Hell’s Canyon Bound: An Idaho Jetboat Adventure

Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV.  You can tune in for hunts with Jana Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET and 11:30PM ET and Thursdays at 12:30 PM ET.  Follow Jana on Twitter or Facebook.

Hell's Canyon is the deepest gorge in North American, deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Hell’s Canyon is the deepest gorge in North American, deeper than the Grand Canyon.

Iʼve been hunting whitetails since I was in college, many moons ago. Weʼre talking before the world wide web and pre Jurassic Park. I spent seventeen years hunting whitetails from the confines of Wisconsin treestands but it wasnʼt until I moved out Western Montana that I switched to mainly spot and stalk hunting. Whether itʼs with my Mathews bow in hand or .300WSM rifle, Iʼve spent the past few years climbing the mountains in many Western states, exploring new land and putting on the miles.

Cameraman Jimmy and I were invited on a whitetail hunting adventure in Idaho by our good friend Jay Robert. Jay, the engineer of Tenzingʼs backpacks, devised a plan to take his Jet boat up Hellʼs Canyon in search of public land whitetails. We would be accompanied by Jayʼs wife Sally, Willi Schmidt from ʻPure Huntingʼ and his cameraman Grady Rawls. A second jetboat would accompany us to help haul our gear. That boat would co-captained by Ryan Hudson and Greg Hile to help us navigate the dangerous areas of the Snake and Salmon rivers. This would be an exploratory mission as none of us had ever hunted in Hellʼs Canyon before but we were all excited about venturing into the unknown.

Hidden boulders and undercurrents make the rivers of Hell's Canyon extremely dangerous for inexperienced jetboaters.

Hidden boulders and undercurrents make the rivers of Hell’s Canyon extremely dangerous for inexperienced jetboaters.

With both jetboats near their maximum weight capacity, we trudged upstream into Hellʼs Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. The rapids were raging and I quickly understood why a jetboat is the only means of navigating that type of white water. Large, black boulders protruded from different parts of the river while Jay concentrated on the boatʼs safe passage. I couldnʼt help but gaze up into the craggy mountains as we continued to get pounded by the riverʼs mighty hand. The scene was reminiscent of a scene out of ʻLord Of The Ringsʼ and I anticipated a troop of hobbits hiking along the rock face wall. We slowed the boat down to watch a group of big horn rams and ewes grazing on the steep hillside. Despite not seeing any whitetails our spirits were high with the anticipation of the hunt. After an hour ride in the jetboat we pulled up to a nice, flat sandy shore to pitch camp.

Base camp on the shores of Hell's Canyon

Base camp on the shores of Hell’s Canyon

After unloading the gear and pitching the tents, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of lasagna cooked in a dutch oven. Itʼs a good thing Jayʼs wife Sally was along on the trip. Were it not for her amazing cooking, the meals would have consisted of Mountain House meals and power bars, my normal back country table fare.

Day 1 of the hunt from top of the gorge

Day 1 of the hunt from top of the gorge

The next morning we loaded our backpacks and headed out in our boats upstream in search of a good area to dock and start hunting. Thereʼs something so thrilling about exploring new territory. We wished Willi and the others ʻgood luck!ʼ and split off from the group with our camera and rifle in tow. It wasnʼt long before we spotted a small herd of mule deer with one 4×4 buck in the group. Unfortunately our tags were only good for whitetails so after watching the small herd work up over the ridge we trekked on in hopes of spotting their close relative. Our plan was to get high enough to glass the coulees and canyons off the river and let our Vortex optics do most the rest of the work. Beauty surrounded us the first day as fresh air filled our nostrils but unfortunately no whitetails were spotted by any one in our crew. Willi and Grady filmed some nice mule deer as well but there wasnʼt a whitetail to be found. We all gathered back at the boat with just enough time to traverse the rapids before darkness set in. It was the consensus of the group that the whitetails may be a bit higher up the river but unfortunately our tags were limited to a specific area on the map.

Enjoying some cowboy coffee around the campfire

Enjoying some cowboy coffee around the campfire

The following days were filled with cowboy coffee, campfires and comraderee… what hunting is all about in my opinion. We explored more of Hellʼs Canyon, both from the boat and on foot and despite filming a plethora of wildlife from big horn sheep, otters, eagles and mulies, we couldnʼt find a whitetail to save our life. The consensus was to break camp, head back to the launch and jump in our trucks and head two hours North to Idahoʼs Panhandle. Ryan and his friends had luck hunting whitetails during previous years in the dense forested mountains of Clearwater County. Excited about exploring a new area we transferred our gear, brought our GPS loaded with OnXmaps latest map set and headed for the hills.

Itʼs amazing how different the weather was just two hours from Hellʼs Canyon. Due to the higher elevation and thick dark timber, there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground. Again we set up the wall-tent for cooking but this time Jim and I choose the back of the truck as our tent. We nestled in for a good nightʼs sleep knowing 5AM would come all too soon.

Thick fog covered the hills the next morning as we searched for a good location to hunt. This area of Idaho holds some great whitetails but without the rut in full swing it can be challenging finding them in the thick timber. We attempted a few rattling sequences without any luck and decided to hike into the hills in hopes the fog would burn off and weʼd be able to glass the clear-cuts.

The only deer spotted all day were a few does on a far ridge that popped out onto the logging road right before dark. This was becoming the most challenging whitetail hunt of my life. But despite the lack of deer it was so fun exploring new land and sharing our day back at camp around the warm, crackling campfire.

The devil-tined Idaho whitetail

The devil-tined Idaho whitetail

With the intense fog and lack of rut activity, the deer were taking full advantage of the surounding forest. Willi and Gradyʼs long, arduous hike only resulted in filming two moose while Ryan and Jay also came up empty handed. Willi was running out of time and had to fly back to Colorado the next morning. Although his tag wasnʼt notched, he had a great time on our adventure.

The Tenzing CF13 was the perfect pack for quartering and packing out the whitetail off the mountain.

The Tenzing CF13 was the perfect pack for quartering and packing out the whitetail off the mountain.

Jim and I had one more morning to hike the Idaho mountains. We parked the truck at the logging road gate and headed up the gravel trail. We stopped to glass the open clear cuts when Jim suddenly whispered, “Buck! Buck!” and motioned towards the opposing ridge. I quickly maneuvered into the prone position as Jim kicked out the legs of his tripod and got ready to capture the action. The buck trotted across the ridge, bounding away from us as Jim called out the yardage. “If he stops on that ridge dial your scope to 325 yards,” he whispered. I turned the turret on my Vortex Viper scope and settled in for the shot. As luck had it the buck stopped before topping over the ridge and I slowly squeezed the  rigger. “Perfect shot!” Jim exclaimed as I searched for the buck through my scope. A small jack pine waved back and forth as the buck tumbled to the ground.

This Idaho adventure stood for everything I believe hunting is all about. Spontaneity, exploration, comraderee, and filling the freezer. In terms of size, this buck is the smallest whitetail Iʼve ever taken but if his size was matched our adventure… heʼd be a booner!

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