Very Few Bucks in Idaho’s Backcountry, Elk Abound

Hunt Report: Idaho!

by Jason Brooks

Spending this past week in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness I found myself in an unusual situation. After putting up the wall tent and unpacking our gear for the week as the Cessna 206 flew away leaving us in solitude I found myself peering through my spotting scope. Normally we see plenty of deer from camp including small bucks and does but looking up and down all of the draws and canyons we were not finding any deer. Then movement caught my eye on a far mountain; elk!

The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness is the largest wilderness area in the lower 48-Jason Brooks

On our way over to McCall, Idaho I stopped at a gas station in Lewiston that is a IDFG vendor. Reports from last year’s harsh winter indicated that deer numbers were down, with the exception of the Salmon River region where we were going, which had a “normal winter”. I decided to buy a second deer tag in case my trigger finger itched before I found a mature buck but the attendant told me that all of the leftover non-resident tags were sold out. However, there were still elk tags left so I pulled out the $115 difference and bought an elk tag.

The sight of the elk put me at ease but I was concerned about the lack of deer. The next morning, I was up at 4:00 AM and headed out by headlamp to climb the eight miles where I last saw the elk bedding down on a ridgeline the evening before. As the sun came up I realized that I hiked up an adjacent ridge and in this country that meant I was a long-ways off. After confirming with my GPS I kicked it into gear and closed the 5-mile detour only to find the elk had migrated over to another mountain several miles away.

An abandoned Fire Lookout high on top of an Idaho mountain-Jason Brooks

Taking lunch at an old fire lookout and then a nap while I waited for an evening hunt the
weather began to change. Temperatures dropped and a cold front was moving in. After my rest I radioed back to camp and told my dad that I would be in late. He replied by letting me know he found another herd of elk; this time the group included at least five legal bulls.

On my way down the ridge I found six shed deer antlers and once in the bottom of the draw it became obvious why I wasn’t seeing very many deer.

The protected draws and gullies where full of bones, deer skeletons fully intact including their rib cages which meant there were so many dead deer predators and scavengers didn’t even try for the easy meals. Last winter’s deep freeze caused severe winterkill on the deer. I have been hunting this same area since 1991 and the only time I have seen this many starved deer was after the severe winter of 1996.

A doe that starved to death during last winter wasn’t even eaten by scavengers as there were so many deer that were winter killed-Jason Brooks

Unlike the mule deer, the elk of the region fared much better, mostly due to their rut being in September allowing them to put back on fat reserves before the winter began. Once again I found myself up a few hours before daylight. This time I was joined by an old friend, Russ McClellan, who had an elk tag as well. We hiked three miles in the dark and stopped at a vantage point that allowed us to glass the open face of a mountain as the sun came up. Elk were everywhere!

Russ glassing the open hillside where the elk bedded on a bench-Jason Brooks

Making a stalk up the far ridge to conceal ourselves we only got up about a 1,000 feet into our 3,000-foot climb when we spotted another herd of elk making their way up a creek drainage. Knowing the big herd was heading for the timber and would bed down we quickly dropped our elevation gain and headed up the creek drainage. Finally catching up to the herd two miles later we discovered two small, sub-legal bulls. The hike and climb back to our first stalk was miserable.

Russ McClellan admires his bull he took in Idaho last week-Jason Brooks

The stalk took us nearly five hours but soon we cut over to the ridge above the elk. Everywhere we looked there were elk. Sentry cows kept guard but we stayed concealed on the backside of the ridge.  Closing the distance to 300 yards I used a lone sage on the ridgeline to keep the cows from seeing me. A big, mature bull fed into a small opening and then laid down with a snag between me and him. I didn’t risk the shot but instead found a 5-point bull in some small fir trees. Finding the bull in my Vortex scope the Kimber Mountain Ascent in .280 Ackley Improved barked once and the bull ran fifty yards before tipping over. Russ was ready when a 4×5 bull stood up at my shot and he connected with his Weatherby Vanguard in .308. A good bullet design is a must when hunting elk and the Hornady ELD-X penetrates and holds up against tough animals like elk. I prefer to handload the 7mm bullet but Hornady also makes commercial rounds, even for the .280 Ackley Improved.

The Authors Kimber Mountain Ascent topped with a Vortex HD LH 2-10x40mm, a lightweight rifle and scope combo-Jason Brooks

We spent the evening boning out elk and made it to camp just before 11:00 PM. Early the next morning we set out to continue packing meat which took us three days to get all of the elk back into camp. The storms continued with rain during the day and snow at night until Saturday, the day we were set to fly-out. Broken clouds and the drone of an airplane woke us and we broke camp. By the time we flew out that afternoon I tallied up the animals I spotted. Over 200 elk with nine bulls but just over 100 deer and ten bucks spotted. Normally I see between 15 and 20 bucks a day. That night in McCall I looked at the weather forecast, more snow. If this ends up being another bad winter, then the deer will take a major toll. Let’s hope at least the elk continue to thrive. Unlike last year we didn’t hear or see any signs of wolves.

The bull that fell to the author’s Kimber Mountain Ascent in .280 Ackley Improved-Jason Brooks

Jason Brooks
The Outdoor Line Blogger
Jason Brooks Photography

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

Hunters Convene at Sportco for Spring Seminars

Close to a hundred avid hunters gathered at Sportco Sporting Goods in Fife, Washington yesterday for a day of spring hunting seminars sponsored by Sportco and the Outdoor Line on 710 ESPN Seattle.

Julie Cyr from Sitka Gear (hey…that rhymes) was on hand all day and even took a ride in Ryan Lampers new EXO Mountain Gear 5500 pack. She’s a spark plug for sure and spends every waking second of her free time hunting and fishing.  

Travis Smith led off the day with an outstanding turkey seminar and followed it up with some personal calling instruction afterwards. Travis is a pro-staffer for Zink calls and Avian X decoys and he’s a wealth of info when it comes to turkey and waterfowl hunting in Washington.

Jason Brooks is a regular guest on the Outdoor Line and has a column in Northwest Sportsman Magazine. He’s an encyclopedia of mule deer hunting intel and gave an info-packed seminar on hunting mule deer in Washington state. He also brought in his new Kimber Mountain Ascent rifle chambered in .280 Ackley Improved with the new Vortex Razor HD Lightweight Hunter scope. The whole package weighs in at just 6 pounds. Wow!

Ryan Lampers, a.k.a. Sthealthy Hunter, and his hunting partner Joe Pyburn shared their experiences hunting mule deer and elk in the Washington backcountry. These guys showcased their philosophy, gear, and the training that’s necessary to take trophy game here in Washington. They are living proof that it can be done!

Lampers and Pyburn talking about their extended stays in the backcountry and the preparation it takes to tag out in Washington on a trophy animal every year.

There were great giveaways from Vortex optics, Avian X calls, Shotlock, and Phelps Game Calls. Here’s Brian with his new set of Vortex 10 x 42 binoculars that he won at the raffle. I can’t thank Vortex enough for all their help with this seminar. They are fantastic to work with and manufacturer exceptional products!

Jason Phelps from Phelps Game Calls wrapped it all up with an exceptional seminar on elk calling. Here’s a brief snippet of just one of the many sounds that Jason demonstrated to bring in that trophy bull elk next fall.

Phelps raffled off some of his elk calls at the end of his seminar. We were excited to see this young man so pumped about hunting and there were several other kids in the crowd, as well. Big thanks to the proud parents that brought their kids to the event yesterday!

Carl will be putting this Phelps bugle tube to work next fall.

…and another Phelps bugle tube heading for the elk woods next fall.

This gentleman can now lock up his home-defense pistol in this Shot Lock that he won at the raffle.

This lucky hunter brought home a brand new Avian X turkey decoy that he won at the raffle. Big thanks to Avian X for the great dekes and swag they sent for the seminars. The detail on these turkey decoys is incredible!

Jason Brook’s new Kimber Mountain Ascent and Vortex Razor HD Lightweight Hunter combo was on display after his seminar. You wouldn’t believe how light this setup is.

I even took a little time to get measured up for a bow at Sportco’s bow shop. Looks like I’ll need a bow set up for a 31 inch draw length.

Once again, a huge thanks to everyone that attended the hunting seminars at Sportco yesterday and we should have news of some more fun hunting events coming soon. Best of luck to you all on the turkey opener on April 15th and in the woods next fall!

Rob Endsley
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

Making Lightweight Hunting Rifles Behave

By Wayne Van Zwoll

If your bullets wander about the target, and game inexplicably runs off, maybe you lack ounces.

The lure of the lightweight: comfort on the trail, speed for the shot. Note hand well ahead on for end. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

The lighter your burden, the more you enjoy walking, climbing, hunting. Many early bolt-action hunting rifles weighed over 8 pounds. In the 1950s Winchester introduced its Featherweight Model 70 at 6 ¾ pounds. Now 6-pound rifles are common. Kimber’s walnut-stocked 84M weighs 5 ¾ pounds and its Montana 5 ¼ pounds. The Adirondack and Mountain Ascent scale just 4 ¾ pounds. Yes, these last three wear carbon-fiber stocks.

Weights bump up for longer actions and barrels. But Kimbers aren’t skeletonized or stubby. They look good and balance well. In my experience, they shoot well too, if shot properly. But any rifle becomes less manageable as you pare ounces. That’s because mass reduces the bounce of your pulse and twitching muscles as you aim, the nudge of your hand and shoulder and trigger finger as you fire. Trigger resistance compounds the problem. The heavier the trigger, the more muscle you must tap, and the more movement you’ll see in the sight. Recently I fired a 6-pound rifle whose trigger broke at 6 ½ pounds. The muscle required to loose a shot was sure to move the rifle off target first! Such imbalance is woefully common in handguns.

Stiff triggers handicap lightweight rifles. Adjust so break weight is a small percentage of rifle weight. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

I’m not in the camp that insists lightweight rifles require special shooting technique. Still, from the bench some rifles perform best when left to recoil freely, while others excel with hand pressure on the forend or even down on the scope. These “preferences” seem to depend as much on bedding as on rifle weight or barrel diameter. By the way, barrel stiffness, has greater effect on group size than does its mass. A short, relatively slim barrel can be stiffer than a long heavy one. A Remington XP-100 pistol was one of the most inherently accurate guns I’ve yet fired. Very little flex in its .17 barrel!

