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How to hunt Idaho every year and why

Hunting scenery Idaho's backcountry

With draw odds plummeting in most draw units and point creep for desired tags ever increasing; many hunters are looking for ways to maximize their time in the field each year. Bowhunting is becoming increasingly popular because of the additional opportunities available to put boot tracks in the field and a tag in your pocket. When hunting is combined with over-the-counter (OTC) tags and long seasons available in states like Idaho, bowhunters and rifle hunters have plenty of opportunity to hit the field each year and possibly fill the freezer with choice meat.

The nuts and bolts

Nonresidents can purchase OTC deer and elk tags for most of Idaho. Deer tags are relatively inexpensive for nonresidents and run $301.75 per tag. OTC elk tags are $416.75 per tag. In addition to the tag fees, a hunter must also purchase a hunting license for $154.75 (or hunting/fishing combo for $240) and all bowhunters must purchase an archery permit for $20. Many units in Idaho have healthy wolf populations. For a mere $31.75, a hunter can purchase a gray wolf tag, which allows them the opportunity to harvest a wolf if it presents itself. Note: Idaho Residents or nonresidents may buy one unsold nonresident general season deer and elk tag at the nonresident price starting August 1, 2015 that can be used as a second tag. Tags can be purchased here.

Most deer tags are valid for any open unit and can be used during the archery season and during the any weapon season. Exceptions to this are the whitetail only areas which may require purchasing a whitetail only tag. Elk hunters must choose their “elk zone” which generally encompasses multiple units. For the opportunistic hunter, nonresident deer and elk tags can also be used to harvest a black bear, mountain lion or gray wolf if there is an open season for that species in the unit you are hunting and if you are willing to sacrifice your deer or elk tag to take advantage of the opportunity. In spite of an abundance of wolves, Idaho is still meeting elk population objectives in 16 of the 22 elk management zones. 

Hitting the hills

Eric Baler with an archery mule deer
Eric with an archery mule deer buck.

Once you have paid the minimum of $893.25 for a license, tags and permit fees, Idaho provides ample opportunity for the hunter to lay down boot tracks in pursuit of deer and elk. Elk and deer can be found throughout the state. The elk zone you choose should be based on several factors: your fitness level, access, desired accommodations and mode of transportation. The main decision that will affect a hunt is terrain. A hunter must understand what type of terrain his elk zone will be in and know if he is willing to pack into remote areas to camp. 

Sorting out the OTC units

INSIDER members can easily sort out the archery and rifle OTC units in Idaho. You simply go to the unit profle page, select Idaho, enter your search criteria and their system will filter out specific hunting units for you. The filtering is done by state, species and season. I am a bowhunter, so I will use Idaho over-the-counter early season archery elk as an example.

Idaho unit profile filtering on INSIDER

With the filtering tool on the unit profile page, you select Idaho —> Elk —> Early Archery (Over the Counter). The Unit Profile filtering will then show you all of the units in Idaho that meet that criteria. From there you can dive into an individual Unit Profile to figure out the terrain, access, amount of public land and the quality of animals and tag quotas and harvest success.

Northern Idaho

Northern Idaho, mainly the panhandle (Units 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A, 5, 6, 7, 9), has good elk numbers as well as an abundant whitetail deer population. If an elk/whitetail combination is what you desire, then this is a great region to start looking. The terrain is mountainous and densely timbered. Glassing will be limited, but chasing bugles in the thick evergreen forests could make for a worthwhile tradeoff.

