer season on the Selway for trips into July.”

Middle Fork 2

Fishing the Middle Fork Salmon River … (courtesy Idaho River Adventures)

The Payette River looks to have a long season, and it’s already running strong with initial snowmelt happening now. “We’ve had an awesome amount of snow,” says J.B. Lawler, owner of Idaho Whitewater Unlimited. “We should have some really fun, big whitewater, and a long summer season.”

On the fishing side of things, the guides at Three Rivers Ranch in Eastern Idaho are expecting a great year. “A good water year means it’s going to be good for bug hatches,” says B.J. Gerhart, a fishing guide for Three Rivers. Insect hatches are important for fly fishing, and the Henrys Fork, South Fork Snake River, Teton River and other streams in the area are super popular for fly fishing.

Henrys Fork

Big rainbow caught on the Henrys Fork … Wow! (Courtesy Three Rivers Ranch)

The flows coming out of Island Park Reservoir are ideal for rainbow trout spawning right now, Gerhart says. Anglers can book fishing trips and stay at Three Rivers Ranch for a week to sample all of the different rivers in the area for fishing.

Spring flows on the Snake River are starting to happen in the Middle Snake region this week, as the Bureau of Reclamation releases flows from Upper Snake reservoirs for flood control. That has brought 212-foot Shoshone Falls to life, with flows ranging from 7,000-10,000 cfs, and that also means there are flows in the Murtaugh section of the Snake for whitewater rafting.

Idaho Guide Service offers trips on the Murtaugh section, the Hagerman reach of the Snake, the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area and on the Salmon River.

“We were just out on the Murtaugh last weekend – it was awesome,” says Olin Gardner, owner of Idaho Guide Service. “Now we need some warm weather so people want to go rafting.”

Hunters may break records for elk, deer harvest in Idaho


Happy elk hunter (courtesy Flying B Ranch)

By Steve Stuebner

Idaho’s outfitters are busy packing gear into the backcountry to get ready for a busy season of deer and elk hunting this fall, one of the busiest seasons in years.

Big game hunting in Idaho is coming back with a vengeance this year on the heels of a very good year in 2015, when elk hunters harvested 4,000 more animals than the year before and nearly reached an overall harvest level of 25,000 elk, a milestone that’s only been reached three times in the last 40 years.

Part of the reason for the increasing elk harvest is that more hunting tags are available to hunt elk on private lands, where ranchers are seeing an increase in the number of animals causing damage to crops and pasture fields, and the elk are getting wiser in dealing with wolves.

BullElk-600x400If outfitters have permits, leases or access agreements with private landowners, the hunting can be very productive. Matt Craig with Boulder Creek Outfitters said they hunt on 60,000 acres of private ranch land in the Joseph Plains area, in the high reaches of the Lower Salmon River canyon near the Hells Canyon confluence.

“We’ve been taking lots of deer and elk out of there,” Craig said. “The bulls aren’t huge in terms of trophy scores but we’ve been taking a lot of nice six-point bulls.”

Elk numbers seem to be on the rebound in the Sawtooth unit in Central Idaho and in the Salmon area as well. Darl Allred with Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters noted that Idaho residents bought up all the resident elk tags in 55 minutes when the Sawtooth tags went on sale. “Non-resident tags sold out in six hours,” Allred said.

Elk populations are increasing in the Sawtooth zone because of less wolves, caps on the number of hunters, and improved habitat from recent wildfires. “It should be a good season,” he said.

deer hunting

Deer numbers are nearing all-time highs in Idaho … both whitetail and mule deer

Joseph Peterson with Flying B Ranch in the Clearwater River Country, based in Kamiah in northcentral Idaho, is looking forward to taking elk hunters on a week-long backcountry hunt. He thinks the wolves in that area are preying more on deer, allowing elk numbers to come back.

“It’s still not like it used to be but the wolves don’t seem to be bothering the elk as much,” Peterson says. “The elk are definitely getting smarter, too. They don’t use the mountain meadows as much as they used to. They’re hiding in the steeper, middle country, and the wolves can’t find them as easily.”

Like many Idaho elk outfitters, the Flying B packs their hunters into the backcountry for a week, and they stalk and hunt by foot. “If you want to experience the Idaho backcountry at its finest, enjoy great eating and comfortable quarters, this is the hunt for you,” he said. “Plus, you’ll have a chance to harvest a decent bull.”

