Round 1: Panhandle Elk Zone vs. Tex Creek Elk Zone

This is the fifth installment on a series of posts comparing Idaho's any-weapon, antlered, general season elk hunts. For an intro to this series, go here.

For the first post in this series, read Dworshak Elk Zone vs. Bear River Elk Zone.
For the second post in this series, read Snake River Elk Zone vs. Palisades Elk Zone.
For the third post in this series, read Palouse Elk Zone vs. McCall Elk Zone.
For the fourth post in this series, read Selway Elk Zone v. Salmon Elk Zone.

Here we go comparing the Panhandle Elk Zone to the Tex Creek Elk Zone. First up, the Panhandle.

The Hunt

Idaho has two types of over-the-counter elk tags that can be chosen.  An A-tag and the B-tag are usually offered for each elk zone.  The difference between the two will differ from elk zone to elk zone, but the differences usually lie in season dates, weapon options, or sex of animal to hunt.

The Panhandle Zone offers OTC, any-weapon, antlered hunts on both the A-tag and the B-tag.  Here's the breakdown.  On the 2011 A-tag you could hunt Unit 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A & 5 from Oct. 25 - Oct. 31.  You could also hunt Unit 6, 7 & 9 from Oct. 25 - Oct. 29.  So, mark that - that is the A-tag.

The B-tag begins a little earlier, and adds some variety.  You could hunt Unit 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A & 5 from Oct. 10 - Oct. 31.  And in those you Units you had the option of harvesting any elk on Oct. 15 - Oct. 19.  Also on the B-tag: you could hunt Unit 6, 7 & 9 from Oct. 10 - Oct. 24, and you could harvest any elk in Unit 6 on Oct. 15 - Oct. 16.

Got it?

As I look at the options for any-weapon hunters, I don't know why you would purchase anything beside the B-tag.  The B-tag has longer seasons, they begin earlier, and there is a brief window where you can fill your freezer with a cow if you haven't chased down the monster bull.  Archers will probably find the A-tag more interesting, as it allows for a late season archery hunt in December.  Muzzleloaders will also probably find the A-tag more attractive as well.

As far as when hunters will first be in the woods in the Zone, early archery dates began August 30 and lasted until September 30.  Then there's a break until the any-weapon seasons begin on Oct. 10.


This Zone basically encompasses the entirety of the northern Idaho panhandle.  The north boundary is the Canadian border.  The west boundary is the State of Washington.  On the east, Montana.  The southern part of the Zone is the only somewhat tricky part.  From east to west, the boundary follows the divide between the St. Joe River and the N. Fork of the Clearwater River.  From there... well, I could bore you with all of the other watershed divides as the boundary makes its way from Montana to Washington, but I'd rather spend my time giving you a link to the maps so that you can see for yourself.

This is a big area; probably only second in size to the large Owyhee - South Hills Elk Zone in Southern Idaho.  To be precise, the Panhandle Zone is 4,978,871 acres, or 7,780 square miles.

Terrain/Land Ownership

Most of the Zone contains the Coeur d'Alene Mountains, the Selkirk Mountains, and the Cabinet Mountain range.  This is the "Northern Woods" of Idaho, and if you're traveling to them from the south, you'll see the habitat change in short order from Lewiston on up to Sandpoint.  It's one of the reasons that Idaho is a great state - there's a lot of variety here, and that should become clear when comparing the Panhandle Zone to Southeast Idaho's Tex Creek Zone.

It is wooded here.  And it is thick.  In an earlier post in this series, I mentioned that the Dworshak Zone is like hunting in a rainforest.  It is even more so in the great north of the Panhandle.  This is thick and brushy terrain, and only for those who know what they're getting themselves into, because what you're getting yourself into is something difficult to get yourself out of.  The brush is always thicker when climbing out.

It is hilly and mountainous, and very wooded.  I can't emphasize enough that this is a different world than the semi-open nature of some of the other Zones we've looked at so far, such as the Salmon or Snake River Zones.  I am tempted to say that the Panhandle Zone is more archery friendly, but maybe that's just my terrain bias coming out.  It just seems that the archers might have quite an edge by getting a good setup, and then calling a rutting bull in.  Rifle hunters are on the tail end of the rut, at best, and aren't getting any animals coming their way.  That is, of course, generally speaking, and I'm sure there's plenty of rifle hunters who could show me wrong.

Units 1, 2, 3, 4, 4A & 5 are 43% private, 44% Forest Service, and 9% State of Idaho.  It is 72% forested, 19% of it is designated as dryland agriculture.  Units 6, 7 & 9 are 32% private, 60% Forest Service, and 6% State of Idaho.  It is 89% forested, and 9% is designated as rangeland.  Some of that private ground is corporate timber ground, and open for hunting.  Lack of finding ground to hunt is not an issue in this Zone.  If you don't want to rough it, Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint, and Coeur d'Alene are all big enough to have chain hotels.  If you really don't want to rough it, then stay at the Coeur d'Alene Resort & Casino and play golf.