Middle section of Idaho

The middle section of the state, including the Selway (Units 16A, 17, 19, 20), Lolo (Units 10, 12), Middle Fork (Units 20A, 26, 27), Salmon (Units 21, 21A, 28, 36B) and Sawtooth (33, 34, 35, 36) Zones, contain some of the most remote wilderness in the lower 48 and should not be tackled without serious preparation or the aid of an outfitter. Much of this area is only accessible by plane, boat or many miles on horseback. Many of these zones do not have archery only seasons, but hunters are able to use any legal weapon, including archery equipment. Wolves have had an adverse impact on elk numbers in this area and the region is currently listed by the Idaho Fish and Game as “below objectives.” Yet deer numbers are stable and a few good mule deer are still coming from these units. If you are a hardcore adventure seeker that wants to see very few other hunters, if any, and would like to have a good chance of seeing or harvesting a wolf during your trip, then this area may be worth a closer look.

Southeastern section of Idaho

The better known elk units in Idaho are found along the southeastern portion of the state and include the Beaverhead (30, 30A, 58, 59, 59A), Island Park (60, 60A, 61, 62, 62A), Palisades (64, 65, 67), Tex Creek (66, 69), Diamond Creek (66A, 76) and Bear River (75, 77, 78) Zones. These units are steep, rugged mountains that contain some open country above timberline where binoculars and spotting scopes become helpful tools to locate elk and deer. Elk are typically close to water and in the deep timber canyons, but some do venture onto open hillsides to feed and chase cows during the rut. The Island Park Zone is one of the more well known and desired units because of a large elk population and the occasional great bull that the unit produces. The terrain is generally a little milder than most elk units and access is good with plenty of roads and decommissioned logging roads that make for easy foot travel. There are also some high elevation areas where bucks can be found along with elk. Elk thrive in the heavy dark timber of the Island Park Zone and high elk numbers can make for some good rutting action during the last half of September.

The other units in the southeast portion of the state are a little more rugged and most require long day hikes or backcountry camps for accessing the best areas. Tex Creek, Diamond Creek, Beaverhead, Palisades and Bear River Units all have healthy elk herds and plenty of open glassing opportunities from high ridges for both elk and deer. These units have produced some great bulls and bucks over the years during general season hunts. While deer numbers have struggled for the past several years in many of these units, there is still plenty of good opportunities to harvest a buck if you are willing to go deeper than the average day hunter.

Southern section of Idaho

The southernmost zones, which include the Diamond Creek (66A, 76) and Bear River (75, 77, 78) Zones, have good elk numbers and generally provide plenty of elk action, but also see plenty of hunters during the season. While these units have some areas of easy access, they also provide plenty of areas to escape the crowds with a little effort. This is also one of Idaho’s historically better deer areas and has seen its share of Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young record book entries.

There are plenty of other units in Idaho that provide good elk and deer hunting, but many have general seasons for one species and are only available by draw for the other. This is by no means an exhaustive list of areas to hunt elk and deer in the Gem State, but for the nonresident looking for a great place to tackle an elk deer combo trip and it gives some insight on where to start your next level of research.

Boone and Crockett mule deer entries in IdahoTotal Boone and Crockett mule deer typical all-timeTotal Boone and Crockett mule deer nontypical all-time


Backpacking in Idaho's OTC units

Idaho provides plenty of opportunity for most types of hunters. If you prefer the luxury of a hot meal from a diner and the comfort of a night’s sleep at a hotel, many areas can be accessed by a short drive and a little walking each day. Idaho also allows primitive camping on U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land as well as Forest Service maintained campgrounds where elk can be hunted after little or no driving. Idaho also has plenty of backcountry opportunity for those who like to escape the crowds and rough it with only what you can carry on your back. Most areas can be accessed by horse/foot trails and some ATV trails. Be aware that some areas do have ATV restrictions in place during hunting seasons. Make sure to check the regulations or call the Idaho Fish and Game office regarding ATV restrictions before you go.

Be prepared

Rugged Idaho mountain terrain

Idaho is a mountain state and many of the elk zones and deer units are very steep and rugged. Being prepared for just about anything is key to being successful when venturing into the Idaho elk woods. Many elk and deer archery seasons take place in September, which encompasses most of the elk rut. Temperatures are typically mild during this time of year, but can also fluctuate from below freezing at night to daytime highs above seventy degrees. During a weeklong hunt, it is not uncommon for weather to go from warm and sunny to cold and rainy. Snow can even be a common occurrence this time of year! It is important to be prepared for anything.