2014 fall bear & elk 012

Darl Allred packs out an elk in the Sawtooth Wilderness (courtesy Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters)

At the Flying B Ranch, hunters never run out of things to do. People who come to go deer hunting at the ranch can also go bird hunting or steelhead fishing after they harvest a nice buck.

“We have a 5,000-acre private ranch where we can spot and stalk deer all day long,” he says. “You’re going to see 10-20 four-point or better white tails or mule deer bucks every day. It can be ridiculously easy or extremely hard, depending on the circumstances. We do a lot of walking and glassing to find the right bucks for people.”

After bagging a buck, folks can bird hunt for pheasants, chukars, Hungarian partridge, quail, ruffed grouse and blue grouse. The Flying B is busy with bird hunters in the fall so be sure to make your reservations soon. Steelhead season starts in late September and runs through the winter and spring.

Dave Melton of Bighorn Outfitters loaded his pack string of horses and mules to take a big load into the Bighorn Crags recently to get ready for elk hunting in one of Idaho’s most scenic wilderness areas. Wolves have had an impact on the elk numbers in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, but Melton is optimistic.

“It should be good,” he says. “We know we can show elk hunters a great time in the backcountry with excellent guides and great food.”

Elk medowLike most outfitters, Bighorn Outfitters provides 1-on-1 guiding on elk hunters or 1 guide for every 2 hunters. They’ve even got a hot springs at one of their base camps. “That’s pretty nice after a rough day,” Melton says.

Elk hunters who go on backcountry hunts are encouraged to purchase deer tags in case they run into a mule deer or whitetail deer, plus the deer tag can be used to harvest a black bear, mountain lion or a wolf while they’re out in the woods.

To have that many options when you’re out big game hunting is a real bonus! If you haven’t booked a big game hunting trip with an Idaho outfitter yet, see the “Hunt Idaho” web site to look for outfitters in the hunting zone where you’d like to hunt.

The Idaho Fish and Game hunt planner is another excellent resource for researching where you’d like to hunt, the success rate for different big game units in Idaho, how many hunters like to hunt in that unit, and more.

For more information, go to http://huntingidaho.org


Americans love to visit Idaho for outdoorsy activities

Playing in the Sawtooth Mountains in Central Idaho (Courtesy Idaho Statesman)

By Steve Stuebner

American travel and tourism trends show that Idaho is growing in popularity as a primo destination for outdoorsy visitors, and contrary to national trends, people are staying longer on overnight trips to enjoy quality outdoor-adventure activities.

Visitors are twice as likely to come to Idaho to engage in outdoor activities, compared to national norms, where folks may travel to go shopping or visit friends and relatives.

And when people come to Idaho, they like to go hiking, whitewater rafting, camping, fishing, swimming, hunting, birding, and relax on the beach or in a comfy cabin, according to a recent study by Longwoods International.

The Lochsa River provides oodles of fun. (Courtesy Bear Paw Outfitters)

This makes sense for a state that’s known as the “whitewater capital” of the United States with popular kayaking and rafting destinations such as the Salmon River, Hells Canyon, Payette and Lochsa, and nationally known fishing destinations such as Silver Creek, the Henrys Fork and South Fork of the Snake River. Plus, nearly two-thirds of Idaho is comprised of national forest and public lands where people can go skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, camping, fishing, hunting, mountain climbing, rock climbing and more.

Idaho outfitters provide guided trips to all of these activities for people who don’t have the equipment, know-how or experience to do it on their own. See ioga.org and raftidaho.org for a menu of outfitters to contact about outdoorsy trips.

Hanging out around the campfire is one of the bonuses of going on a multi-day outdoor adventure …

Diane Norton, Manager of the Idaho Tourism Division for the Idaho Department of Commerce, said she’s not surprised by the findings of the Longwoods study. “We’re above the national norm on all of the outdoor activities,” Norton said. “It’s what we’re known for.”

An America Outdoors report on national outfitted travel trends shows that the top activities in outdoor travel in 2013 were lodging and cabin rentals, Standup Paddle (SUP) boarding, and canoe and kayak rentals. Guided trips of shorter duration were more popular on a national basis, than longer trips, said David Brown, executive director of America Outdoors.

Stand up paddle boarding, SUP for short, is one of the most popular outdoor recreation activities nationwide. In Idaho, you can SUP on lakes and rivers. (Courtesy Gregg Mizuta)

“Lower risk trips close to metro areas are growing dramatically,” Brown says.

