Idaho Redemption: Success in the Scree Slides

by
posted on August 9, 2022
Idaho Redemption Lead

The wind cut cold as we reined our mounts up the winding trail towards camp. This was familiar ground, yet oddly different than the landscape I had committed to memory. Those of you who read my piece “Hunt Disaster: Hurricane Idaho” in 2020 know I’ve been here before, though my last ride into this burn looked slightly different. A week that started out still, sunny and 70 degrees took a nosedive when, almost a week in, a storm struck that plunged temperatures into the teens, filled the sky with snow and blew down literally thousands of trees upon this already devastated landscape.

Hunter scanning mountain with binocular

The scars of the storm were still strewn everywhere, as the skeletal forest now resembled more blowdown than standing timber. As I wheeled Rambo uphill, however, the newly alien landscape barely registered in my mind. (This year, Joe Ferronato from Petersen’s Hunting rode my old friend Louis.) I had a job to do. Last year’s storm, in addition to battering our outfitter and very nearly smashing my fellow hunters Greg and Eddie Ray, had left some unfinished business between myself and the muleys that call these mountains home. I was determined to settle that score, though it again seemed the weather had other plans.

The night we made camp, snow began flurrying amid gusty breezes—wholly uncharacteristic of an early-season hunt in these parts. This cold pushed many of the deer that had been browsing the area down and out the bottoms, changing the landscape and migratory patterns entirely. On the positive side, however, our new woodstove could be damped down to last all night, making for far more comfortable mornings. A brief evening scouting session done, we settled down to dinner and a cozy rest amid the piling snow outside.

The morning dawned with a fresh blanket of snow on the ground as we breakfasted before making our customary trek up the steep hill leading out of camp. We were destined for our favorite glassing knob that day, but stood rooted in place after just a short trek. Our eternally eagle-eyed outfitter had noticed some fresh buck tracks in the newly fallen snow, and spotted their owner a mere hundred yards down the slope behind some trees. This was no mere coincidence: this was déjà vu. The buck stood in almost the exact same place I had failed to find a shot on a beautiful specimen last year. Unlike the previous year’s prey, however, this wide 3x3 was not bedded behind a log but was up and alert. I found him in the scope, but he was long gone before any vitals were presented. Between the snow, the ominous wind and the eerily similar run-in with the deer, this was all beginning to feel a little too familiar. Nonetheless, we soldiered on and glassed away the afternoon, seeing nothing to report save does and dinks.

Wall tent camp in Idaho wilderness

As the next day dawned, a strange emotion hung in the atmosphere. Whether it was the muffling of the snow or the relative stilling of the wind, the feeling was almost palpable—this was a day for dropping muleys. We set out from camp, sidehilling this time into a different drainage that we guessed the deer might ascend.

The air was alive with the sounds of an Idaho fall—elk bugled their prehistoric mating calls, while wolves howled in the distance. As we hunted our way across the rock-strewn ground, however, we began to feel as if not all the animals were quite so far away. Suddenly two elk—a cow and a small spike—blew out of the ever-thickening cover. Animals were indeed moving in this section of the mountains, but the surrounding tracks were not just of elk. Easing through the area, we spotted wolf prints. “There’s not an ounce of set in these,” exclaimed our outfitter as he bent down and fingered the track, deciding they must be from this morning. Indeed, none of us yet realized exactly how recently the tracks had been made.

Less than a minute after our outfitter’s revelation, Joe whispered, “He’s right there.” The area he indicated was so close I at first thought he had spoken in jest. But as I followed his hand, a jet-black wolf, fading gray only towards his paws, stood some 75 yards away. No sooner had I seen him than he began to prance back and forth, running jagged patterns in front of us. Everyone sprang into action, positioning themselves as he ran, but no one with a tag could manage to find a shot before he disappeared into the trees. An unbelievably short time later, some other hunters reported a miss on the exact same wolf, a couple miles’ distant. He had blown far out of the country.

