Washington's Back-Up Buck Hunts

Washington's Back-Up Buck Hunts

Are you wishing for just one more shot at a deer this year? Add some insurance to your rifle deer tag by checking out these late-season hotspots. (December 2007)

A handful of late-season hunts can get you back in the field for a second chance after the general rifle season is history.
Photo by Willy Onarheim.

Hopefully by now you have a nice rack hanging above the fireplace, and a mountain of venison in the freezer. You can bask in your glory. You've done your job!

But if good fortune didn't land in your lap this fall, you now have a long time -- ten months, to be exact -- to think about it.

When it comes to deer hunting, I've wasted more tags than I care to admit. But a few years ago, I started planning late season back-up hunts. And now, my whole program seems to be on the upswing.

By exploring Washington's big-game pamphlet, you'll discover a variety of options that can get you back into the field for a second chance, after the general rifle season expires. Some of these hunts are open to anyone with a rifle deer tag; others require more planning and preparation. All of these back-up hunts have one thing in common: timing -- putting you into the field much later in the season than the general hunt. You'll sneak through new-fallen leaves or a few inches of snow. And the bucks will be rutting hard.

EASTERN WASHINGTON WHITETAILS

There's no shortage of whitetails in the northeast corner of the state. In fact, herds there have been rebounding since the late 1990s. Areas open during the annual late whitetail hunt include GMUs 105 through 124, some of the best deer-producing units. Recently, hunters have been enjoying success rates near 30 percent in the Sherman, Huckleberry, 49 Degrees North, and Mount Spokane units -- and a bundle of those deer were late-season, record-book bucks.

One popular destination for late whitetail hunters is the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge in GMU 117, just east of Colville. You'll need a map, compass or GPS here, with over 40,000 acres of rolling forests, and little in the way of landmarks.

Little Pend Oreille is a major wintering area for whitetails in the northeast corner. The late whitetail hunt is normally scheduled for the first two weeks in November. There's a possibility for snow at just about any time. Most veterans who hunt the area look forward to any sign of snow, which moves deer down out of the hills, to concentrate in the refuge.

Most hunters seem to prefer tracking animals through the thick timber, especially if the snow is quiet.

The refuge's elevation ranges from 1,800 to 5,600 feet, and the snow line will fluctuate this time of year.

The country is brushy, too -- thick conifer forests with lots of undergrowth. Those trees and brush can be soaking wet during a cold November storm, so prepare for those conditions as well.

If the weather is dry, you may be in for a tough hunt. The deer will be widely dispersed, and dry sticks and twigs will make it nearly impossible to sneak about quietly. Under these conditions, your best bet will be a stand that utilizes the lay of the land and potential hunter pressure,

The refuge is dissected by a good number of forest roads, and campsites are plentiful. Hunters are allowed to camp in dispersed hunter campsites from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. M

MASTER HUNTER SEASON

Hunters who participate in Washington's Advance Hunter Education and reach the master hunter level are entitled to a mid-December hunt in GMUs 130 through 142 to harvest antlerless whitetail deer only.

To prevent property damage, many landowners will welcome master hunters to harvest deer on their land. Unit 139 (Steptoe) is known for wheat fields and whitetails, and most of the old-timers who own the farms are pretty sociable. Try knocking on few doors, and you'll find some ranch owners who really want you to hunt their place.

Don't have the time or patience to go door to door? Check with the WDFW's Spokane office for a list of landowners who will allow access to master hunters during the late whitetail season.

The deer move during the cold hours of the morning, so get out there and hunt the hills and valleys at first light. The edges of crops and just about any areas that provide cover will prove worthwhile.

Stay on good terms with the farmers by respecting their land -- and they'll give you the opportunity to hunt again, year after year.

WEST SLOPE BLACKTAILS

One of my favorite back-up options is the late hunt for western Washington black-tailed deer. There's plenty of state and federal land to go around in the GMUs involved.

Anyone with a valid rifle tag can participate in this mid-November prospect, which includes all 500 and 600 series GMUs, as well as GMUs 407, 454, and 466.

Units are open for the taking of any buck, with the exception of units 636 (Skokomish), 654 (Mashel), and 681 (Bear River), which have a 2-point minimum restriction.

They don't call blacktails "the ghosts of the coast" for nothing. November is a foggy time of year on the west slope, and the blacktails can pretty much go underground during foul weather. When it's bad, you won't see blacktails out in the open; you have to beat the brush for them.

Old growth, or large second-growth woods sheltered from wind, will be the place to search for deer until the weather improves.

Want to bag two deer? You can! The WDFW has a second-deer tag draw for Shaw, Lopez, Orcas, Decatur, Blakely, Cypress, San Juan, and Guemes islands. Chances of drawing a tag are very high.

Watch for the snow line to come down, and hit the forested hills hard. Hunt by tracking the edges of the snow line, and you'll have a chance at catching an older buck moving down out of the Cascades.

The blacktail rut will be in full swing now -- a huge advantage for hunters. Deer will be milling around as a rule, and you'll have a better chance of seeing quality bucks when they let down their guard for mating.

When the weather improves, hunting the alder flats along river bottoms is as good a bet as any. After the leaves have fallen from the brush and deciduous trees, you'll see a lot more blacktails moving than you otherwise might. Taking a stand on a ridge high above the flats lets you survey the bottom

s with authority.

SAN JUAN BLACKTAILS

The word isn't completely out on hunting blacktails in the San Juan Islands, but there's a buzz in the air.

There is a firearm restriction for Islands GMU 410. So trade your centerfire rifle for a good shotgun, and you're set for this either-sex hunt.

Access to huntable land in the San Juans can be simplified by taking a scouting trip. Some small parcels of Washington Department of Natural Resources land are open to public hunting, but they can be elbow-to-elbow with hunters, and downright dangerous at times.

Hop the ferry to the Orcas, Lopez or San Juan islands, and take a slow drive across the countryside. There are old farms all over the islands where the deer come in at night, wreaking havoc on apple orchards, vegetable crops and flower gardens. The folks who own places like these are the ones you'll want to get to know. Look for old farmhouses surrounded by acres of meadows and timbered slopes, rather than newly constructed vacation properties.

One old-timer I met on Orcas Island was so fed up with deer cleaning him out that he told me to shoot all the deer I wanted, and gave me a free lifetime pass to hunt deer off his land any time the season was open.

Cypress Island is the wildest of the San Juans, reminiscent of islands in southeast Alaska. Cypress contains mostly undeveloped forest owned by the DNR. There is no ferry service, but this is an awesome back-up hunt if you have a boat able to make the trip from Anacortes.

A dozen or so DNR mooring buoys are located in Eagle Harbor, on the east shore of the island. A circuit of trails provides access to some deep woods. During daylight hours, it's best to hunt the timbered areas. The deer tend to be on the small side, but each year, some real stocky bucks with surprising racks are taken. Salal, sword fern, and oceanspray provide deep cover for the blacktails, whose travel patterns seem to be on a tight radius. Once you find tracks, rubs and scrapes, hunt the surrounding area. These island deer are homebodies.

Want to bag two deer? You can! The WDFW has a second-deer tag draw for Shaw, Lopez, Orcas, Decatur, Blakely, Cypress, San Juan, and Guemes islands, which could make your ferry trip much more worthwhile. Chances of drawing a tag are very high. In 2006, there were more tags than applicants for most of the hunts. So for now, getting that second tag is a near shoo-in.

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