Danger in God's Country, HI54 (Winter, 2012)

by Brooklyn Hudson & Matt Watterson

Matt: “Wolves! They’re wolves!” I almost swallowed my tongue as I fumbled to put my binoculars back into their chest pack.  A light dusting of snow was fouling the visibility across the steep draw, but something caught my attention out near a small rock outcropping on the other side, about 450 yards away, and I had to have a closer look.  I turned to my hunting partner, Brooklyn Hudson, and as if we were synchronized, packs were shed and the glass was back up.

“I see three.” Brooklyn was already picking the hillside apart.

My mind, however, was struggling to string coherent thoughts together. Fragmented flashes of literally hundreds of conversations, pictures, and the thrill of filling one of the rarest tags in the lower 48 had me goofy.  Thankfully, Brooklyn was locked in, and brought me back down to reality.  There was no doubt the wolves were still a ways off leaving us with the arduous task of closing the distance if we wanted any chance of a shot.

This was day four of a week-long hunt in the backcountry. Putting this ‘fly-in’ mule deer hunting trip together in the Frank-Church wilderness area near our homes in central Idaho fulfilled a lifelong goal of ours.  Brooklyn had worked in the area for three summers and had encounters with wolves on several different occasions, one of which was over a fresh elk kill in the stream.  With everything packed and ready, Brooklyn made the last second decision to purchase a second wolf tag.  After hearing stories of guys harvesting wolves earlier in the season, only to regret they hadn’t had a second tag, the decision was that another $11.50 wasn’t going to break the bank.

From the short, dusty, dogleg landing strip we took off on our hunt with everything we needed strapped to our backs.  The area we picked to hunt was a seven mile hike from the strip right into the heart of ‘God’s Country’.  It is one of the most beautiful yet unforgiving places we have ever been.   It is a place of clear rivers, deep canyons and rugged mountains.  The streams rush below ragged, solitary crags, eroded bluffs, and ridges which rise steeply up toward the unpredictable skies.   Much of the landscape is burned leaving swaths of deadfall timber that make the seemingly simple task of walking an adventure.

Making are way through the area, we carefully navigated the trails with our heavy packs knowing that one misstep could send us rolling 2000 feet down to the streams below.  Having filled our deer tags in the first three days of the hunt, our attention became more and more focused on the dog tracks and sign we were seeing in the area.

Almost from the onset of the hunt, the first night to be exact, it was made clear we were in wolf country.  Howling inside of 100 yards of our tents woke us up in the frigid early morning hours, a common occurrence over the week.  The pack seemed to shadow our movements, keeping a safe distance during daylight hours, but announcing their discontent with our presence at night.  The combination of frozen ground, sub-zero temps coupled with unforgiving winds and the haunting chorus of a pack made sleep a chore.  The mornings found us increasingly cold, but determined to find wolves in this vertical country; and as we made our way toward our low camp with the last load of meat and antlers from the top of the ridge on day four, our chance appeared through the veil of fog.

Our plan was simple, which was important for me at least; I was only able to process the most basic instructions in my static mental state.  I would stay put and hold the wolves’ attention long enough for Brooklyn to sneak around and above them to a point above a small saddle on the steep ridge overlooking their position.  From that point, I would move slowly down the trail to a spot directly across the draw from the wolves, which would hopefully put me in range for a shot, but if not, would most directly drive the wolves toward Brooklyn’s set-up.  What happened over the next five minutes is most importantly seen through the eyes and heard from the voice of Brooklyn himself, as I too was more a spectator in his moment.

Brooklyn: As I hurried into position the adrenaline started to kick in.  My knees were getting weak and wobbly and my hands were shaking uncontrollably.  I as came to a point on the ridge I slowly looked over to see two different wolves bedded below me!  I belly crawled about 20 yards through the snow down to a small bush where I set up for the shot.  I quickly ranged them at 263 yards.

As I waited for Matt to squeeze off first, I tried to quickly set up my video camera.  Unfortunately, during the initial excitement I left my tripod with my pack where we first spotted the wolves.  I quickly scanned the ground to find something to set my camera on to capture footage of the hunt.  I found nothing but grass and snow.   As I tried to capture some free hand video of the wolves before the shot I found that ‘the fever’ had set in so bad that I couldn’t make out the footage on the screen.  I quickly put the camera back in my pocket and peered through my rifle-scope only to find a wad of snow plastered on the eye piece.  I wiped it away but the water smears distorted my view.  I frantically wiped down the eye-piece once more with my glove and rested my crosshairs on the slightly blurry image of a wolf.

In mere seconds I heard Matt’s first shot echo across the canyon.  It was on!  Just before I could squeeze off a shot on the first wolf it jumped up and sprinted out of sight around the edge of a steep point.  The second wolf ran to the top of the ridge and stopped.  I quickly settled in on him and squeezed off my first shot.  As I recovered from the recoil and set up for a follow up shot I heard the thwap of my 165-grain bullet slamming the front shoulder of the wolf.  Seconds later two more wolves hurried over the ridge top.  Another shot rang out from across the canyon as a fifth wolf stopped and glanced over his shoulder in Matt’s direction.  I wasted no time sending another round through my 7mm Magnum.  The wolf dropped in his tracks.  I sat there in disbelief watching two more wolves cross over the ridge as I was tagged out.

I ran back up to the top of the ridge to see Matt sprinting in my direction.  We quickly tried to relocate the wolves so Matt could fill his tag as he had missed his first two shots.  We rounded another ridge to a viewpoint where we found the pack sprinting away from us moving quickly out of range.  We swapped stories as we walked back to celebrate the two trophies.  The game plan worked perfectly and the wolves reacted as we had hoped.  As we took pictures and skinned the wolves we could faintly hear the pack howling in the distance; a chorus that grew in intensity and vigor, which made it sound like the overall number of wolves nearly reached a dozen.

In the earliest and darkest morning hours we were awakened by the long drawn, baritone howl of a wolf not far from our camp. The following morning we were awakened once more by the chorus of the entire pack near the kill site.  Unfortunately we were unable to close the distance for a second opportunity, but our disappointment was eased because of our earlier success.

Although the primary reason for us being in the field was to hunt mule deer, we were ecstatic about making good on harvesting two wolves because their numbers in Idaho continue to explode.  This was just the second hunt in this state for the apex predators, and the first year that a hunter could purchase the maximum of two tags.  Some areas in the state are beginning to see a significant decline in elk and moose populations since the successful reintroduction of the predators in 1995.  Thankfully, the Obama Administration added a congressional budget rider that removed the endangered species status from the predators allowing state biologists to implement sound management plans that will ensure healthy populations of predator and prey in Idaho for future generations.