Our spirits now heightened with pulses racing, we continued deeper into the drainage, crossing draws and glassing for our crafty quarry. Suddenly, we spotted them. Three bucks—two sizeable, one small—appeared toward the top of a draw several hundred yards distant. We could get no closer, as though they had not yet spotted us, our progress through the dense brush was audibly evident, and they were undoubtedly aware that something was there.

As we ranged them (488 yards), we considered attempting a double … and again my thoughts bounced to last year’s fateful final attempt. This time though, a new story began to unfold. While your Eastern-born author—notoriously unpracticed at finding winter-coated muleys through his riflescope—struggled to find a shot, our outfitter decided only one of the deer was worth our time, and I was on deck. All the deer’s vitals were obscured by a tree, so I settled my Bog-pod onto the loose shale, and attempted to find a solid position from which to track the deer and await my chance.

Hunter shooting Benelli Lupo bolt action rifle

Slowly he fed among the low, dense shrub, working rightward inch by inch. A second before his pace would have carried him beyond the tree, however, he stopped and turned back. He seemed to head for the ridgeline now, directly behind the trees from me. With a silent curse, I began to wonder if this deer would again manage to slip away, aided by the thick blanket of forest. Nonetheless, I tracked his progress and waited, though Joe and I quickly agreed that, given the circumstance, whoever had the first shot should take it.

He ambled through the trees for what felt like an eternity, though it probably took him mere minutes. Suddenly, he stepped out from behind a tree, vitals in full view, and began to graze. I was so surprised to finally have a clear shot that it took several seconds for the reality to sink in. Once my shock abated, however, it was game time. I swiftly clicked off my safety and whispered, “I’m taking him.” Settling into my Benelli Lupo, I steadied my breathing, and waited for my respiratory pause. Confident in the proven accuracy of my rifle, I leaned my support hand a little harder into my tripod to staunch any remaining tremble, and squeezed the trigger while the crosshairs rested over his vitals.

I’ll never know for sure where that shot went, but if I had to guess, I’d say I zipped it right under his chin. I had pushed too hard to steady myself. Just as the shot broke, my support hand wobbled ever so slightly, as one of the tripod legs sank deeper into the crumbly scree of the mountainside. At nearly 500 yards, however, a wobble is a game of feet, not inches; the buck stiffened in surprise, but not with the shock of impact.

The downfall of the otherwise wary mule deer, however, is a true overabundance of curiosity. As I immediately slammed another round into the chamber, all the while having an improbably calm conversation with the outfitter, the deer stood riveted to the spot, searching for the source of the gunfire. Unfortunately for him, my eye never left his light tan coat, and I was about to make our position abundantly clear. With a newly stable rest, my second shot drilled him directly through the vitals, tucking nicely into the fold behind his shoulder.

As I watched him hunch, stagger and pinwheel down the steep embankment, I exhaled a sigh of both triumph and relief. The previous day, my bolt release had frozen open, leading my bolt to fly rearward out of the gun when charging. I thanked my lucky stars that I had noticed and remedied the problem, otherwise that fatal follow-up shot would have come far too late. Even more broadly, however, the monkey was off my back. I had finally dropped a mountain muley in this ruggedly unforgiving country that had succeeded in expelling us early last year.

Hunter with Idaho mule deer

We watched the deer pile up against a log as I policed my spent brass (part habit, part tradition). Once we were sure he was still, we hustled across the draws, finally coming upon his lifeless form. The deer was a tank. His antlers were certainly impressive, but his body was still more so. Even the fat on his back told the tale of a healthy diet, as it was nearly too thick to push a knife through. We would later green-score his rack around 161¼, though based on his teeth and shortened face, this buck was potentially old enough to be on the downslope of his antler-growing career.

As the three of us packed the deer up and out of the drainage then over to camp, I enjoyed the serene feeling of a deer that had been earned. After two trips and many miles of hard hunting, we had gotten it done, thanks in no small part to our preternaturally skilled outfitter and my fellow hunters. This was what hunting was all about; or at least, that’s what I kept trying to remind myself as I climbed that steep hillside with a third of a mule deer on my back.

