Idaho Whitetails: Slips & Success
by Scott Haugen, EditorWestern Whitetail
The very first whitetail buck I ever saw in Idaho still, to this day, remains one of the biggest I’ve seen in the state. My camera man, Bret Stuart, and I, were perched in a pair of treestands, high in a big Ponderosa pine. The buck never got within bow range, and we just watched as the high, heavy, dark-framed, 10 point walked behind us. His rack would have surely spanned over 170-inches. A few days later I passed on a nice 10-point that walked under my stand. Another hunter later killed that buck, and it scored 157-inches. We hunted for five more days but never saw the big buck, again.
In the mountainous, timbered country we were hunting, that was typical, to only see a big buck one time. “A lot of big bucks just show up during the rut,” shares Matt Craig of Boulder Creek Outfitters, based in Peck, Idaho, the outfit I was hunting with. “This is big country, and the timber is so thick, we often only catch one or two glimpses of big deer. There are a lot of local bucks, but many new bucks drop down from higher in the mountains every November. When the rut’s over, they go right back up into the mountains, and we usually never see them again.”
That was the first time I hunted with Matt, and since then have hunted with him and his crew many time over the past 15 years. I guess you could say I have Matt to blame, or thank, for getting bit by the western whitetail bug. November is my favorite time to hunt whitetails in north-central Idaho, for the simple fact the rut is on and so many bucks are moving. I’ve taken many nice whitetails with Matt, and one of the most memorable was an upper 150-inch class brute taken in a river bottom. The hunt began where I’d seen the 170-inch buck a couple years prior. Matt and I hunted that same place north of Peck for five days, and again, saw one exceptional buck, one time. We covered a lot of ground searching for that buck, but never saw him again, nor any other shooter bucks.
Matt and his dad, Tim Craig, got together and suggested heading out of the high country, to some river bottom lands near White Bird. Early the next morning we were making the drive south. It was cold, frosty and the road was icy. By the time we reached the hunting grounds, the cloud cover had dissipated and the stars shined bright. When darkness gave way to daylight, the fields before us came alive with whitetails.
I’ll never forget the sight; seven bucks, most shooters, running around chasing does, fighting with one another, without a care in the world. The biggest buck darted from a willow thicket, chasing another buck. There was no question he was the one we wanted. Matt, myself and my camera man, made a move to get into position, then waited for the bucks to move our way. But at 200 yards out, the insubordinate buck had had enough, and veered 90º to the right. The big buck followed, and I knew this was going to be our best, if not only, shot opportunity.
Set solidly in the shooting sticks, when the big buck turned sideways, I let him have it. Instantly, I fell in love with hunting this historic piece of Idaho, a place the famed Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce peoples called home. The rut that day had just kicked in; it was like a switch was hit and bucks went on the move. I’ve since experienced many great whitetail hunts in this area.
But even in the lowlands, not all the big bucks seen, are taken. While hunting fall black bear one September, Matt and I saw a big whitetail buck in an area they’d hunted for years. It was the same place I’d hunted mule deer and seen some impressive elk in. It was a game-rich section of land, maybe a mile wide and two miles long, with a creek flowing through the bottom. The ravine was choked with wild plum trees. At the highest point was a bench, a likely hideout for big bucks. The buck we saw was headed to that flat, that’s when Matt told me about a giant buck they’d been seeing in there. In fact, Matt’s dad, Tim, had been trying to get clients on this monster buck, one they nicknamed Huey, for two seasons, at that point. A few years later, Tim filled me in. “We ended up hunting Huey for five years, and really hard the last two seasons,” Tim Craig shook his head. “And not once did we get a shot at him! Occasionally we’d see him in the headlights, and we’d see him in daylight two or three times a season, but Huey was always so far away, and always moving.”
“The closest we ever got to him the last season we hunted him was 550 yards, which is a long shot for most hunters,” Tim continues. “He lived on a small flat covered in brush, and there was no way to get in on him. I’m sure he was drinking and feeding at night, but not even in the rut, with all the does and younger bucks around him, did he come into an opening for more than a few seconds. It was just insane, the number of does we watched pour into his area during the rut, year after year. In fact, that’s how he got his nickname, Huey, after Hugh Hefner, ‘cuz he lived in his little fortress and let all the does come to him.”
