SALMON, Idaho There are few places in the Lower 48 where you can hunt rut-addled bull elk with a rifle, but Idaho's most expansive wilderness is one place to finally even the odds with elk that are normally the exclusive domain of bow hunters.
If you think you need a pack string and two weeks to properly hunt the vast Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, your expectations are too well grounded.
There's another way to access the largest wilderness complex in the Lower 48. It's from the sky, via one of the commercial air charters that serves the backcountry. And arranging a drop camp is cheaper than you might think.
You can expect to pay about $350 per hunter to get you and your gear from Salmon or McCall, Idaho, into the interior of the wilderness.
While you are restricted in weight, each hunter can pack nearly 100 pounds on most charter flights, which means you can take a wall tent, a cooler of good food and drink, and even a deluxe car-camping sleeping bag if you want.
It also means you don't have to tend pack stock or spend a couple of days of your hunt on the freight trail.
While there is a certain rustic romance to packing into the backcountry, it's also nice to be dropped off at a remote airstrip and concentrate on hunting, not wrangling.
Why it's good
Hunting the "Frank," as this 2.37-million-acre wilderness is known to locals, is worth some extra effort.
For starters, it contains the spectacular gorges of the Salmon and Middle Salmon rivers, plus extensive timbered plateaus that drop into Big, Chamberlain and Marble creeks and other tributaries of the Salmon. All that country holds plenty of both elk and deer including a surprising number of whitetails.
Don't expect to shoot the biggest deer or elk of your career, but success is decent.
In 2005, A Tag elk hunters in the Middle Fork Zone, which includes units 20A, 26 and 27 all comprised mainly of wilderness had a 24 percent success rate.
Some 1,500 A Tags are available here and they allow a hunter using any weapon to harvest any elk in Units 20A and 26 and antler-less or brow-tined bulls in Unit 27 for the entire month of October.
Hunters using their B Tags in the Middle Fork Zone last year had a 20 percent success rate. That tag allows any-weapon hunters to harvest an antlered bull (brow-tined in Unit 27) from Sept. 15-30 and go afield again with any weapon from Nov. 1-18.
The appeal for most backcountry elk hunters is the ability to hunt bugling bulls with a rifle. The Sept. 15 opener for B Tags is just as the rut gets cranking on the high plateaus of the Frank, and calling a love-addled bull into rifle range is not only a thrill, it's both legal and very effective here.
Harvest rates for both tag types in the Middle Fork Zone are higher than the statewide average of 17 percent, and hunters generally took mature bulls.
In Middle Fork A, 33 percent of hunters shot a 6-point or better bull. During the later season B Tag hunt, 38 percent of elk were 6-points or better.
Deer hunters typically have low success in the wilderness, but they generally harvest mature bucks.
Last year, for instance, 206 hunters chased deer in Unit 20A and 79 notched their tags. But 57 percent of the successful hunters shot a 4-point or better buck, and 21 percent of the harvest was 5-point or bigger bucks.
In Unit 26, 273 hunters killed 54 deer, for a low 20 percent success. Sixty-two percent of bucks, though, were 4-points or bigger. Unit 27 had more any-weapon hunters, 510, and 34 percent killed a deer.
Not quite half of the deer in Unit 27 were 4-points or better.
Charter a plane
I hunted mule deer in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness last year, and was one of those 62 percent of hunters who didn't kill a deer.
In fact, I saw more elk than deer in the five-day hunt, and the only deer tagged by our party was a dandy 4-point whitetail.
We flew into Cold Meadows airstrip, high on the Chamberlain Plateau, after learning just days before our departure that we couldn't fly into our preferred destination along the Middle Fork because the airstrip was on a private ranch that outfits guided hunts.
Since we were guiding ourselves, we couldn't get permission to land.
Our second choice was Chamberlain Basin, but active fires had closed that airstrip, so we settled on Cold Meadows.
A day of observation told us that deer densities were low, the best habitat was about 10 miles distant and 3,500 feet higher in elevation, the landscape was torched by recent fires and infested by wolves.
Friends who flew into the nearby (at least by wilderness standards) Big Creek airstrip scored good deer.
You'll have to expect company if you camp near any backcountry airstrip. I wasn't prepared for the five other camps using the airstrip as a base camp, but I should have realized that human activity would be concentrated around these hubs.
There are about a dozen of these remote airstrips sprinkled around the Frank.
They were grand fathered in when the wilderness was designated in the 1970s, and about half get consistent use by the commercial air charters that service the backcountry out of Salmon and McCall.
We used McCall Air (800-992-6559) but Salmon Air (800-448-3413) is another good choice.
If you hire a plane, make sure that fire or private property issues don't keep you from your favored destination, and plan to stay longer than you might anticipate.
We barely made it out of our airstrip before an October cold front descended on the higher ridges, lowering the ceiling so far that flights after ours were scrubbed. It was three days before planes could again work the backcountry strips.
We talked to a couple of hunters who had been stranded after they finally got back to civilization. They all wished for more camp meat. And livestock to pack out of the wilderness no matter how dark the sky looked.
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