Trophy Elk of Wenaha-Tucannon

Hundreds of Washington and Oregon hunters head to this wilderness to pack their freezers. But a lucky few will have their sights on legendary trophy bulls that push 390 B&C points. (November 2007)

Outfitter Jon Wick shows a bull taken by a client in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. The product of sound game-management practices, bulls like this are the trophy of a lifetime for most hunters.
Photo courtesy of Jon Wick.

The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is a popular destination for Washington and Oregon hunters hoping to fill their freezers with tasty elk steaks. But what really keeps them checking their mailboxes and computers is the hope for a tag that gives them a crack at one of the wilderness' trophy bulls.

Carved out of the million-acre Umatilla National Forest by the 1978 Endangered American Wilderness Act, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness contains 177,412 acres of postcard quality scenery, pristine streams, and some of the biggest bull elk in the West. The Washington portion of the wilderness contains 110,995 acres, while Oregon has 66,417.

The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is defined by the Tucannon River drainage in the north and the Wenaha River system in the south. Elevation varies from 2,000 to 6,000 feet.

There are a few broad, sloping ridges, but a veteran elk hunter of the region claims that the term "verticality" best describes the wilderness. Fescue-covered hillsides are interspersed with deep canyons choked with pines, larches, and firs.

Rugged terrain not withstanding, hunters will find reasonable access to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

Forest Service roads reach to the wilderness' boundaries, particularly on the north, west and south sides. Forest Service Road 300, a spur from the Kendall Skyline Road, makes a deep incursion into the wilderness.

Hunters should remember these are mountain roads, and driving conditions can change from good to dreadful in a matter of hours.

According to Rich Martin, United States Forest Service director of recreation for the wilderness, hunters will find plenty of access through the interior.

Martin said that the Forest Service maintains about 300 miles of trails in the Wenaha-Tucannon. "And there are about that many more miles of user-established trails running to old hunting camps."

Along the wilderness boundary, sixteen established trailheads provide access for both horsemen and hikers, said Martin.

Motorized or mechanized vehicles are prohibited in the wilderness.

HUNTING THE WILDERNESS

Washington and Oregon both hold spike-only archery and modern-weapon general elk seasons in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

The two states also offer a limited number of branch-antlered bull tags to archers and firearms hunters through special drawings.

Annually, several hundred hunters on both sides of the state line participate in the general seasons. However, the relatively small number of spikes in the elk herd, plus the challenging wilderness terrain, combine to severely limit hunter success. Annual average hunter-success rates for these hunts range from about 4 to 8 percent, depending on weapon used.

The real buzz about elk hunting in the Wenaha-Tucannon comes from the number of trophy bulls roaming the canyons and ridges.

Jon Wick has more than 20 years experience guiding elk, deer, and bear hunters in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. He offers some advice that will help hunters who pursue spikes or branch-antlered bulls.

"The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is right on the edge of producing world-class bulls," Wick said. "It is an extremely rugged area to hunt. But for the hunter with the right tag, enough heart and the correct frame of mind, it presents the chance to take the bull of a lifetime."

Other hunters familiar with the wilderness support Wick's assertion and note that the trophy bulls are well distributed across the entire area. One state is not better than the other in terms of trophy animals.

For do-it-yourself hunters or those who hire guides, there are several keys to successful elk hunting here, said Wick. Hunters should have:

'¢ A positive mental outlook,

'¢ Quality optics,

'¢ Good shooting skills,

'¢ Ability to accurately judge the size of trophy bull elk, and

'¢ Enough hunting companions to get the job done.

Physical conditioning is necessary, but the mental part of the hunt -- qualities such as persistence, dedication, and desire -- might be even more important.

"I've guided hunters in their 60s and 70s to some very nice bulls in the Wenaha-Tucannon," said Wick. (Continued)

"We stayed within the clients' physical capabilities. But most importantly, they had the desire to do what was required to take a trophy bull. The most successful hunters are willing to put in the long hours and cover the many miles necessary for taking a big bull elk."

OPTICAL DELUSION

The open nature of the Wenaha-Tucannon lends itself to spot-and-stalk hunting. Hunters should spend several hours each day glassing for trophy animals.

"You're going to glass a lot of bulls in the area and probably make several stalks each day, getting close enough to accurately judge different animals," Wick said.

"It's an absolute necessity to have the best optics you can afford."

While a good spotting scope may not let you score a bull from two miles away, it will let you know if you need to get over there for a closer look, said the hunter. Likewise, if hunters are glassing a herd of 30 elk, it's going to require quality optics to pick out the spike in the bunch.

