Island Elk and Pocket Muleys
Editor's note: Lew Watson wrote this piece for the old Idaho Outdoor Digest about a year before his death in 1991. With slight revision to account for changing times and regulations, it still offers a fresh look at southern Idaho hunting.
by Lew Watson
Several years ago I was hunting antelope in Unit 36A
east of Stanley. Out on the flats, slob hunters were chasing pronghorns around in pickups and blazing away at ridiculous ranges. I figured surviving bucks would "head for the hills" where 4WD's couldn't follow, so that's where I went too.
Sure enough, on a steep sagebrush ridge
I ran smack into a small antelope herd with a 14" boss buck bringing up the rear. Crawling to within 80 yards, I put a .308 Nosler through the buck's ribcage. While field-dressing the animal, I heard not one but three bull elk whistling on nearby ridges.
I spotted one of the bulls
walking stiff-legged near a small timber patch 600 yards away. Just below him, two muley does were gawking in my direction. Hey! These open sagebrush foothills were supposed to be antelope country, not deer and elk habitat! Yet, I've found this is common over much of southern Idaho's high desert.
In the vast triangle between Bear Lake,
Salmon, and Duck Valley Indian Reservation lie endless miles of flat-to-rolling sagebrush. Easily accessed by meandering roads, these desert flats are mostly devoid of big game. Yet here and there, rising hundreds of feet above the desert floor, are scads of small foothill clusters and mini-sierras. Unknown to many, isolated habitat "islands" like these are often stiff with deer, elk, and hiding antelope.
For example, once I was hunting sage grouse
near the Little Wood River above Shoshone. A fierce wind was whistling across the flats, so I figured sagehens might be hiding in the lee of a single tall ridge about a mile away. Yep -- not only did my pointer find six sagehens there, but a nice three-point muley buck pogo-hopped away as well.
my wife and I were chasing sage grouse near Silver Creek south of Picabo. Two Game Department reps checked our licenses and casually mentioned they were surveying local elk numbers. Elk? In those irrigated farmflats and sagebrush wastes? It turns out a major herd lives about 2,000 feet above Picabo -- atop one of the tallest and barest sagebrush ridges in the area.
How many local hunters know about those animals,
or about the region's many other "island elk and pocket muleys?" At first glance, southern Idaho's lava-littered desert may not look like big game country. But check out its isolated patches of high country and you'll be dazzled at how many bucks and bulls are looking down at passing traffic from lonely pinnacles.
While "island elk" can be fairly concentrated here,
it is mule deer that are most plentiful in south Idaho's desert foothills. A Twin Falls hunter told me his favorite deer hunting technique is to hike and climb into isolated junipers near the Nevada border where road traffic can't go. In a single day he looked over twelve nice muley bucks before he picked one to fill his tag! Few of Idaho's more famous tall-timber deer ranges to the north can boast game numbers like that.
It has been a long time since I saw massive mule deer herds
like the one I observed just a few seasons back. Camping by a cottonwood-lined stream east of Challis, we counted 38 muleys filing down at dusk from the forested slopes above our sagebrush campsite. We could only wonder at unseen deer still hiding on the slopes, including some wide-racked bucks, no doubt, in that high and lovely corner of Idaho.
At least one hunter I know
insists some monstrous big muley bucks are hiding far out on south Idaho's sagebrush flats. I'm sure he's right, but in two decades of chasing sagehens out there I've spotted only a few flop-eared flatlands trophies. Still...
In places, elk densities in southern Idaho
rival the big herds in our central wilderness and Panhandle areas. Overall, though, south Idaho doesn't have much good elk habitat. Since "island herds" here are fairly accessible, hunting is generally on a permit basis for both bulls and cows. Still, those lucky enough to draw permits have a remarkably high success ratio, according to the figures.
Finally, you'll find some of Idaho's best antelope bucks
hiding in Idaho's southern foothills -- especially after the shooting starts. Sure, lots of pronghorns are always dashing about on the flats, but they're mostly does and fawns. For bigger bucks, climb into low foothills, and even higher, where few hunters and no vehicles can reach.