It is more than steaks on the barbeque, more than antlers on a plaque.
It is September, when the bugles drift out of the high country. It is October when the leaves are golden and November when the rain falls on a leaf-littered trail. It is the first snow of the year that blankets the forest in white. It is the fire within that makes us hike two miles in the dark to set up on a windy ridge.
It is elk season in the Pacific Northwest and there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
In our Pacific Northwest Elk Forecast, we talked to biologists, outfitters and successful hunters in Washington and Oregon. Here, we tell you what hunts offer the most animals, and where you have your best chance at tying your tag on a big bull.
WESTERN OREGON AND CASCADES
Conventional wisdom says that to take a bull for the record books, you have to hire a guide and hunt big herds on huge, private ranches. Moreover, you need to concentrate your efforts in habitat known for producing trophy bulls.
Kris Baillie might tell you different. An ironworker from Molalla, Ore., 36 years old and the father of five kids, Baillie can’t afford those expensive guided hunts, but he made the best of it last year on public land elk habitat in the Santiam Unit.
“I knew there were a couple of big bulls in the area,” he said. He hit the timber an hour and a half before first light and walked two miles along an old skid road. From a high spot, he saw a couple of cows and started a stalk.
Minutes later, he walked up on a spike bull at 30 yards. “Lucky you,” Baillie whispered. He was looking for a trophy. Now Baillie could see 10 cows. He crept along, tree to tree, then stopped when a four-point blacktail walked in front of him. Baillie didn’t want to shoot and risk spooking the unseen bull.
He started his call set with calf talk, then he progressed to cow sounds, then cow-in-estrus. Twenty minutes later, he introduced a small bull bugle. Unseen in the trees, the big bull answered by raking a small fir.
The elk worked toward him, resigned to battle. Minutes later, he was within range. Baillie threw one last cow call then side-stepped 15 yards and drew back his bow.
I saw the bull at the O’Loughlin Sportsman’s Show in Portland last February. Taxidermist Tim Brown had it on display. Scored for the Record Book for Oregon’s Big Game Animals, the trophy stretched the tape to 392 3/8 inches, the new No. 1 Cascade Roosevelt’s elk.
Baillie beat tall odds in the Santiam, where success rates for archers and rifle hunters average about 5 percent.
Conditions are similar in the McKenzie Unit. Chris Yee, from the Springfield office, reported that elk numbers in the McKenzie Unit have declined in recent years. The change in forest practices is the major limiting factor. The less sunlight that reaches the ground, the less there is to eat. “These elk are driven by high-quality nutrition. As the canopy closes, you lose even more forage. From the west Cascades to the coast you tend to get salal and sword fern and other plants whose nutritional value is very low.”
The decline hasn’t been as pronounced in the Indigo Unit where the elk have been able to find higher-quality feed in remnant openings.
In western Oregon and the Cascades, hunter success rates run highest in the Saddle Mountain Unit, with 23 percent, the Tioga at 17 percent, the Sixes at 44 percent and the Chetco at 21 percent.
Doug Cottam, district wildlife biologist in the Newport office, is responsible for herds in the Alsea, Stott Mountain and the northern end of the Siuslaw. He pointed to the Alsea as the best bet to find a bigger bull. “Typically, we see a higher percentage of branch bulls there than we do in the Stott Mountain Unit where bulls are younger and you see more spikes. We have elk herds in the Alsea that people never see.”
In the dense cover, bowhunters that know how to call elk have a decided advantage. And even in September, when there is fire danger in a lot of forests, the Alsea forests that are closer to the ocean and damper and cooler, tend to stay open.
To the south, the Siuslaw Unit saw a bag limit change to spike-only in the rifle hunts. “The ratio is still under 10 bulls per 100 cows,” Cottam said, “and the overall population is still below management objectives. There are large areas where you don’t find many elk, but some places where you see more than a hundred together.
In the Cascades-area hunts, success rates average 6 percent. The Evans Creek Unit is the lone bright spot, with 15 percent harvest success.
In 2009, the last year for which the data was available, 113,265 Oregon hunters bagged 14,070 elk for an overall harvest success rate of 12 percent. West of the Cascades, 11 percent of hunters filled their tags.