But as with most or all places in Idaho, getting deep into the woods is the name of the game.  And this is the kind of area where scouting can really pay off.  If you're looking at coming to Idaho to hunt, this Zone might be a good choice if you're accustomed to hunting in this kind of terrain, or you can adjust easily.  Otherwise, you can easily be swallowed up in the forested mountains of the Panhandle.

Herd Health & Stats

The goal for the Panhandle Zone is to maintain 2,900-3,900 cows and 600-800 bulls (of which 350-475 are mature bulls).  2009 surveys showed that the elk population is exceeding those objectives in every category, but there is reason to be concerned for decline.  The 2009 survey showed there were 4,339 cows and 1,256 bulls (of which 538 were mature bulls).  However, no data was collected for Units 1, 2, 3, 4A & 5.  Units 1, 3 & 5 are some of the more successful areas to hunt in the Panhandle Zone, so the stats given below are heavily skewed, as they depend on this data.  The elk/square mile and bulls/square mile should probably be doubled, at the very least.

In the early 1900's there were very low numbers of elk in this area.  After 1910 some massive forest fires created excellent elk habitat, and the population began to grow.  In the 1940's some elk were translocated to Units 1, 4 & 6 from Yellowstone, and the population continued to grow steadily.  Elk habitat in the wake of the fires was excellent through the 1950's & 1960's, and then started to decline again as thick underbrush took over.  Extensive logging helped the herd's cause in the 1980's & 1990's, but now the habitat decline is steady, and will not be significantly helped until or unless another big fire comes along.

Another major factor for the herd's current health is the impact that the winters of 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 had.  These were record setting snowfall years, and the snow piled up, even at the lowest elevations.  That first winter was so wild that nobody could have predicted that '08-'09 could be worse.  This led to big worries over calf recruitment rates, which were appearing to be low following those winters.  However, the next winter was milder, and recruitment rates began to improve.

And while logging activities helped elk habitat in the short term, in the long term they left logging roads that are still accessible to vehicles.  That, of course, reduces the amount of land that the elk would otherwise tromp around in more freely.

And I haven't even gotten to wolves yet.  There's over 20 established packs in the Panhandle region.  As of January 11, 2012, 29 wolves were harvested with a firearm, and 9 more have been trapped.  There are a lot of wolves in this area, and the bears and mountain lions are other effective predators.

So right now the herd is in a precarious position.  It has seen growth and decline, and the balance is figured by a lot of complex factors - predators, weather, and habitat.  I see the herd as being fair, number-wise, right now.  But I do not see it improving in the short term, unless we have some big fires and serious reduction of wolves.

Here's the stats, but let me qualify these. In previous posts I've felt that my stats were within reason, even if there was some creative, yet informed, guesswork involved.  I'm a little hesitant to even put numbers to the Panhandle Zone because I'm not confident with the info I have.  So having said that, I'll slap these numbers down as the best I could do without sitting down with a biologist for a couple of hours.  I would appreciate any feedback if others have better guesses.

Elk/Square Mile: 0.72 (See above comments.)
Hunters/Square Mile: 1.0
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.16 (See above comments.)
Average Hunter Days: 6.6
Bull Harvest Percentage: 13%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 28%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 25%

Tex Creek Elk Zone

The Hunt

In 2011, archery seasons preceded the any-weapon seasons from August 30 - September 30.  The A-tag any-weapon season is a cow only hunt that lasts from Oct. 22 - Nov. 30.  The B-tag is the one we'll be focusing on here because it's the one that offers the any-weapon antlered tag.  That season lasted from Oct. 15 - Oct. 21.


The southwest corner of the Tex Creek Zone starts at Fort Hall.  The border then follows I-15 north to the junction with HWY 91.  From there, the border follows HWY 91 north to Shelley, where it basically becomes HWY 26.  HWY 26 continues north through Idaho Falls, right past a Forest Service station in case you need some last minute maps, and then curls east towards the metropolis of Ririe.  After Ririe, the north border of the Zone changes from HWY 26 to the South Fork of the Snake River.  The South Fork is a fly-fishing destination, so plan a few extra days with your fly rod.  You'll regret it if you don't, especially once you see it for the first time.  The north border follows the South Fork through Palisades Reservoir to the Wyoming border.

The south borders get a little tricky with numerous Forest Service roads and watershed divides.  The Tex Creek Zone is made up of Unit 66 and 69.  To the south are the Diamond Creek Zone and the Bannock Zone.  The Snake River Zone is on the east, and the Palisades Zone is to the north.  There are 1,149,591 acres, or 1,796 square miles.

Terrain/Land Ownership

As you can see on this land ownership map, the Caribou National Forest Service ground (shaded green) is located in the northeast corner of the Tex Creek Zone.  State of Idaho owned ground is checkered in the middle (shaded blue) among the private ground (shaded white).  The Fort Hall Indian Reservation (shaded pink) is located in the southwest corner of the Zone.

