Elk-Country Gobblers

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Craig Mountain, covering more than 78,000 of ponderosa pine, grassy breaks and deep fir forest above the Snake River and Hells Canyon, is managed for trophy elk and mule deer hunting. Public access is abundant, even if vehicles aren’t welcome everywhere.
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McMasters finds a recently shed elk antler on a grassy slope. There’s not even a discussion; we’re going to pack that shed back to the pickup, several miles at the foot of the mountain.
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McMaster’s solution to hiking with both a big Idaho gobbler and a 6-point elk shed: Tie the gobbler’s legs together and drape them over the barrel of his veteran shotgun, a well-loved Remington 870.
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Craig Mountain has a handful of Merriam’s gobblers, mostly in lower elevations adjacent to the Snake River and small-grain agriculture south of Lewiston, Idaho.
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With one gobbler in our bag, Gabe and I went in search of another among the high ridges and scattered pine trees in the highest reaches of the Wildlife Management Area.
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Springtime in the Rockies brings a profusion of wildflowers, including these butter-yellow balsamleaf arrowroots, which dominate the dry, rocky south-facing slopes.
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Deep drainages, such as Captain John Creek, drop precipitously to the Snake River. Hiking down after a distant gobble is attractive. The first time. Grunting and sweating back up the steep slope convinces us to stay on the high ridges the rest of the day.
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Craig Mountain is managed primarily for the benefit of wildlife. Drawing an elk tag here is the equivalent of winning the Powerball.
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McMasters hikes through a shady glade.
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I finally encounter my gobbler on private land off the wildlife management area. It has markings more like an Eastern tom than the light-feathered Merriam’s that occupy most of central Idaho.
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The tail feathers of my gobbler are rich dark walnut with copper highlights.
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But the beard is all gobbler. Both Gabe and I both took heavy, mature birds after days of hunting wet, windy, often snowy, conditions.
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I share a laugh with my hosts on the trip, McMasters and Brent Lawrence, right, of the National Wild Turkey Federation. I shot the gobbler in sight of this tumble-down homesteader’s cabin.
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The wing tips of my gobbler are squared off, a sign that the old tom has been actively strutting, dragging his wings in the rocky soil and grinding off the sharp feather tips.
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Toward the end of the day, I talk McMasters into toting my gobbler. I think I said something about having to capture the gorgeous light, but I’m pretty sure he thought I was a simple slacker. He was right.
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As the sun sinks over Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, McMasters strikes a hero’s pose, and reflects on a great day chasing elk-country gobblers.