Binoculars with a built-in 1,200-yard rangefinder are an indispensable part of Wick's equipment. Combining the two instruments means one fewer piece of equipment to carry -- and the 1,200-yard ranging capability is very useful when planning the final stages of a stalk.

SHOOTING SKILL

Because the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness offers wide-open vistas, accurate shooting at distance is a critical hunting skill. Elk hunters in the Wenaha-Tucannon favor bolt-action rifles in one of the various 300 magnum calibers, although standard calibers like the .30/06 and .270 are seen afield as we

ll. Variable scopes topping out in the 12X- to 14X-range are becoming common.

Wick contends that hunters should practice until they are competent to shoot 300 yards. "There are just too many good rifles and cartridges for elk-sized game out there for hunters not to be able to make accurate 300-yard shots."

The important thing is to accurately range the animal -- don't estimate; have a good range finder -- and shoot at stationary bulls only.

"Last fall," Wick said, "I watched a 13-year-old boy knock a big bull kicking with a single shot at 395 yards. The boy and his father are dedicated hunters and practice long-range shooting year-round."

Although the Wenaha-Tucannon is open country, the trophy bulls are 8 to 12 years old and plenty smart. Once disturbed, they may disappear for days.

Wick said he had guided a client to a nice Wenaha-Tucannon bull that he and one of his assistant guides estimated would gross about 390 Boone and Crockett points.

"We twice worked the client into range of the bull, the last time about 200 yards," said Wick. "But before the client was ready to take the shot, the bull winded us and blew out of there. We never saw that bull again during the season."

But the client ended up taking a very nice 350-plus B&C bull a couple of days later and went home happy.

The next spring, Wick picked up the first bull's sheds; He would have scored very close to 400.

"I'm glad the client didn't try a shot he wasn't confident in," said the guide. "But had he spent more time at the target range, he well might have taken a 400-point bull."

JUDGING SIZE

Trophy-elk hunters in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness may find their most difficult task accurately judging the size of bulls they encounter. Inexperienced hunters are very likely to shoot a 270-B&C bull, thinking it's going to score 350 points.

Walla Walla hunter Corey Reynard has taken trophy bull elk with bow, muzzleloader, and centerfire rifle. He is also one of the most prolific gatherers of shed antlers in the Blue Mountains.

During the past 11 years, Corey has retrieved more than 800 elk antlers and has become adept at judging the size of trophy bull elk racks. He offers six quick steps that beginners can use to estimate the gross B&C score of a bull elk's rack.

1. Count the points on each beam. Trophies generally will be 6x6 or larger.

2. Brow tines that curl upward and extend as far out as the bull's nose are about 18 inches long. Estimate the length of the brow tines and use that as a reference to estimate the length of all the other points on the bull's rack. Total up the length of all the points on the rack in inches.

3. The main beam of most mature bulls, from the antler base to the bottom of the fourth point, is about 30 inches long. Using that for reference, estimate the length of the remaining antler beyond the fourth point, and add the two together to get a total beam length. Most trophy bulls will have main beams over 50 inches in length. Total the estimated length of both beams in inches.

4. Add 40 inches for spread, deducting 5 inches for a narrow rack and adding 5 inches for an exceptionally wide rack.

5. Add 25 inches for mass for each beam. Add 5 additional inches per beam for an exceptionally heavy rack.

6. Total the estimated length of all points, the length of each beam, the width of the rack and the mass for each beam. This gives you an estimated gross B&C score.

According to Reynard, bull elk across the Blue Mountains have a lot of "trash," or kicker points, on their racks. These extra points make for distinctive trophies, but also create deductions that might keep a bull out of the record book.

HELP FROM FRIENDS

Hunters drawing a branch-antlered tag for the Wenaha-Tucannon need to recruit sufficient help so that their time is spent hunting, not dealing with the logistics associated with hunting. Basically this boils down to hiring an outfitter, or persuading a network of friends and family to help. Both methods work.

Three outfitters -- two in Washington and one working in both states -- are licensed to operate in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

Outfitters supply the livestock, equipment, and know-how for comfortable camping and efficient movement in the wilderness. They are knowledgeable of the terrain and wildlife in their area. These outfitted hunts will cost about what a hunter would expect to pay for a guided hunt in other Western states.

While some do-it-yourself hunters may use livestock to establish camps deep in the wilderness, it seems most hunters camp at the wilderness boundary and make day-hunts into the unit. Knowing there are several others to share meat-packing chores or to be available in case of an emergency gives a "boot" hunter confidence to venture farther into the wilderness each day.

Perhaps the greatest benefit that companions provide do-it-yourself elk hunters is the ability to scout larger expanses of territory. Several helpers can spread out and thoroughly glass thousands of acres a day, greatly enhancing the permit holder's chances of locating a trophy bull.