Then, last season, 2015, no one ever saw Huey. When the season was over, Chris Bolz, one of Tim’s guides, was running the ridge, looking for a cougar. That’s when Chris found Huey, lying dead on one of the trails. The skeleton was in-tact, dismissing a cougar kill. “I just think he died of old age,” shares Tim, who was disappointed at never having got a client a shot at this great buck. Chris brought Hugh’s skull out, and the rack scored 169-inches.
“The big boys don’t have to work hard to breed,” Tim notes. “They lay up in the brush and wait for does to come to them. That’s why they live so long and grow so big. These whitetails, I tell ya, are smart. Even in the peak of the rut, the biggest of the big bucks are never easy.” Unless you’re Logan Craig, Tim’s nephew. Logan has been guiding for his uncle Tim since he was in high school. Logan, who had been trying to get hunters on a nice buck they’d seen a couple times one season, never had any luck. A few hunters had opportunities, but either missed or couldn’t get setup fast enough to shoot.
By the second to last day of the season, Logan’s hunters had tagged out and gone home. This season, all the hunters took the meat, and Logan found himself in need of venison with winter approaching. So, with all the hunters gone for the season, Logan went out to get a meat buck. Specifically, there was a 1×4 buck that had been hanging around, that no clients wanted to shoot, so Logan went looking for it.
On his way to where he’d been seeing the 1×4, another buck ran across the trail in front of him. Logan raised up, took a quick shot and dropped the buck. It was the big buck, and he went an impressive 165-inches! Sometimes it helps just being in the right place at the right time. Not only did Logan get a big buck yielding plenty of meat, he got a true trophy of a lifetime. The fact the buck was taken in the high country, near Peck, means it probably would have never been seen again, as few big bucks return to this spot year after year.
Back down in White Bird, I saw the biggest whitetail buck I’d ever seen, south of Canada, and the most beautiful whitetail of my life. He was nicknamed the Box Buck, due to his wide, sweeping rack. I first saw the Box Buck when on a late August bear hunt with Matt. Then, the buck was in velvet, and looked simply stunning. Each evening he’d emerge from a big, deep, canyon to feed on the edge of a grassy field.
The Box Buck got his name from his wide-reaching rack that grew straight out the sides of his head before turning up, nearly a perfect 90º. The formation of his rack, estimated to be 27 inches wide, gave the appearance that a good sized box would fit perfectly inside. As September continued, Matt told me the Box Buck was seen just about every evening, in the same exact spot. Once October rolled around and mule deer and elk hunters started hitting his area, everyone got to see the Box Buck. “This was a crazy deal,” Matt explains. “Usually we have someone with a whitetail tag in camp, but during this season, all eleven hunters held mule deer tags.” Every hunter tagged out on elk, and mule deer, and a couple even got bears, but the Box Buck was safe and it seemed like he knew it. Every single hunter saw the Box Buck at one time or another, usually in the evenings, feeding in the same place we saw him on our August bear hunt. He had a routine down, and seemed to just know hunters were not after him. Then I came along.
I’d already taken a dandy 6×6 bull with Matt, and a nice mule deer, up in the Joseph Camp. I had a whitetail tag to fill, too, and once word reached me that hunters in the lower, White Bird camp, were still seeing the Box Buck, I was ready to make a move. Matt stayed in Joseph with other hunters while I headed to the White Bird camp, where I met up with a couple of Boulder Creek’s guides.
I arrived in camp at lunch time, and most of the hunters were sitting around, telling stories, having already tagged out. That’s when I started hearing of their sightings of the Box Buck. During their hunts, everyone saw the Box Buck in the same exact spot, in the closing minutes of daylight, about 300 yards from a main farm road. Everyone gave me the same advice, too. “Just set up off the road, along the fence line, and he’ll show up.”
It sounded simple enough, so I did as everyone, including three guides, suggested, and got set up along the fence line, two hours before sunset. The wind was perfect, but the Box Buck didn’t show up. I sat there the next evening, and the next, and the next, and didn’t even see the buck. On the fifth night I moved a half-mile down the draw, and that’s where I got a glimpse of this most magnificent buck.
