My husband and I moved to Idaho almost 4 years ago. Both of us grew up bird hunting and both of us didn’t achieve our first big game harvest until well into adulthood. Last season, I was fortunate enough to learn from one of the best outdoorsmen I know and harvest my first cow elk. That experience gave me the skills and confidence to entertain the idea of doing our first big game hunt on our own, no mentor calling the shots in the field, a notion my husband supported whole heartedly. It was time for us to spread our wings and see if we had what it took to join the ranks of successful Idaho elk hunters.
As a scientist by training, I took to the data. Scouring Idaho’s draw odds and harvests rates in each unit, I felt overwhelmed and unsure of where to focus. I was drowning in the proverbial data deep end. One of the many perks of my job are the wonderful people I have met along the way. One of those lovely people just so happens to be a retired regional director for Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). A few simple conversations later and I had a list of approximately 5 controlled elk hunting units in the state to investigate that checked all our hunting boxes. My field of focus just shifted from the entire state to a very manageable list of potential options.
From there, I went back to the data, except this time I felt like an Olympic swimmer. It didn’t take long for me to narrow that list of 5 down to 2, our first and second choice units that my husband and I ultimately put in separately for. Idaho’s controlled hunt tags are awarded at random, so when the draw results were posted, my husband had secured a coveted bull elk tag and I had contributed to the American System of Conservation Funding. Despite not being awarded a tag, in our household we are a team, and there was much work to do to prepare for the hunt.
I called my retired IDFG friend again to let him know the great news that my husband had secured a tag and to thank him for his guidance. With unbridled enthusiasm, he congratulated us and then offered to narrow our field of focus even more by providing different drainages that he had been successful in previously. We eagerly accepted his offer and just like that, we went from having an entire hunting unit to explore, to having 5 general areas to focus our scouting efforts on.
From that moment until the hunt, we spent almost all our free time scouting those 5 locations, both in person and via topographical maps of the area. We marked promising looking bowls, benches, and saddles on maps and then scouted them in person to look for elk sign and habitat. We found glassing spots, potential backcountry camping spots, drove roads and hiked trails so when it came time to pick an area for the hunt, we had a game plan. It didn’t take long for us to select a final hunt location. While every place we scouted had elk, one was very clearly a front runner.
Fast forward to October 19 and my husband is sitting on a steep hillside in the backcountry of the Caribou National Forest, 3 miles from camp, admiring the beautiful bull elk he had just harvested. His fingers explored the antlers as he processed that fact that he just became an elk hunter. While it took a certain level of skill on our behalf to be in the right place at the right time, I would be remis if we claimed total responsibility for the harvest of that beautiful bull. Outside of a hunter’s skillset, there are many factors that go into any hunt, successful or not. For us, access, mentorship, science-based wildlife management, and luck all played significant roles in the outcome of our hunt.
Access is often cited as one of the key barriers to hunter and angler participation. With over 60% of Idaho being open to the public, and our specific hunting unit being predominately accessible public land, access was not a hinderance, but rather a key to our success.
However, you can have unlimited access, but if the land is mismanaged and the habitat declines, access becomes moot. We were covered up with elk on our hunt. I can recall one night under an obnoxiously bright moon where we counted 8 separate bulls bugling around us at close range. If it weren’t for science-based wildlife management effectively implemented by Idaho Department of Fish and Game and other management agencies, Idaho’s hunters wouldn’t have nearly the opportunity nor the quality of game that we do today.
Despite being from hunting families, both my husband and I benefited deeply from the kindness, generosity, and expertise of a friend. While we put in the work and were rewarded, it was the gentle guidance and mentorship that pointed us in the right direction to ultimately be successful. To me, this just highlights the enormous and impactful role that mentors play in recruiting, retaining, and reactivating both hunters and anglers.
As all hunters know, harvest is not guaranteed, a concept that many outside of the hunting community don’t fully grasp. Just because we put in the work and do our very best to influence the odds in our favor, at the end of the day, there is still a good chance you will come home empty handed. There is an element of luck that will always play an outsized role in our pursuits afield.
With a freezer full of meat and a heart full of gratitude, I can’t wait to do it again next season, should the odds be in our favor.