clearwater and snake rivers
A few weeks back I ventured to the great state of Idaho seeking to harvest an elk to feed my family this winter (I talked about my pre-trip thoughts here in the event that you
ignored missed it). My quest for meat began with a cross-state drive to Lewiston, Idaho where my buddy Jawn lives. From my home it’s a little more than 5 hours, which used to seem like a long drive. Several fishing trips to Montana will put things into perspective, and the drive to Lewiston is now considered child’s play.
I stopped at the edge of the Palouse, which happens to be at the top of the Lewiston grade, to take in the views. From this vantage point one can see the entire Lewiston/Clarkston valley 2,000 feet below, and the great confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers and beyond. The two rivers are more like lakes than the free-flowing rivers that Lewis and Clark would have encountered when they passed through the area in 1805. Dams and two hundred years of development will do that to a place, I reckon. Still, it’s a beautiful area, though it could be made even more beautiful if a few dams were torn down.
I was careful not to get too close to the edge of the decaying scenic overlook that the state of Idaho doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with. As it turns out, Idahoans believe that if you’re not smart enough to stay away from the edge then you probably deserve to fall off. Culling the herd, as it were. We need more common sense policies like that. Idaho for President in 2012!
Anyhoo, back to the matter of hunting elk. Jawn has birthright access to private land in the hills of Idaho, the closest town being Kendrick (population: not very big). He’d been out scouting previously and had seen animals. Elk, even, which is always a good thing when going elk hunting. The property we were hunting has the stuff on which elk require to thrive (and disappear): forested land. And plenty of it, like a coupla thousand acres. There’s access to plenty of water thanks to a particular river, so it’s no surprise that elk should do well here. We’d be hunting in a GMU with a special season where any elk could be harvested. Slam dunk, right? Meat in the bank, as it were.
I had hunted on this ranch long enough ago that I didn’t remember the lay of the land. That was back before there was an internet, but of course now there is an internet so the night before our hunt Jawn pulled up Google Earth and showed us what our game plan would be. The ranch has open land where cattle graze, steep brush-choked draws, rolling slopes and yes, a river runs through it. The Potlach River. As Jawn pointed out the names of various draws we’d be hunting over the next two days, my mind kept coming back to the river. “Ever fish it?” I asked. He had, but not much. “Any Westslope Cutthroat in there?” He said there were rainbows. And steelhead spawn in the river as well. “Steelhead?!” I said out loud, or perhaps I thought I said it out loud. Could be the rainbow are actually steelhead smolts. Maybe not. Jawn hadn’t given it much attention from a fishing standpoint. It’s not a big river, but via Google Earth it looked worthy of my time. Perhaps another time. I was here to hunt elk, not cast flies. Not even elk hair flies. Had to get fishing out of my head. A good night’s rest would help with that.
I rarely get a good sleep the night before a hunting or fishing trip, but this first night was particularly lacking in ample hours of quality rest. It’s not that we stayed up particularly late–we didn’t. But on Saturday morning we awoke at an ungodly hour thanks to the fact that my other buddy, Micro, forgot to adjust his watch to reflect the fact that he was no longer in the Mountain Time Zone. I heard him get up and start rustling around in the dark, a fuzzy-eyed glance at my clock revealed that it was 2:15 am. I let him get halfway dressed before pointing out that we had another hour to sleep (needless to say that next hour went by rather quickly). After a breakfast that was eaten more out of acknowledged necessity than gnawing hunger, we piled into the truck. At 4:30 we rendezvoused with Jawn’s dad at a local truck stop, and under the cloak of rain-soaked darkness we headed into the hills. Did I mention it was raining?
In less than an hour we dropped Micro and Jawn’s dad off at one location on the ranch before Jawn and I proceeded up the road a few clicks. The plan was for them to hike in and take up a vantage point along the edge of a wheat field, while Jawn and I pushed in from the top. As we slogged through a field of waist-high seed grass toward the top of the hill, I couldn’t help but think that this must be what it’s like to walk through an automatic, brush-free car wash. By the time we reached the top of the rise our pants were soaked through, and I felt my feet beginning to get damp as well. Apparently my 10 year old waterproof boots which had never failed me before were telling me it was time for new boots. I had rain pants, but they were, of course, in my pack. Putting them on now seemed a silly thing to do, but something I did nonetheless. At least it wasn’t cold (unless you were wet). I believe I mentioned earlier that it was raining. Well, it still was.
Accompanying the rain was a blanket of thick fog that reduced our ability to see. For those not of a hunting persuasion, think of fog being as the equivalent of wind to the fly angling person. We had a vantage point high on a ridge overlooking what was allegedly a thick stand of forest, below which was supposedly the wheat field where the others had by now taken up position. We could hear scores of turkeys gobbling and yelping, and several cattle mooing as they’re known to do, but we didn’t hear any bull elk bugling or cow elk calling. And we couldn’t see anything beyond a distance of about 40 yards. Not ideal for spotting elk in the thick brush 200 yards below us.
Jumping ahead a couple of hours, we met up with Micro and Jawn’s dad and told them what we’d seen earlier in the morning, which amounted to nothing at all. They’d not seen any elk either, which was not surprising because the idea had been for Jawn and I to spot elk, take a well-placed shot and harvest an animal, while at the same time pushing the rest of the herd out below, where Micro and Jawn’s dad would hopefully get a shot. In a perfect world we’d have two animals down and the rest of the day would be spent packing meat and beating our chests in celebration. Since that wasn’t quite how it turned out, we devised another plan of attack as the rain lightened. The next few hours would see an improvement in the weather, and the hunting.