But in Idaho, the length of stay is increasing. “Our trips of 4-7 days are going up, which shows that people are buying a pre-packaged trip,” Norton says. “And our day trips are increasing, too.”

Plus, Idaho’s many river outfitters provide SUP experiences as part of day trips and multi-day trips.

On a national level, approximately 70 percent of outfitters saw their profit margins increase in 2014, a good sign indicating that the grip of the recession is ending when it comes to leisure and adventure travel, officials said.

Elk hunting trips are seeing a resurgence in growth in Idaho.

John May, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, said he’s hearing the same thing from Idaho outfitters. “The general trend is that Idaho is doing better than the national average,” May said. “We had a good whitewater season, fishing trips were up, our hunting trips were up with bookings increasing for next year, and our lodging trips were up.”

Idaho trips are increasing because the state didn’t suffer the effects of the recession as badly as some other states, tourism officials said. People coming to Idaho tend to come from adjoining states like Washington, Utah, California and Oregon. Visitors also came from Texas, Florida, Arizona, New York and Montana, the study showed.

Just from casual conversation with the owners of lodging businesses, people enjoy coming to stay in a lodge or a private cabin while they can go horseback riding, hiking and biking, May said. They like to do a mix of leisure activities and come back to a comfy bed in a heated quarters.

“They want to experience the West, but not necessarily in a hard-core way,” he says.

“Glamping” on the Salmon River. Looks pretty comfy! (Courtesy glampinghub.com)

Glamping” is another activity that outfitted guests enjoy, where the women are pampered with yoga and massage activities, gourmet food is served on fine china with cloth tablecloths and fine wine, and sleeping quarters are very comfortable with nice sheets and blankets on raised beds or cots in Safari-quality wall tents.

“This kind of activity is now on the urban dweller’s bucket list,” May said. “They now realize that they can go “rough it” outdoors and enjoy a surprising list of amenities.”

Another reason people come to Idaho, Norton says, is that “we’re a bargain” compared to many other destinations in terms of lodging and trip costs. Plus, many people know that they can enjoy outdoor activities in Idaho without feeling pinched by thousands of other tourists doing the same thing.

We call that the “Private Idaho” experience. Come visit and find out what that’s all about!

For more information, go to ioga.org, raftidaho.org or visitidaho.org.

Idaho mountain snowpack levels look favorable for 2013 whitewater season

Rafting on the Lochsa River with Bearpaw River Expeditions

Idaho mountain snowpack levels and anticipated streamflows in the popular Salmon, Snake, Lochsa and Payette river basins are hovering near 90 percent of normal, which should provide for a fun-filled whitewater river season, according to officials with the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association.

“The current levels in mid-March are looking excellent,” said Justin Walsh, owner of Bear Paw Expeditions, which runs day trips on the Lochsa River in North Idaho, east of Lewiston. Snowpack levels in the Clearwater Basin were 87 percent of normal as of mid-March, with more spring precipitation expected. “I’m really confident we’ll have plenty of water for a great season,” Walsh said.

Idaho is known nationally as the “whitewater state” with more than 3,000 miles of thrilling whitewater rapids, the most of any state in the lower 48. Now is the time when many families are planning their summer vacations; thousands will take week-long wilderness river vacations on the Salmon River, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Selway River or Hells Canyon of the Snake with Idaho outfitters.

These trips are packed with fun and feature great people, magnificent scenery, delicious Dutch oven meals, entertaining river guides, wildlife, and more. By the end of the day on the river, guests kick back on sandy beaches, relax with a favorite beverage, and swap stories about their river day.

One of the best parts of river trips is hanging out in camp in the evening around the fire …

Whitewater enthusiasts also will book day trips with Idaho outfitters on the Payette, Snake, Salmon, Lochsa, St. Joe and Moyie rivers. Now is a great time to reserve your spot for a unique and unforgettable vacation, outfitters say.

Chuck Boyd of Salmon River Experience said he is glad to see snowpack levels hovering around 90 percent. “My best years are when it’s a little bit below normal,” Boyd said. “I like the snowpack right where it is.”

Side-hiking on the Salmon River quickly reveals how deep the canyon truly is …

When snowpack levels are super high, the Salmon River can surge to dangerous flood-stage levels for several weeks at a time when it’s unsafe to run raft trips or jet boat excursions, he said. With slightly lower flows, the Salmon River tends to peak a little earlier in May, providing a longer floating season from June – September, the water warms up sooner for swimming, and good fishing kicks in earlier.

Ron Abramovich, water supply specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said early, high-elevation snows in November and December set up Idaho’s mountains and rivers for a good season.

“We got a lot of snow above 7,000-foot elevation, it piled up several feet deep and that put us above normal,” Abramovich said. “We know there’s a lot of snow up there. That’s kind of the kicker for this river season. It may be a real bonus when it comes off.”

A few river basins in southwest Idaho are showing lower snowpack levels, such as the Boise at 68 percent of normal, and the Owyhee at 68 percent of normal. The Payette basin is at 77 percent of normal, but reservoir storage is 115 percent of average on the North Fork of the Payette, and the South Fork, elevating streamflow predictions to 88 percent of normal, Abramovich said. “The Payette Basin will be fine because of reservoir storage,” he said.

River floaters will have to watch the Owyhee gauge closely to time trips correctly, Abramovich said. “You’ll have to be quick to catch the Owyhee this year,” he said.

The spectacular Bruneau River, however, is hovering at about 90 percent of normal snowpack. Seth Tonsmeire of Wilderness River Outfitters near Salmon, said his company is hoping to run at least one guided trip on the Jarbidge and Bruneau rivers when the weather warms up. “We’re a little more optimistic about running the Bruneau this year, and we know the Salmon River is going to be great,” he said.

For more information about booking an Idaho whitewater river trip, go to the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association web site, http://ioga.org/rafting or call 208-342-1438.

Five reasons to hunt big game in Idaho

Now is the time when hunters, outfitters and state Fish and Game officials are flocking to sportsmen’s shows around the United States, and hunters are making decisions about where to hunt in 2013.

We want hunters to know about the advantages of hunting in Idaho … Here’s our list of 5 reasons to hunt big game in Idaho:

  1. Go with a Pro. Idaho outfitters and guides know the country, they know where the big game animals are, and they’ll take great care of you in elk camp.
  2. Solitude. Guided hunts in Idaho have a lot of elbow room in wilderness and roadless areas … no worries about getting buzzed by an ATV or seeing hundreds of other hunters while you’re out hunting. Go find your private Idaho.
  3. Big game bonanza. On a fall backcountry hunt, you can buy tags for and potentially harvest a mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, wolf, black bear and mountain lion during a week-long hunt. How much room do you have in your freezer?
  4. Best drawing odds for trophy species. No preference points or bonus points are needed to draw prized tags for bighorn sheep, mountain goat or moose. Central Idaho is a premium destination for these highly sought-after species.
  5. Introduce your kids to big game hunting for $1.75. Idaho has a new program for junior mentor tags. Adults with a big game license can buy a hunting passport for kids 8 and over for $1.75. No hunter education classes are required, either. The program also is open to adults who have never hunter before.

Here are some other benefits that Idaho outfitters and guides bring to the table …     

We need to underscore Point #2 … Idaho outfitters and guides are licensed with the state of Idaho. They must go through a rigorous process with a state licensing board to receive a license to outfit and guide hunters in Idaho. A number of states do not have this process, and unwitting hunters sometimes end up booking a trip with a fly-by-night outfitter who doesn’t have the skills, equipment and know-how to lead a quality successful hunt. That won’t happen to you in Idaho because of the licensing process. Idaho’s outfitters and guides are high-quality people who truly know the mountains and wildlife in their territory,  and they can be counted on to take care of your health, safety and welfare.

Here’s a video that shows what a guided elk hunt in Idaho is all about:watch?v=FKXjntnJliY

Here’s another top list from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game …Top 5 Reasons To Hunt in Idaho …

1. Buying big game tags is simple. Hunters can buy big game tags through their outfitter and go hunting. Idaho Fish and Game reserves a number of deer and elk set-aside and allocated big game elk tags for the outfitted public. A key advantage is that those tags can be purchased through Idaho outfitters long after other states have sold out.

2. We give you variety. Go elk hunting and bring steelhead home, too. We call it “cast and blast.” Combination fishing and bird-hunting trips are available, too.