Handheld radios allow these scouts to communicate effectively. But ethical hunters should know and follow each state's regulations regarding radio use while hunting.

Self-guided hunters are further helped by a non-commercial public-use area set aside in the wilderness.

According to the Forest Service's Martin, the Forest Service has reserved a sizeable chunk of land on the north and west side of the Wenaha-Tucannon exclusively for non-commercial public use. This, he said, is an area where the non-outfitted public can go without encountering guided parties.

While all 177,412 acres of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness are open to unguided hunting, guides and outfitters cannot operate in the non-commercial area. Maps of the non-commercial area are available from the Pomeroy Ranger District.

GETTING THE TAG

Arguably, the most difficult aspect of harvesting a trophy bull elk in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is drawing the appropriate permit. The Washington portion of the Wenaha-Tucannon lies mostly within Wenaha Game Management Unit 169.

That portion of the wilderness north of FS Trail 3113 (commonly referred to as the Oregon Butte, Bullfrog Springs, Diamond Peak Trail) is in Elk Area 1014. For the 2007 season, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife offered 17 modern firearm, three muzzleloader, and four archery tags allowing the harvest of branch-antlered bulls in GMU 169.

Chances of being drawn for a permit in any of these hunts ranged from 1 to 2 percent.

For Elk Area 1014 -- a much smaller geographical area -- WDFW offered four modern firearm, one muzzleloader, and three archery tags that could be used to take a branch-antlered bull. Chances of being drawn for one of these hunts ranged from 0.5 percent to slightly more than 1 percent.

Oregon's portion of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness is part of the larger Wenaha Unit. Hunters drawing a permit allowing harvest of a branch-antlered bull may use the tag anywhere within the entire unit, including the wilderness area.

According to Vic Coggins, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist stationed in Enterprise, there is a good distribution of branch-antlered bulls across the entire Wenaha Unit.

"It seems that more guided hunters are drawn to the wilderness area," said Coggins.

"And more of the do-it-yourself hunters target bulls in the National Forest outside the wilderness."

In 2007, Oregon offered two permit hunts for the Wenaha Unit that allowed the harvest of branch-antlered bulls. Twenty tags were allocated to modern weapons hunters, and an additional 21 tags were issued to bow hunters. Chances of being drawn for either hunt hovered around the 1 percent mark.

Both states offer "preference" points for unsuccessful applicants in these drawings. While differing in detail, the two plans basically award unsuccessful applicants 1 point for each year they participate in the drawing. These points accumulate and increase a hunter's chances of being selected the following year.

"The average wait to draw a branch-antlered bull elk permit in the Wenaha Unit is about 12 to 13 years," explains Vic Coggins.

"These fellows are the selective hunters, willing to wait a long time for a chance at a really big bull."

But, said Coggins, a surprising number of them, once they are drawn, will pass on bull after bull, waiting to get the best possible animal, and end up not filling the tag after waiting years to draw it.

Washington hunters can expect a wait of at least 10 years before drawing a tag for either GMU 169 or Elk Area 1014.

Hunters who aren't interested in investing a decade or more for a chance at one of these bruiser bulls may purchase an Access and Habitat elk tag or Governor's elk tag.

These permits are auctioned at events put on by conservation groups, such as the Oregon Hunters Association or Safari Club International. Usually divided into Eastside or Westside tags, or Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk, the permits entitle the purchaser to hunt elk anywhere in the state it's legal to do so.

Hunters receive an extended season stretching from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 in Oregon, and until Dec. 31 in Washington, and may choose their style of weapon. They may hunt until they harvest one animal.

An abundance of trophy bulls often leads these tag holders to the Blue Mountains. During the past five years, Wick has guided 15 hunters holding Access and Habitat or Governor's tags in the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

Proceeds from auction-tag sales go to the state's wildlife department to enhance elk populations or increase hunter access across the state.

In 2007, Oregon offered four elk auction tags, while Washington offered one elk auction tag for each side of the state.

The auction price of these tags has risen sharply in the past several years, and they now routinely bring $25,000 or more. This past February, Washington State's 2007 Eastside Governor's elk tag sold for $47,000 at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's annual Elk Camp in Reno.

Hunters not having an extra $25,000 handy to spend can purchase tickets for special raffle drawings for trophy elk tags. Oregon awarded four elk raffle tags this year, while Washington provided both an Eastside and a Westside elk raffle tag.

Raffle-tag winners hunt under the same rules as auction-tag purchasers.

Raffle tickets cost a few dollars each and are available from the state's wildlife department.

Find more about hunting and fishing in Washington and Oregon at WOgameandfish.com

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