The Middle Fork's headwaters start at around 7,000', so deep snow and sharp cold may start by mid-autumn. That's why we went hunting in balmy mid-September. Another reason was that local bull elk were whistling, snorting, beating up bushes, rolling in mud, and urinating on themselves in their usual September rutting frenzy. Bulls in that state are easier to locate and stalk. In Unit 27 and similar wilderness areas with few hunters, rutting bulls also respond better to calls.
Anyhow, we had all this in mind when we donned backpacks at road's end and headed east the day before the season opened. We pitched our tiny camp that night by a small creek trickling down toward the Middle Fork. Later inside our moonlit tent, we heard the eerie, distant whistle of two separate bulls. I sure didn't get much sleep after that!
Before sunup the next morning I was glassing across a steep, thinly-timbered side canyon for elk. Suddenly I heard rocks crashing and caught movement in the deep shadows to my left. Immediately I spotted antlers, and I swung my .270 into position. Then I realized the animal wasn't an elk at all - it was a huge mule deer buck sporting antlers in the 30" class! I lowered my rifle and with mixed feelings watched the fat, lumbering buck disappear into canyon brush.
Deer and elk seasons run concurrently in Idaho's backcountry units, but I hadn't bought a deer tag for a reason. On previous wilderness elk hunts I had knocked over so-so muley bucks before catching up with an elk. To prevent warm-weather meat souring, I then had to abandon elk chasing and go home early (not to mention packing out 100 pounds of boned-out deer roasts much farther than I cared to.) By not buying a deer tag, I figured I wouldn't yield to that temptation again. But then, I lost a fine mule deer trophy as a result.
Each hunter has to decide for himself whether to target deer as well as elk in Idaho's several mid-September wilderness hunts. The fact remains, though, that Idaho backcountry units 16A, 17, 19, 20, 20A, 26, and 27 are loaded with big-bodied muley and whitetail bucks carrying heavy "Christmas tree" antlers - if you know where to look. They get that way mainly because they're not shot off early as bucks are in low-elevation, close-to-town units. Because Idaho's wilderness units are mostly high, cold, and covered with old-growth trees, you won't see lots of bucks there - but those you spot are apt to be mature whoppers.
The state's best backcountry units for September muley hunting are probably the low-elevation sections of those bordering the Salmon River and its tributaries between Riggins and Salmon. That would include 19, 20, 20A, maybe 26, and the northern tip of 27. (At these elevations trophy hunters might also wait for October's general season, then hike, float, or pack into more remote sections of 19A, 21, 28, or any other steep lonesome, and hard-to-reach drainage in central Idaho.)
Besides remoteness, the main characteristic of central Idaho's better wilderness muley country is its incredible steepness. (A wise-cracking friend suggests cutting six inches off one leg, but admits it would be tough reversing direction back to camp!) Hunting these super-steep slopes for trophy bucks is a curious mix of close-in jump shooting in dense northslope cover, or cross-canyon sniping of 300 yards or better. Anyhow, go prepared for a wide range of shooting conditions. Also, good binoculars and a portable spotting scope will locate bedded deer and determine their size before you undertake a brutal round-about stalk into shooting range. If you hit these slopes before mid-October, watch out for hillside rattlers.
Getting muley meat and antlers out of central Idaho gorges is yet another problem in hunting here. Get a detailed topo or Forest Service map and locate pack trails in advance. Then try to hunt uphill from there. Another option is dragging or packing meat downhill to the river, then rafting or (LINK TO THE NEW ARTICLE ON UPSTREAM TROPHIES) jetboating it out. A few young supermen can pack meat hundreds of yards uphill to ridgetop trails. I tried that once with a small buck in Unit 16A. I mainly remember the meatsack pushing my face into near-vertical forest duff while I gasped, clawed loose earth, and fantasized about a Medivac helicopter. Never again!
North of the Salmon River, increasing numbers of trophy whitetails are being spotted in backcountry units like 16A, 17, and 20. Because whitetails are far more secretive than elk, relatively few flagtail bucks are spotted in these popular elk units while early-fall leaves are still in place. Both deer and elk seasons here stretch into mid-to-late November, so a better bet for a trophy whitetail might be in late season - if you can handle the snow and cold.
Unlike their eastern relatives, high-altitude whitetails in Idaho migrate to escape severe winter conditions. Mostly they go downhill rather than cross-country to reach milder weather and easier forage. A late-season hunt for wilderness flagtails therefore doesn't have to be a brutal packtrain ride or 4-wheel-drive excursion into deep snow. Instead, you can simply hike uphill from the Salmon itself or from many canyon-bottom trails in that region. Look for dense deciduous brush rather than open sage and lava-rock. Any deer tracks you find in such places are apt to be made by whitetails rather than muleys. As with late-season mule deer, stormy weather up above may concentrate mid-slope whitetails in dramatic numbers.
Hunting whitetails along fairly open canyon slopes gives still hunters an enormous advantage over these difficult deer. In simple terms, you can at least see the damned things across small canyons, especially with deciduous leaves now gone and a little snow for a bright background. Old fashioned glassing and still-hunting may therefore be the way to go for a late-season whitetail trophy in steeper terrain. This approach works for steep-canyon whitetails in early autumn too, but you need more patience to "wait out" fewer deer holed up more stubbornly in thick cover.
A final reason for hunting backcountry whitetail and muley bucks in late season is that early to mid-November is the rut period for both species. Both flagtail and flop-eared bucks commonly ramble around all day rather than brush up until nightfall. In these undisturbed areas, whitetails also come in readily to a pair of rattling antlers.
Meanwhile, it won't hurt to tuck a deer tag into your pocket along with that early-season elk tag. When hunting Idaho's vast backcountry, you never can tell when or where you'll stumble across a whopper buck!
Necessities for the mighty hunter in your family: