Bill Williams of Lewiston, Idaho, hunts a portion of the storied Clearwater River Country that has been less popular with hunters over the last several years because of the presence of wolf packs and resulting shifts in deer and elk populations and behaviors. Late last week, amidst fewer competing hunters than normal – both human and canine – Williams took this bull elk in the morning and dropped this big, mature whitetail in the evening.
“A lot of people won’t even hunt here anymore,” said Williams of his favorite spot in the mountains of north central Idaho, a state that is perhaps home to the best whitetail opportunities anywhere in the West.
Wolves have taken a toll on elk and moose herds in Idaho, but the glory days of elk hunting in the Clearwater River drainages ended well before wolves showed up. A rash of unsustainable logging swept through the region for much of the previous century, so when the saws stopped and the old logging projects grew in, habitat degraded, carrying capacity decreased, and elk populations began to decrease, too. Black bear and cougar also take a toll on calves in the region, according to wildlife managers.
While wolves made a huge and immediate impact on population and behavior of elk in the region, their effect on whitetails has been far less dramatic. State wildlife managers have documented few ill effects to the state’s deer herds – both whitetail and mule deer – from the presence of wolves. And whereas some Clearwater wolf packs grew to numbers approaching 20 animals in the early 2000s, pack sizes have decreased significantly, and wolf populations overall appear to be stabilizing.
Lots of hunters are afraid of the big, bad wolf and what it will mean for hunting in the future, but Williams is not one to let a little canine competition keep him out of his favorite hunting spots. After all, there’s plenty of truth to the idea that wolves are near where the game is. Some hunters even follow wolf tracks to find game. Williams reports, however, that he and his partners saw very few wolf tracks this year.
“I shot my bull in the morning and them spent most of the day hauling him out on my four-wheeler and getting him cleaned up and hung up to cool. In the evening when all the work was done, I took a walk down an old logging road in a regenerating clearcut. I looked down into the drainage below me and saw two bucks – the big one I shot and a four-point – walking toward the creek. I figured I’d never get a shot and that they’d go out of sight, but the big deer just turned and walked right in front of me and gave me a good shot. I dropped it in its tracks, but it gave a few death kicks and rolled down a near-vertical slope about 200 feet to the crick bottom. When I got to the deer, I realized I’d lost my knife somewhere along the way, and I spent quite a bit of time dragging the ungutted buck to an access road. Long story short, we got the deer gutted and hauled out, and the next morning, I went back, retraced my steps, and found my knife!”
Idaho is famous for its still-strong elk herds and its production of 30-inch mule deer, but is less known on a national scale for its whitetails. Two years ago, whitetails eclipsed muleys in the harvest for the first time. Escapement of mature bucks is very high in Idaho, especially in the whitetail stronghold of the northern half of the state. Low human population, lots of heavily-treed mountain habitat, and a mix of logging and agriculture combine to support lots of big-bodied, heavy-racked bucks. Expect to see some more Idaho trophies in my reports as we move into November.