3. Wide open spaces. Vast public lands provide variety, opportunity and fair chase.

4. We are always open. Hunt and fish 365 days a year.

5. Easy on the pocket book. Tap into the discount for a nonresident junior license and tags to mentor a young hunter.

Never heard of Idaho? Or just heard of it because of our famous potatoes? Well, former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus, a lifelong hunter, puts it this way: “Idaho is what America was.”

Enjoy this video titled “Dreaming of Idaho” and you’ll see that we’re about …watch?v=EYMxW-5_390

Come hunt with us in Idaho. To select a hunting outfitter in Idaho, visit our web site for a full listing of outfitters and guides

Thanks for visiting.

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/

Fall Fishing – The Bite is On!

Amy Sinclair of Exodus Wilderness Adventures with a nice fall chinook she caught last week in Hells Canyon.

The calendar has flipped into October, and that means fall steelhead fishing is coming right up on the Clearwater, Snake and Salmon rivers in Idaho. Do you have your trip booked yet?

“We had three ladies with us on Sept. 27th on a day trip from Pittsburg Landing to the Salmon River confluence, and they caught six steelhead and three salmon,” says Heather Killgore, co-owner of Killgore Adventures. “They’ve never caught steelhead before. They were quite excited!”

A happy guest with Wapiti River Guides caught a beautiful steelhead near Spring Bar.

Fish are biting on the Clearwater River as well, says Evelyn Kaide, owner of Clearwater Drifters and  Guide Shop in Orofino. “Our guys are doing fine – they’re catching fish. Everyone has been really happy,” she says.

Steelhead are just starting to move upriver from Lewiston, Kaide says, and once they get to Orofino, there will be competition for guided trips and hotel rooms as is often typical in the fall. “We’ve got a lot of trips booked well into November, ” she said.

Here’s a fall chinook passing through Lower Granite Dam, courtesy IDFG

A big bonus on the Snake River this year is that 30,000 adult fall chinook have passed through Lower Granite Dam, and they’re heading upriver in Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. Fall chinook are big hogs – they can run up to 30-40 pounds apiece. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has set a bag limit of six fish per day for adults, and no limit on Jacks.

Fall is a premium time for cast-and-blast trips on the Lower Salmon and Hells Canyon. These are super-fun outings where you can fish as you float downriver, and then when you hear chukar partridges sounding off on the river bank, you stop and pursue chukars.  Anecdotal reports indicate that chukar numbers are robust on the banks of Hells Canyon and the Salmon River.

Fall cast-and-blast trips combine the sporting challenge of chukar hunting with catching steelhead, fall chinook, trout and bass on the Salmon and Snake Rivers.

Amy Sinclair, owner of Exodus Wilderness Adventures, just completed a private trip with some friends in lower Hells Canyon. They were catching lots of fall chinook and limiting out on chukars every day. “It’s kind of exciting that the fall chinook fishery is coming back,” she says. “We’ve got a pretty big run this year.”

Exodus offers steelhead fishing trips near Riggins via drift boat or jet boat, and they also offer two-, four-or five-day cast-and-blast trips on the Lower Salmon River, and two-day fishing or cast-and-blast trips with an overnight stay at a guest lodge on the Main Salmon River. Sinclair says people are excited to go fishing, and bookings are strong for the core steelhead season from mid-October to late November. “Some weekends are totally booked already,” she said.

Another possibility is to go on a multi-day steelhead fishing trip on the Main Salmon River with Salmon River Tours, owners of China Bar Lodge. Guests can go fishing and/or chukar hunting during the day, and then return to China Bar Lodge for a hot meal and comfy sleeping quarters.

Owner Mike McLain has been watching the steelhead counts at Lower Granite Dam, and he’s pleased to see that the fish are on the move. “I think the fish are going to come, but because we’ve got low water, they may be a little late,” he says. “I think we’ll have a good season. We may not have as many fish this year as in the last couple years, but there will be plenty of opportunity. As my fishermen say, the fishing trip is worth the price of admission, and catching fish is a bonus.”

If you live near Twin Falls, Pocatello or Idaho Falls, you may want to fish the Upper Salmon River near Salmon since it’s closer to home. Bill Bernt, owner of Aggipah River Trips, says he is gearing up for a productive steelhead fishing season.  “My fishing is often dependent on gas prices, and even though we have fairly high gas prices, we’ve got a significant part of the fall season booked up,” he says. “I think people are excited to go fishing.”

For more information on fall fishing, see the IOGA salmon and steelhead fishing pages, including outfitter listings by river. http://ioga.org/

Have fun!