Of course, accuracy is most closely tied to the quality of the bore.

At the bench with a lightweight rifle, I make sure the front rest contacts the forend adequately. On a hard rest, a slim, rounded forend has essentially single-point contact. I prefer a soft rest that better limits bounce. A bit of side support helps steady the rifle. Often I pull the front of the forend down into the rest while aiming. I also use a toe rest. My trigger hand grasps the rifle firmly, tugging it into my shoulder and against my cheek. Without firm support front, rear and center, a lightweight rifle will almost surely move as you press the trigger. To deliver tight groups, all rifles must be held the same way each shot, no matter your shooting style. A lightweight rifle is more sensitive to slight changes in technique.

On the bench or prone, use a toe bag. Or as here, grasp the toe to steady it. Note supporting cheek pad. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

Do lightweight barrels heat faster? Well, their reaction to heat is often quicker and more evident than that of heavier barrels. A given bullet at a given speed imposes on a given bore a measure of friction. Thick barrel walls act as heat sinks, and their stiffness resists the bending and lengthening that can change the impact points of subsequent bullets. Still, the value of a lightweight hunting rifle has little to do with the size of warm-barrel groups.

Wayne Van Zwoll
Journalist, Gun Writer
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

Montana Spot and Stalk Mule Deer Hunt

I just returned from a fulfilling mule deer hunt in the Missouri River breaks of Central Montana. Hunting here means hours and hours behind the glass searching for mule deer in the open sage country of the breaks. A great set of field glasses, a spotting scope, and an eye for locating deer is a must in this country.

Glassing the Missouri Breaks - photo by Rob EndsleyMy eyes are accustomed to gazing thru my binoculars for long periods of time and I’ll usually use them to locate deer at great distances before I jump on the spotting scope to take a closer look. In this country a spotting scope gives you a huge advantage in determining whether you want to go after a buck or take a pass in hopes of a bigger one.

I happened to grab the photo below by placing my small digital camera over the eyepiece of my spotting scope. I spotted this buck in his bed at around 900 yards.  It was one of many on this trip.

Bedded Down Mule Deer - Photo by Rob EndsleyAfter you find a mule deer that you want to take comes the hard part…closing the distance. My good friend Jim Heins and I spotted a good 4 point from around 500 yards away and then Jim used the cover of a knoll to close the distance to 250 yards. You can’t just walk up on a knoll like this and shoot your buck though.

Deer that live in open country depend on their eyesight just as much as their sense of smell to detect danger. Even the sight of the top of your hat peaking over a ridge can send them hauling ass for the next county.

Once Jim got to the knoll he was going to shoot from he slowly pushed his pack and rifle up to the edge of the small ridge to get in position for a shot. There’s also plenty of cactus here, which can literally be a pain in the ass when you’re putting the sneak on a mule deer.

Spot and Stalk Mule Deer HuntingLuckily I was along to range this mule deer at 245 yards before Jim took the shot. He used a Kimber .300 WSM with a Leupold VX-3L that was nothing short of a tack driver. This load carries plenty of energy to knock a muley down at great distances.

Kimber .300 WSM with Leupold VX 3L Rifle Scope - Photo by Rob EndsleyHere’s a little better view of the ravine Jim was shooting across. The mule deer was standing at the top of the dark patch that looks like “Z” on the right side of the ravine. This is a chip shot for a .300 WSM!

Mule deer hunting in open country means long shots - photo by Rob EndsleyJim made a perfect shot and the mule deer went down immediately. Off we went to go check it out.

jim_mule_deer_ravine_webThis deer was down alright…all the way down in the bottom of the canyon. Here’s Jim looking down to the bottom of the canyon where his first deer is laying.

spot and stalk mule deer hunting - outdoor line rob endsleyJim “Bucket” Heins first deer turned out to be a heavy-bodied 4 point with a single eye guard. All that time at the rifle range payed off for this happy hunter. Not too shabby Mr. Heins!

Jim Heins with his Montana mule deer - photo by Rob EndsleyJim cutting his Montana deer tag before we field dressed his muley and hauled it out of the canyon. It took some work but before too long we had it back up to the road where we could pick it up with one of the four wheelers. Well worth the effort if you ask me and Jim was more than happy with his first deer.

Jim Heins cutting his Montana deer tag - photo by Rob EndsleyI’ve hunted deer most of my life but I hate to admit that this was my first out of state deer hunt. It definitely won’t be my last though. The hunting was very challenging and on average I would see around four to five bucks a day with a couple of good shooters in the bunch. For the guys with little to no experience hunting deer that daily buck count can quickly go down to a single buck a day or less. These animals blend into their environment perfectly and more often that not if you see them…they see you!

Thanks for stopping by and good luck on the remainder of your hunting season everyone. Go get’em!!!

Rob Endsley
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle
www.theoutdoorline.com