Hunting Idaho Elk Close to Home

2014.9.14

Hunting elk close to civilization has become even more of a successful strategy in recent years as herds in many areas of Idaho have grown outside classic backcountry hunting lands where elk have, in some wilder places, struggled against the pressures of habitat change and predation.

One snowy morning a couple of years ago, I looked out my rural back window at sunrise. Empty of game the day before, the sagebrush basin was now filled with dozens of elk feeding clear into the timbered foothills a mile away! Through the binoculars my wife and I saw three good bulls, half a dozen spikes that would be multi-tined breeders by autumn, and a fine crop of calves. That afternoon we watched 125 wapiti leave various side canyons and trail single-file up a distant mountain like an army of ants on a sugar heap.

No, we don’t live in the shadow of elk-thick Yellowstone Park, but in heavily hunted foothills 50 miles outside Boise. By “foothills” I mean the countless road-laced jumbles of minor hills, small mountain ranges, and moderate timber stands closely adjacent to towns, highways, and agricultural valleys all over Idaho. And with nearly two-thirds of Idaho being public land, these animals are highly accessible to the average hunter.

Unfortunately, we don’t always see the elk come down in numbers like this in the winter any more. What with growing population, public access roads being punched into backcountry for various reasons, drought and other factors, elk herds have been dwindling. Close-to-civilization spotting of elk naturally creates a stir. We all love to see wild animals of any kind close to home. And, it’s encouraging to think we might not have to travel far in the fall to fill our freezer with elk. In fact, whether numbers are up or down, we personally prefer to hunt close to home. That’s part of the reason why we live out here surrounded by sagebrush foothills with timber nearby.

bull elk rubbing his antlers before the mating rut

Idaho elk hunters do not necessarily have to go to the wildest backcountry to find elk.

So, in the October hunt, I rode my trailbike before dawn up a ranch road, hiked a quarter-mile over a timbered saddle, and by daybreak was within a half-mile of three separate bull kills. I didn’t get my own bull that day, but a week later I drove my Volkswagen to a popular lake campground east of Cascade. Still-hunting alone in a steady autumn rain, I dropped a monstrous six-pointer with one shot from my .308.

I made the kill about 2 p.m. and by late afternoon the next day had boned and backpacked to my car well over 350 pounds of meat and antlers, careful to make it clear what the sex of the animal was in case I was checked by a conservation officer on the way home. (Check the current seasons, rules and regulations.)

We’ve seen some of these close-in elk herds near our home stay year-long instead of heading to higher country. As long as there is some deep timber nearby for them to hole up in during the day, a handful will often hang around in spring and summer. With the first snow, though, foothills elk herds flood into nearby valleys to munch and trample haystacks and crop lands. Elk depredation is one of Idaho Fish and Game Department’s biggest headaches. (Check for depredation hunts.)

Hunting foothills elk is a bit different from chasing their relatives in Idaho’s rugged outback. The biggest contrast is hunting competition. In vast wilderness units it’s easy for a hunter to get lost; in close-in areas the hunter often wishes those other guys/gals would get lost. On the other hand, steady hunting pressure keeps the animals moving and makes it easier for a less-skilled hunter to cross paths with his target. Some hunting groups employ drives, but elk don’t drive smoothly and even small Idaho timber stands are a far cry from Eastern whitetail woodlots. More knowledgeable foothills hunters slip silently, alone, and in ultra-slow motion through thick brush tangles for point-blank shots at standing targets. Unless you want to count on brute luck delivering an open-country shot, brush-stalking is probably the best way to drop one of those foothills trophies, especially after opening day.

One advantage is getting further into those thick areas, on foot, away from roads – fact is, many hunters just won’t crawl around like that and get away from their vehicles far enough. And, some just luck out, 30 yards off the road. Aggravating.

While getting a downed elk back to camp or vehicle is usually easier in gentler and well-roaded foothills areas, these low-elevation units are quite warm in early October. Under such conditions the successful beginner in particular must realize immediate and elaborate attention is necessary to protect mucho bucks worth of prime meat. Quick and complete field dressing is just a first step. In warm weather immediate skinning is also necessary, as is quartering, fly protection, and shade-hanging till nightfall – as a bare minimum. (A neighbor recently shot a nice bull, incompletely field-dressed it, and spent all afternoon and half the night trucking the whole carcass out intact and unskinned. Exhausted, he slept late the next morning. When he finally got the thick-coated bull to a butcher, the entire animal had gone sour.)

A wapiti hunt doesn’t necessarily have to be an expensive backcountry affair far from home. Cow permit holders in particular face excellent odds of collecting venison, which are enhanced even more if their assigned unit is close-in where repeated weekend hunts are feasible.

Reprinted from Idaho Outdoor Digest, September 1987

More Information:

Idaho Department Fish and Game Elk Hunting Information

2013 Elk Hunting Harvest Statistics