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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Since we are in the middle of hunting season, here is the latest edited version of

Idaho’s Super Combination Winner


In the spring of 2007, my friend Mark Thornock hollered down the phone line from Maryland that he had won some sort of lottery regarding animals. His enthusiasm was ratcheted up to such a level, it took a moment to fathom that he had drawn the winning ticket for a Super Hunt Combo lottery operated by the Idaho Fish and Game Department. This made him eligible to go after a moose, an elk, a deer, and an antelope in any corresponding open hunt area in the state. Knowing Mark’s love of hunting, I realized his super-combo draw was better for him than winning money.

Destiny had chosen a highly qualified man to chase the prizes. His friends often remarked on the phenomenon of Mark’s broad frame, brim full of life, chugging almost effortlessly over steep highland ridges. When it came to hunting, his attitude is infectiously affirmative.

Mark invested his time wisely in the months preceding the hunts. He inspected the conditions of backpacks and insulated clothing and prepared other equipment. He sharpened dull knife blades, placed calls to check on the availability of butchers, and consulted with conservation experts around the state for advice and conditions, keeping in mind where the dozens of fires that had befallen Idaho that summer might have driven the game. When his plans were laid, he marked his map: moose around Island Park; Arco for antelope; an area near Mountain Home for deer; and a wolf-frequented territory high in the Lost River Range for elk.


He figured moose were abundant enough around Island Park, where he had previously shot one. When I won an antlered moose draw in 1998 and pursued my game in the Island Park area, Mark’s help impressed me because of his multifaceted knowledge of the outdoors. I’m relatively green at hunting and, for me, that quest was a classic example of how meticulous preplanning can increase the odds of a satisfying outcome.


Mark’s flight into Hailey showed up on time. His old hunting rifle appeared to be intact, but he soon sighted it in on a makeshift range to determine it hadn’t been jostled in flight. The next morning we arose at five and encountered little traffic on the way to Island Park. Crossing Craters of the Moon National Monument, we nearly slid into a mule deer buck, but aside from a porcupine (seldom seen anymore, it seems), we spotted little other wildlife that daybreak.

When we pulled into Island Park, we immediately noticed a group of at least six vehicles from the state’s Fish and Game and Forest Service departments. They were investigating a grizzly bear attack that morning on a hunter who had been dressing an elk he shot near Big Springs. This was the second local confrontation between a bear and hunter in recent weeks. The wounded griz was now limping around the popular summer cabin community, and reportedly ten to fifteen more were grazing in the immediate area, which raised our concern that Fish and Game would deem hunting unsafe and shut down the whole region. This didn’t occur, but when Mark and I saw a grizzly later that evening, it awakened us to what could happen once we zoned in on a moose. We knew wolves were in the area too, having seen one lurking near the highway by Ponds Lodge earlier that summer.

Most of the good information about recent bear activity came from chatting with locals. At the general store, pepper spray was selling like hotcakes. We were reminded that in Alaska, bears have learned to approach hunting areas once they hear a gunshot, recognizing it as signal for fresh meat. Bears can scent moose blood and meat for miles, depending on the wind. Sometimes, after swatting away hunters from downed game, Ursa horribilas will perch upon large mammal carcasses to speed up the process of tenderizing the meat.


On that first day, three young, agile and experienced hunters on a break from school helped us search for moose. The five of us walked along and drove by mossy creek drainages characteristic of prime moose habitat. Yet even with all those eyes glued to Island Park’s stunning autumn scenery, we did not spot much game until we saw the grizzly that evening. We figured the presence of bears was making the moose skittish. This situation, combined with our midday search and perhaps driving too rapidly through the quaking aspen for efficient wildlife spotting, probably contributed to our being skunked that day.

During our first night in the cabin, it rained constantly, and an intermittent drizzle kept up through days two and three. Our youthful acquaintances returned to school but two other experienced hunters, Jon and Gary, joined us. This was especially helpful because Mark hadn’t yet fully recovered from recent knee surgery. As for me, seemingly imbedded with these camouflaged experts in my laidback Ketchum threads, I must have looked laughable to passersby.

