We have been fortunate across the West this year; after years of minimal rainfall, the last several months have dumped precipitation on our parched soil. (In many areas we are now getting too much rain and snow.)
I learned an important lesson regarding game habits and movement during the drought: the dryer the season is, the lower the game will hold. This was made apparent during an October 2015 deer hunt in Idaho.
I hunted with my Dad and Brother, in an area we were very familiar with. It was a favorite Summertime hiking route of ours, and we had always had great luck seeing game there. It seemed every time we ventured into these woods, we saw deer, elk, moose or grouse.
We gave ourselves five days to hunt, and had high hopes that we would come across one or two shootable bucks in that time. We were aware that it had been a dry Summer and Fall, but I was hoping that a remote watering hole high up on the peak might hold enough moisture to keep the deer hanging around.
The first time I found that particular watering hole was on an early September stroll with my Dad, and we were drawn to it by the unfathomable ruckus being created by two clashing elk bulls, who were standing in the water, duking it out in a pre-rut battle for who was to mate with the harem. The noise they were making equated to something like a dinosaur smashing his way through the jungle and knocking down every tree in his path. I had an entirely new respect for the size and strength of elk after that day.
We arrived back in our familiar stomping grounds with high hopes and optimistic spirits. Arriving several hours before nightfall, we spent the first day walking and scouting. It was certainly dry, and we didn't see much in the way of fresh sign, but alas, it was only the first day.
Driving out in the dark that night, we nearly hit a fine buck with the front bumper of the truck. The near miss with the buck on the road restored a bit of our optimism.
The next couple days were spent exactly how most Western deer hunts are spent; early mornings, lots of glassing, a fair amount of hiking. The only issue was, we weren't seeing any deer. No bucks, no does, no fawns.
Knowing that the lack of water in the hills was likely driving the deer to lower elevations, we made some adjustments to our strategy. The only problem was, there wasn't much in the way of low-elevation public land. One morning we saw two young 3-point bucks in the early morning mist, in the middle of a private field, adding further evidence to the theory that the deer were all holding low.
We headed back to the public land we had spent the last few days hunting, and decided we would focus all of our efforts on the lowest elevation portion we could find.
Finding a clearing that we were reasonably happy with, we posted up pre-dawn to glass. The tinder-dry sticks that covered the ground made moving around difficult, but it also allowed us advanced warning of any game that might be moving in the area. Every break and crack we heard rising up from the treeline got the heart racing, and hands adjusting their grip of the rifle. Each time I was certain that a buck was about to materialize before our eyes, but each time the excitement would slowly trail off as the sounds of hope ceased entirely.
As mid-morning rapidly turned into mid-day, we began to stir and think more about our stomachs than the task at hand. It was time to pull out and re-group, but before leaving the base of the mountain, I wanted to attempt one long swing around the dense trees below us. I figured I could play beater, and see what I might drive in the direction of my Dad and Brother.
I worked slowly and cautiously, but by the amount of noise I was making traveling across the sea of broken sticks, I may as well have been playing the trumpet. Onward I went, out of sight and earshot of the other two.
As I approached the tree line, a burst of sound and movement erupted just 70 yards ahead of me. Thoroughly startled, I could only catch glimpses of tan bodies as they made their exit through the trees; directly away and headed down the mountain. It appears as though I had bumped a herd of Elk that had been bedded down not 300 yards from where we had spent the last several hours with eyes and ears peeled looking for deer.
Amused by the encounter, I continued my planned course, and eventually worked my way back to the ridge where my Dad and Brother awaited; certain they would have heard all of the commotion. Turns out they were entirely unaware of the happenings or the presence of the elk herd; which says a fair bit about the density of the forests in North Idaho. Visibility and hearing is stifled by the dense growth of evergreens.
When it was all said and done, we never laid eyes on a single deer while on public land; however we nearly hit another buck on the road on the last night of the trip. Perhaps we would have been better off leaving the rifles at home and focusing on our front-bumper hunting techniques.