By Holly Endersby
Idaho native, Leo Crane, greeted this world in early June 1935 in Pocatello, and grew up on a ranch five miles south of town. It was this experience with animals, horses in particular, as well as lots of hard, physical work that started him on his path to becoming Idaho’s oldest licensed guide.
As soon as he graduated high school, Leo went to work on a large cattle ranch near Chesterfield, where much of the land was “high country.” “I can still remember feeding cattle at -40 degrees,” Leo recalls. “We had 600 mother cows, 200 heifers, and 37 bulls.”
There wasn’t a lot of mechanization on ranches in those days so hands like Leo depended on strong backs and lots of stamina to get the daily chores done. But, not content to continue feeding in those conditions, Leo moved onto a dry farm south of Pocatello and quickly found himself married with a couple kids and 600 acres of pastureland of his own. Unfortunately, that marriage didn’t last and after a divorce, Leo heard from a friend about some folks who were selling their outfitting business in north Idaho.
“The other fellow and I went to take a look at the area,” says Leo, “and to see what it was all about.” It turned out that the friend decided not to buy into the business but Leo took the leap. “At the age of 29, I really didn’t know what an outfitter was,” he says with a laugh. “But I had grown up with stock and did a lot of hunting my whole life, so this seemed like a good chance for me.”
Leo’s Clearwater Outfitting focused on the spectacular Mallard-Larkin country in north central Idaho, home to streams full of trout and, before Dworshak Dam, a spectacular run of steelhead. With the heavily timbered ridges and canyons flush with deer and elk, Leo specialized in high country elk hunting, helped many deer hunters be successful and he guided mountain goat hunters as well.
“After paying all the bills and the crew, we made a whopping $200 that first year! I had to work in a cheese plant in Pocatello that winter to make ends meet,” he recalls. Luckily, the next year was better and Leo was able to stay in business.
Not content to make a living just during big game seasons, Leo’s outfit included fishing cabins along the river before the dam was built. After the dam construction, the cabins were moved onto higher state land where they are to this day. Those cabins were used during hunting season but also helped build a thriving fishing business during the summer. Angles and hunters still rent the cabins by the week. But Leo’s love of the backcountry also contributed to his success as a fishing guide. “We would pack seven or eight miles into the Little North Fork of the Clearwater River,” he says. “It was, and is, a place for great fishing. Today, the fishing is as good as ever.”
Fly-fishing is the way to go on the Little North Fork. “It is fantastic fly fishing,” he asserts. “We’ve had anglers from all over the world, including a fellow from New Zealand who said although he could catch a lot of fish there, he loved the trout and swift water of the North Fork.” That satisfied client, an older gentleman, took four guided trips with Leo.
But according to Leo, fishing in Dworshak Lake is excellent, too. “The state planted kokanee and small mouth bass,” he shares. “Both are excellent to eat and the bass are really fun to catch. The state record for small mouth bass came from Dworshak.”
The life of an outfitter and guide can be relaxing one moment and deathly terrifying the next, and Leo has had his share of “adventures.” “I almost lost my life the first year after the dam was constructed and the lake was filling up,” he recalls. “I was leading a packstring of horses on the river trail that now was right next to the lake when the horse I was riding slipped into the water and started to swim to the middle of the lake where it ran into a log jam. The whole string of five animals followed me even though I had dropped the lead rope. I felt something bumping me from behind and when I turned, there were the other five animals in the water with me!” Leo then mentions that he can’t swim and is hanging onto the logjam for dear life. In the meantime, his riding horse swims to shore and gets out but the pack animals can’t get their footing because of the weight of the packs on their backs. While his pack animals struggled to stay afloat, Leo’s son, Scott, swam out to his dad with a rope and towed him back to shore then quickly began helping get the rest of the animals out of the water.
“It took several hours to get all the animals out of the lake and up the creek to where they could get some solid footing,” the outfitter recalls. “Then, the last darn horse broke away from us and swam back into the lake.” Undeterred, non-swimmer Leo, got on a log, paddled out to the horse, got the pack off her, and led the horse back with a rope his brother-in-law swam out to him.
Another “adventure” began with a pontoon boat loaded with hay for his horses. When Leo and his crew put the hay on the boat, they didn’t realize it was actually sitting on the lake bottom. “We loaded the boat really heavy,” Leo said. “The water was right at the top of the deck, clear over the pontoons.” Everything was fine until Leo’s wife walked to the front of the boat.“ It went nose-down just like a submarine! The next thing I knew my wife and crew were throwing hay bales off the boat to keep us from capsizing.”
And then there were the times when other hunters shot three of his horses thinking they were elk. “One of them was even a client of mine!” Leo laughs. Leo is proud of the fact he has been a licensed guide and outfitter since 1965. And in addition, he served on the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board for twelve years. To this day, Leo remains active in the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, attending legislative sessions in Boise each winter and donating time and expertise to raise money for worthy causes.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” he states. “When we first started, most of our guides were ranch kids who knew their way around stock and were used to long hours and harsh conditions. But our last few years as big game outfitters, we were getting kids with absolutely no experience from all walks of life. Most had never seen a horse and had done no real big game hunting.”
In desperation, Leo started a guide school in hopes of finding a few good kids by the end of the course. “We’d start with eight guys and be lucky to find two that could really work by the end of the training.”
Leo says that over the years he’s seen all kinds of hunters. “Some guys arrived with rented rifles and the wrong ammunition. Others came with rifles that hadn’t been sighted in. One fellow, a guy from southern California, bragged he could make 500-yard shots but I didn’t believe him. To prove it, he stepped off his horse and shot a raven out of the sky like it was a clay pigeon: he was really an amazing shot.”
Most of the time, Leo recalls, guides didn’t last more than one season. “Most of them had very little hunting experience and didn’t realize guiding means a lot of work, getting up long before daylight to feed and saddle stock, then leading hunters all day and returning to camp with even more chores to be taken care of.”
Although Leo had his pontoon boat and fishing guide service filled in the summer months, and had a busy fall big-game hunting operation, winter was quiet so he began making pack bags and doing saddle repair during the off-season.
“I also build pack saddles, craft breast collars, and bridles and personalize them however the client wants. Right now, I have a backlog of orders: it seems everybody waits until spring to get ready for hunting season.” Today, Leo makes most pack bags out of heavy-duty truck tarp vinyl instead of the more traditional canvas. “The outfitters and individual hunters like them better because you can just hose the blood out of them after packing meat.”
Leo and his wife, Dee, sold the back country big game portion of their outfitting business in 2005 but kept the fishing business and their operation is now called Lake n’ Leather Outfitters. With a pontoon boat for fishing as well as offering beautiful dinner cruises featuring Dee’s fabulous cooking, this husband and wife team stay as busy as they want to be in what Leo calls, “semi-retirement.”
With fifty years of experience, you’re in good hands if Leo Crane takes you fishing: Idaho’s oldest outfitter is waiting to show you a great time!