Of course, this was not the end of the story. The next day, Jake Gerondale, another hunter in camp, came back with a deer measuring somewhere around 194 inches—a true bruiser! After several more days of hard hunting, my partner Joe Ferronato put on an impressive display of snap shooting, tagging out on a beautiful deer we guessed was somewhere around 150 inches, though we haven’t taped him yet. Finally, on the last day, Joe Taylor (Jake’s hunting partner from Anchorage) put an impressive stalk on a true representative of the species not far from camp in a thrilling hours-long affair we were able to watch from a nearby hillside. When his final rifle shot had rung, Joe had braved terrible temperatures, blowing snow, tremendous altitude and just plain bad luck for seven full days, filling his tag in the midafternoon of the very last day of his hunt, just as the weather turned for the better.

Mules packing out mule deer in Idaho wilderness

As we rode out of camp under a warm October sun, meat and trophies in tow, I reflected on the massive divergence between this year and last. While last year’s affair had ended very nearly in tragedy, this ending was almost too good to be true. But the value of neither experience can exist in a vacuum. Without last year’s poor luck and poorer weather, this year’s success wouldn’t mean half as much. Likewise, without the tantalizing prospect of success, last year’s debacle would likely never have happened at all. As my mount plodded along the winding trail, I realized both these experiences did have one thing in common: my final resolution remained the same. This would not be the end for this particular slice of Idaho and me. From its worst days to its best, its snowstorms to its sunny days, and its steep scree slides to … well … its steeper scree slides, there’s something about this country and the animals that inhabit it I just cannot shake. So once again, with fingers crossed for luck, I’ll see you next time Idaho. The hunt continues.

■ ■ ■

Benelli Lupo in the Backcountry
When taking to the backcountry on an excursion like this, primary in one’s mind is carrying a rifle that is up to the challenge. Sure, weight and balance are important. After all, you don’t want to be toting any more weight than you have to up those steep scree slides, and counting grams and ounces is currently all the rage. But even more important is having a rifle you can depend on when it’s go time. The Benelli Lupo checked all those boxes with the sort of authority expected of a fine Italian firearm.

Benelli Lupo .300 Winchester Magnum Bolt Action Rifle

Weighing in at 7.1 pounds, the Lupo is not quite an ultralight queen, but it’s certainly on the lighter side of the scale for a 24-inch-barreled rifle chambered in hefty .300 Winchester Magnum. The pistol grip is contoured in a way that blends nicely with the palm of one’s hand, and pairs beautifully with a buttstock that is angled more aggressively than usual, for a more comfortable cheek weld up top, and below, an easier cradling of the gun when prone. 

The trigger and trigger guard face slightly more downward than on other rifles. While at first glance I thought this was a mere aesthetic choice, upon firing the gun it became apparent that the angle closely matches that of the pistol grip, making for a more natural squeeze on the trigger. The rifle is fed by a four-round detachable box magazine, for easier reloading and unloading. Finally, the angular fore-end is excellent either to grip, or comfortably rest in the “U” of a tripod. All in all, my only complaint with the gun is the bolt release has a small tendency to freeze up in icy weather. While clearly not my favorite fact about the firearm, it’s by no means unique to the Lupo, and simply necessitates ensuring the release button stays free of too much moisture—far from an insurmountable problem. MSRP: $1,699; benelliusa.com.

Hunter looking though Leupold rifle scope on Benelli bolt action rifle

The Lupo should have its picture next to “tack-driver” in the latest edition of Webster’s. Using 178-grain ELD-X Hornady Precision Hunter, the gun’s rested accuracy hovered under half-MOA, which is beyond outstanding for any gun, much less a precision hunting rifle. Muzzle velocity averaged 2841 fps. MSRP: $47.99 per 20-rnd. box; hornady.com.

All in all, the Lupo is far from simply an elegant rifle. It is a backcountry bruiser with the chops to give any shooter serious confidence when hair is in the scope and pulse is climbing. The trusty Leupold VX-6HD I mounted atop the rifle also played a significant role, allowing for the clear view needed to find success on an animal more than a quarter-mile distant. Between the two, there was simply no doubt that if I did my job, I’d be packing plenty of meat and antler back to camp. MSRP: $1,499.99-$2,299.99; leupold.com.

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