Elk are very large animals and meat care is one of the most critical components of a successful hunt. Meat can easily spoil in the warm daytime temperatures, so have a plan for packing out downed animals. It is very unlikely you will be able to drive a vehicle or ATV to within a reasonable distance to any downed animal. Line up the help of friends or make prior arrangements with someone who has horses to ensure that your animal will not go to waste. Have plenty of game bags on hand as flies will likely be a problem this time of year. There are meat lockers and meat packaging facilities in most towns and cities so processing should not be a problem once your animal is back to civilization.

As a rule of thumb in Idaho, where there is elk there are bears. Black bears are common throughout Idaho and are typically abundant in most elk country. Both black bears and grizzly bears are common in units along Idaho’s eastern border. Grizzly bears are the most common in the Island Park Zone, but encounters could happen in any of the units along Idaho’s eastern border. A fresh can of bear spray that is easily accessible is not only a good idea but could save your life.

Water should not be a problem in most areas since elk are generally found close to mountain streams and springs. A good water filter and a hydration pack should be all you need to keep yourself hydrated during the hunt. Drinking directly from streams is not a good idea since pathogens, such as giardia, are not uncommon in most places and are a sure way to end your hunt early.

Be prepared for the Idaho hunting conditions

Good physical preparation may be the most critical element to having a memorable hunt and filling your freezer. Being physically fit leads to mental toughness and both will be needed when tackling the Idaho mountains in search of deer and elk. General season areas get plenty of hunting pressure and elk can remain silent during hunting hours for days or weeks. Having the ability to stay confident is critical and being physically fit to keep searching new areas may be essential.

Be realistic

Eric Baler with a massive OTC Idaho archery bull elk

Traveling to a new area — and especially a new state — in pursuit of big game is an exciting endeavor. Not feeling disappointed on the drive home hinges on realistic goals going into the hunt. When looking into Idaho, keep in mind that the vast majority of units in the state are managed for hunter opportunity and not trophy quality. This is the reason anyone can hunt there every year and OTC tags are available. If you have visions of 380” bulls and 200” mule deer you may be barking up the wrong tree. General units are not controlled by hunter quotas so there WILL be other hunters in the field with you and the game sees plenty of pressure. Every bowhunter in the field is carrying a call, or ten. Even if you think you are pretty handy with an elk call, use it sparingly until you find a bull who wants to play because there is a good chance he has already heard what you are offering. 

Average archery hunter success in most general season units is well below 20% for deer and elk and most archery deer success comes from late season whitetail hunters. Elk tend to be quiet even during peak rut when they feel the pressure from hunters. Catching the herd on those rare few days when they are completely consumed with rut can make all the quiet days and frustration worthwhile. If you find yourself in that moment, get aggressive. Move in fast from downwind. Do not worry too much about the noise you are making. Be ready for anything. Hunting big bucks are no different. The opening morning barrage of headlamps and ATVs send many bucks into the timber and into nocturnal habits. Glass suspected buck areas from a safe distance. Make your move only when the opportunity is right. Remember that patience is key when hunting pressured bucks.

Nick Schmit glassing for Idaho mule deer
Photo credit: Nick Schmit

Wolf predation has also become a sizeable issue in many areas of the state. Wolves have changed the traditional habits of many elk herds, including being less vocal. The hardest hit areas are the central wilderness zones and the eastern edge of the state bordering Wyoming and Montana. The $31.75 for a gray wolf tag may be well worth the money if you plan to hunt those areas.

Hunting with an OTC tag comes with a long list of challenges, but the beauty of it is that you CAN hunt it every year and are not constrained by a points system or luck of the draw. Once all of the state’s draws are out and you finish weeping about the tags you could have had, remember that there are still places you can go and scratch that itch to bowhunt.


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