Gary shot a grouse his second day in, and fried it up that evening with some delicious spices, to everyone’s delight. The one most familiar with firearms was Jon, a former Special Forces sharpshooter in Vietnam, who also had been to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the Blackwater private army.


Skill and experience notwithstanding, we were soon reminded that hunting, as with fishing, requires a certain measure of luck. In four hundred miles of deliberate driving, the only moose we spied were on a high hill above private land. It seemed that everyone we encountered in Island Park had seen an antlered moose except us. Most of our conversations focused around hunting, including this chase and others. My companions discussed the large mammals and birds they had stalked through the years, and considered future adventures for which they might like to reunite. But our confident joke about this hunt being as easy as shooting fish in a barrel soon wore thin.


I headed home for a week, while Mark drove by himself to the Arco area. There he bagged an antelope at two hundred yards, from a thick herd someone had told him about. But doing it alone was a struggle because of his knee problem, so he decided to hunt with others for the remainder of his journey. He headed over to the Lost River Range, where his two friends of his were set up in a comfortable wall tent.

From the valley below them, I could see the group would be experiencing snow, but it was difficult to gauge how much. A buddy and I drove to Lost River on Saturday and were pleasantly surprised to see the recently graded Trail Creek Road in the best shape we’d ever found it. No more rattling washboards, at least until we got to the bumpy Custer County side over the saddle. I knew the others were in a region where, ten years earlier, while changing a flat tire, I had seen the largest elk herd of my life: at least eighty head. The question now was how many elk had the wolves taken down?

Few hunters were in the hardscrabble upland. On the road, we encountered a covey of about eight chuckers. We speculated that the mild climate of the last eighteen months, combined with recent fires, might have lead to the small bird migration here. On the other hand, they could have hopped the hill from a nearby Salmon River fork, where the elevation was lower and the climate slightly warmer.

After the brief challenge of a mud traverse, we discovered the camp, where Mark already had laid out his bull elk. We admired its attractive, dark-reddish hue, and noticed it was a five-by-five point. Mark said while tracking in fresh snow that morning, he had had a close encounter with an alpha wolf. Had the animal shown more aggressive intentions instead of turning tail and whisking away, Mark thought it could have developed into an unpleasant situation on the high terrain.


We took photos of the elk, had a few celebratory nips, then helped pack up part of the camp. Mark’s two friends offered to take the elk to the butcher for him. They tucked it down low in the bed of the truck, which had been licensed at their other home in Northern California. They knew that transporting big game in a truck with out-of-state plates could carry a stigma, even for those who had lived in Idaho for decades and had contributed to the community in many ways.

As we packed up the camp, I sensed empathy between these longtime hunting companions. Some people live for the thrill of the outdoor chase, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Standing there in the snow, I recalled another inspiring experience in this same camp: my father bringing me out here many years ago for a taste of the West.

As we wheeled back down the road to the valley below, Mark said he had swung over towards Custer County at daybreak. In was early October, and he had been pushing two feet of snow with the truck. We were happy that Trail Creek was open, and considered ourselves lucky we had a warm house to head for. Even so, I caught the flu, and missed Mark’s second quest for a moose at Island Park. Nor was I with him when he bagged his mule deer south of Mountain Home, clambering over rocks the size of dining room tables to get within range. He had acquired trophies out of the super-combo four.

Later, I got this story from him about his effort to round-out the super-combo with his second try at the elusive Island Park moose: “Near the cabin, we saw six or eight cows with calves but no mature bulls. We did see a few smaller elk on their annual migration. By my eighth day of hunting moose ten hours a day, I had nothing to show. With only two hours of daylight remaining, my friend Spike and I headed thirty miles down the mountain to the river. We thought we might catch a moose stepping out for an evening meal or drink between the river and the mountain. Then things happened quickly. On a sharp corner, two huge cow moose suddenly appeared in range. It took a moment or two to see the third one, a dandy, mature male with an approximately thirty-five-inch rack spread. Its body was enormous as we walked up on it and begin the real work...”

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