By: Rik Hin
Idaho bowhunters have a lot to be thankful for. Huge bucks roam the high country; most of our elk herds continue to grow and expand; moose, bighorn sheep, antelope, cougar, bear, and mountain goats all share our mountains. All you need for a second-to-none hunt is a license, the proper tag, an archery stamp, and a desire for adventure. But such wasn’t always the case.
In the early 1940s, there were no Idaho bowhunting seasons. Idaho bowhunters had to sneak through the woods during the general rifle season, and as you can imagine, success stories were few and far between. The specifics of how our first archery (primitive weapon) season came into existence aren’t clear, but with a lot of lobbying and determination on the part of the state’s dedicated bowhunting community, Idaho’s first archery season became a reality in 1946.
Can you imagine the excitement as Idaho bowhunters ventured afield that first season? Not only would they experience a quality hunt, they would also have their ethics, equipment, and success—or lack of it— scrutinized closely by the Fish and Game Department. Those first archers had far more than the weight of their backpacks on their shoulders that first year, they also carried the responsibility for whatever future bowhunting would have in Idaho. They carried that burden well.
I knew one of the participants of that hunt, Ron Robison. Ron passed away in 1992, and I dearly miss his friendship and old-time archery stories. He operated a nationally-recognized archery shop in downtown Boise for over 40 years, and on one cold, snowy day a few years ago, I stopped to shoot the breeze and warm my hands over his ancient woodstove. The topic moved as it always did to bowhunting, and I asked him about the early days in Idaho. He was quiet for a moment as he gazed at the large four-point buck mounted on the wall, then slowly replied: “There were no archery seasons in Idaho until about 1946. California had nothing either. The only state we could go hunting in was Utah. In those days, if you were going to have any archery equipment, you pretty well had to make it yourself. We made our hunting bows from Idaho Yew. We tried to keep them around fifty-five or sixty pounds, and we made our own flemish strings.”
“That first year, eight of us went hunting together, and seven of us got our deer. We were hunting in the mountains out of Twin Falls, and there seemed to be a lot of deer that year. This one fellow by the name of Ed Polk got a big four-point mule deer in this one grove with his Lemonwood bow. His bow was backed with silk and was only about forty-five pounds, but he had good broadheads, and he knew how to take care of them. He made a good hit with that lemonwood bow, and we found that buck lying next to a nice little spring.”
Not many of us use lemonwood bows anymore (though there are still plenty of longbows in the woods every year), but the animals haven’t changed much in a half century—they’re as wary as ever. The real changes have occurred in the archery seasons, which have received more and more restrictions over the years. Many of you will remember buying mountain goat tags over the counter, just like deer tags. That was great while it lasted, but to insure a healthy goat population, goats are now a controlled hunt species, as are sheep and moose. Unfortunately, hunters can now apply for only one controlled-hunt application per year (another restriction).
In the good old days, we had plenty of places to hunt, and in some units we could harvest two deer. Then we began losing units. King Hill was famous for its late-season bucks, but it’s closed to archers now, maybe forever. Unit 39 was an absolutely fantastic late-season unit. But due to poor bowhunter ethics in the 70s, Ada County (the best part of the entire unit) was closed to bowhunters. Many years later, the foothills fire of 1992 torched some of the prime wintering areas of the unit, and with the full support of Idaho’s bowhunters, the Fish and Game Department temporarily closed the burned areas until they can once again support wintering deer and elk herds and ethical bowhunters.
The one thing certain about Idaho archery seasons is that they are not written in stone—they can and will be changed or adjusted to meet the needs of the public, and more importantly, to reflect the dynamics of the numerous species we hunt.
Many restrictions have been placed upon us since that first archery season opened over fifty years ago. New opportunities have been given to us as well, but the excitement those first hunters felt is the same that we feel each time we take to the field. I know they would be pleased that we still have the opportunity to bowhunt in our beloved and still pristine Idaho mountains. I am equally sure that they would expect us to insure that our great-great grandchildren have the same or better bowhunting opportunities.
That calls for a dedication to bowhunting ethics, and a desire to monitor and work closely with the Fish and Game Department for the protection of our game and our bowhunting opportunities.
Remember—bowhunting isn’t a right, it’s an opportunity.