49% of the ground in the Zone is private, 19% is Forest Service, 15% is Indian Reservation, and 12% is State of Idaho.  Do not hunt on the Reservation unless or until you get permission.  I'm unsure of the hunting rules that the Tribe has, but I would not want to be caught dead trespassing with a gun in hand.  I know that the tribe issues spendy waterfowl hunting permits, but I don't know about big game.  Call ahead. 

The Forest Service land just south of the South Fork is where the exciting terrain is.  The closer you get to Palisades Reservoir, the more mountainous it becomes.  Peaks approach 9,000 ft. in elevation, but most of the canyons in the area will range from 6,400 ft. up to 7,000 or 8,000 ft.  The rest of the Zone has an average elevation somewhere between 6,000 and 6,500 ft., but the steepest areas to hunt are in the Forest Service ground.

The terrain is semi-open, as can be seen in the aerial photo above.  In the mountains, the north slopes will be timbered, and the south facing slopes will be open.  As you go in and out of drainages, you go in and out of the woods.  It is plenty open to spend time glassing before chasing.  Outside of the Forest Service ground, the Zone really opens up.  It is hilly, and the creeks and canyons in those hills will hold aspens and shrubs.  If you hunt here, you'll find it's excellent moose habitat just about all over.

Access to happy hunting grounds is not difficult.  There are plenty of Forest Service roads to take you where you want to go.  This, of course, makes it a popular unit.  There's plenty of hunters with their ATV's here.

Heard Health/Stats

I really can't report any bad news about the Tex Creek Zone herd health.  The habitat here holds elk well, and there's plenty of wintering ground.  People will report mixed reports on how many elk they see, but all indications are that the herd is strong.  A factor that determines elk visibility is the weather.  Many Tex Creek elk spend the summer to the south in Unit 66A, which is in the Diamond Creek Zone, and then winter back in the Tex Creek Zone.  So to a certain extent, this is a weather depending hunt.  If there aren't early snows, many of the elk may hang up in the Diamond Creek Zone.  Note that the Diamond Creek Zone does not have a general season, any-weapon hunt.

The objectives are to winter 2,000-3,000 cows and 425-625 bulls (of which 250-350 mature bulls are desired).  The 2010 survey counted 2,277 cows and 577 bulls (of which 325 were mature).  That all sounds good, but the numbers won't be as good during the Oct. 15-21 time period, as some of those may still be in the Diamond Creek Zone.  The IF&G has hinted that it makes more sense to manage this herd by including Unit 66A (Diamond Creek Zone) with the Tex Creek Zone.  However, I suspect that there are other reasons ($) that will prevent that from happening, as the Diamond Creek Zone draws a lot of non-resident archery hunters.

The bear density is low and steady, and mountain lions are present.  Wolves are not a huge factor here.  Yes, they are seen occasionally in the Tex Creek Zone, but the only established pack in the Zone was annihilated in 2009 due to depradation complaints.  No wolves have been harvested in the 2011-2012 wolf hunting season in either the Tex Creek Zone or the Diamond Creek Zone.

Overall, the herd is healthy.  Typically, bulls have been over-harvested and cows have been under-harvested here.  Thus, we have a lengthy cow tag on the A-tag, and only a week-long antlered tag on the B-tag.

Here's the stats:

Elk/Square Mile: 1.6
Hunters/Square Mile: 1.6
Bulls/Square Mile: 0.32
Average Hunter Days: 4.2
Bull Harvest Percentage: 7%
Percent Spikes Harvested: 24%
Percent 6+ points Harvested: 25%

Analysis & The Winner

This is not purely about comparing the stats, as my Panhandle Elk Zone stats are not scientific enough (I should be pretty close with the Tex Creek stats).  Both Zones are popular hunting grounds.  If you're the kind of person that just wants to get away from other hunters, then the Panhandle Zone should be your choice.  In the Panhandle it won't take long for you to hike a few miles up a gated logging road, and it will be just you and the wild.  Not so with the Tex Creek Zone.  There you will find a ton of road hunters, and just when you think you've left it all behind, somebody will be zipping atop the opposite canyon on their four-wheeler.  It would not be fair to categorize the entire Tex Creek Zone that way, but when you hunt there, you will see other hunters.

The biggest difference between the two Zones is terrain.  These Zones are on complete opposite sides of the state, and it takes two opposite styles of hunting.  In Tex Creek you can glass - spot and stalk.  No such thing in the Panhandle.  In the Panhandle you have to be ready to beat the brush, literally.  Tex Creek is easier hunting, no doubt about it.

In the end, I'm going to declare the Tex Creek Elk Zone as the winner here.  I think it is easier to kill a bull there.  Unless you have trail cams set up over wallows in the Panhandle's timber, or you have time to hit the trails on multiple scouting trips, or you are a logger who knows where the elk are, then you can have a tough time of it.  That's not to say you can't be successful by hitting the Panhandle cold, it's just a lot harder, and expectations of success should be kept in check.  On the other hand, anybody can hunt Tex Creek, and it's a matter of hunters pushing the elk around.  And it's a matter of weather.

~ J. Bunch

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