His rack was even wider than I recalled when I saw him for the first time in August, in velvet. As the Box Buck moved from thick cover across an open hillside, up toward the grassy field he’d been feeding in, I was in awe of his rack. It was so dark and heavy, reaching high into the sky. His brow tines were tall and thick, and staring at him through my Swarovski 10×42 binoculars, I estimated his rack to be approaching 180 inches. The buck’s body was simply massive. A thick, dark chest and an ivory, double throat patch, gave way to a blocky head. Even at 800 yards away, he was the most beautiful whitetail buck I’d ever seen. As the buck moved up the hill, we started to make a move. We barely got to our feet and the Box Buck busted us. We stood still, figuring at that distance we’d be okay, especially since the buck seemed to have a tolerance of people. In a matter of seconds, the buck grew nervous, spun and trotted back into the thick cover from which he came. That was the last time anyone saw the Box Buck.
That night I drove to Wyoming, for an antelope hunt, filled a tag the next afternoon, then drove all night and into the next day, back to White Bird. I spent the next three days hunting the Box Buck, with no success. By now, the camp was empty, except for two guides. On the last day of my hunt, I took a mature, heavy-racked whitetail that had been hanging out with the Box Buck, but never saw the buck I was after. As guides prepared for another group of hunters to arrive in camp, everyone was confident they’d get the Box Buck during the rut. They didn’t. No one ever saw again.
The following spring, a rancher found the Box Buck’s sheds, over two miles down the draw from where we’d last seen him. Figuring the buck had dropped to lower elevations where doe densities were high, during the rut, he obviously stayed there until he dropped his sheds. That rancher, who ran cattle, never saw the buck, alive, nor did anyone else. Had a hunter taken the buck, someone in the White Bird Valley would have surely heard about it. The Box Buck’s sheds scored 183-inches.
Two years later I was back with Matt Craig, hunting White Bird for whitetails. Leading up to this November hunt, unseasonably warm conditions had prevailed, and only small bucks seen by hunters. When I met up with Matt, it was snowing hard, the temperature was in the upper 20s and three inches of powder covered the ground. The conditions were perfect. Within the first two hours of the hunt, Matt and I counted over 25 bucks, and more than half were 125-inches or bigger. Two bucks, we figured, were over 140-inches, while another dark, heavy racked brute was in the mid-150s. The cold weather got bucks fired-up in every draw, and the rut seemed to kick-in, instantly. I filled my tag a couple hours later, on a beautiful, wide-racked eight point. It was a fitting end to a fun morning hunt.
As with anywhere whitetails thrive, big bucks are elusive, and can show up anywhere, anytime. “We filmed a lot of Buckmaster TV shows back in the 1980s and 90s, and caught a lot of big bucks on film,” smiles Tim Craig. “There was one buck, 25 inches wide, that we filmed but could never get a shot at. That was frustrating; I think that buck was bigger than Huey.” The biggest non-typical buck reported by Tim, came back in 1986. Interestingly, ranchers told Tim of a huge buck they’d been seeing. Tim hunted it hard all season long, but never saw the buck. The following spring, a rancher found the buck’s sheds, right where Tim had been hunting. The 8×9 rack was mounted, and measured 24-inches wide and scored 214-inches. The buck was never seen again.
Tim went on to share what it was like, hunting western whitetails over 30 years ago, and what’s he’s recently seen in parts of north-central Idaho. “Back in the ‘80s, seeing 300 or more deer a day was normal, and we’d pass 130 to 140-inch bucks all day long. Back them, 150-inch bucks were common. Numbers declined from the late 1990s until about five or six years ago, and now it seems like we’re getting close to the good ol’ days. We’re seeing lots of deer and some big, big bucks. As long as they can stay healthy, I think we’re going to see some giant bucks taken in coming seasons.”
As I write these words, I’m preparing for another whitetail deer hunt in White Bird, with Matt Craig. But on this hunt I’ll be an observer, as my Dad will be the hunter. A big whitetail has always been on my dad’s bucket list, and with life flying by, I can’t think of any better place out West for Dad to make his dream come true.