East of the Cascades, in 2009, hunters enjoyed a 14 percent success rate. But in 2010, success may have run higher in some units.
One way to gauge success is to ask a taxidermist. Tim McLagan, of McLagan’s Taxidermy in Bend, saw a lot of big elk in his shop last season. “It was the most elk I’ve seen in 13 years of working here. I’m going to have to say the elk numbers are up. Usually we only get one or two out of the Ochocos and there were quite a few this time and quite a few from all over the state, including two from the Snake River Unit that taped out to 327 and 317, net.”
Success rates in the Ochocos average higher than in nearby units. In 2009, 19 percent of rifle hunters and archery hunters went home with their elk.
The Fossil Unit remains one of the best elk producers in eastern Oregon. A high percentage of antlerless tags account for much of the 28 percent harvest rate that hunters enjoyed in 2009. The smaller Lookout Mountain Unit was also a top performer with a success rate of 29 percent.
The Starkey Unit sees the most pressure, but the 10 percent success rate ran below the eastern Oregon average.
According to Barry Cox, owner of Del Sol Wilderness Adventures (541-398-2088, www.delsolwildernessadventures.com) in Lostine, bowhunters are getting better at their game. “With archery, it seems like our success rate is going up. The bowhunters we’re seeing are getting better and more efficient. We had a lot of happy hunters and a lot of near hits.”
For the rifle hunter, Cox suggests people think about the spike season. “We had a father and son hunt for spikes last year. Neither one had killed an elk before. We saw lots of elk and big bulls and quite a few spikes and they each got one.
“It seems like our Snake River Unit keeps getting better and the bull/cow ratio seems to be getting better. The size and quality seems to be improving, too. A lot of those elk are migratory, coming out of the Eagle Caps and they have to come right through the area we’re hunting.”
Predator control in the Heppner Unit and the Beulah Unit is paying off with more elk numbers, according to Steve Mathers, of Battle Creek Outfitters (www.battlecreekoutfitters.com, 541-389-0743). Increased tag numbers in the East Beulah hunt will make it easier to draw a tag, but put more hunters in the area.
Mathers says that elk numbers seem to be steady in the Sumpter Unit, although predator numbers are high. In the Heppner Unit, their clients took four bulls over 300 inches last year. “Two were in the mid-320s. I think the bull quality is improving,” Mathers said, “and the calf survival has dramatically increased.”
Do-it-yourself hunters have options for packing-in and packing-out in eastern Oregon. Call Oregon Horse Packing (www.oregonhorsepacking.com, 503-510-2729) to pack in to the Strawberry Mountains. Call Del Sol Wilderness Adventures (www.delsolwildernessadventures.com, 541-398-2088) for drop camp services in the Eagle Caps.
In the 2009 season, the last year for which data was available, a total of 70,542 licensed hunters tagged 5,918 elk for a harvest success of 10.7 percent. Of those, 4,820 were antlered bulls. General season hunter success ranged from 10.7 percent for modern firearm hunters, to 12.5 percent for muzzleloader hunters to 9.6 percent for bowhunters. Special season permit holders averaged 40.3 percent for all weapon types.
Last season I hunted with Jim Mansfield, an outfitter from Forks, Wash., (www.olympicpeninsulafishing.com, 360-640-2579). The first day, we watched a herd of elk, including one four-point bull, but were not able to get close enough to draw our bows. The second day, we stalked into a herd of cows and spikes, then finished the hunt on the third day from a drift boat. Though we did not tag a bull, we saw a lot of elk.
Mansfield credits the locked gates on the Olympic Peninsula for protecting rainforest Roosevelts from poachers. “In our area, I think the herds are stable right now,” he said.
West of Olympia and north of Highway 12, improving habitat conditions are contributing to better hunting. Elk units south of Highway 12 continue to offer good hunting with GMU 673 — the Williams Creek — offering the best prospects.
The largest and the most important herd in western Washington is the Mt. St. Helens herd. A 3-point minimum antler restriction is in place to protect younger age-class animals.
Jerry Nelson, the elk and deer program manager in Olympia, points to the Mt. St. Helens herd and southwest Washington for the best general season opportunity on the west side. “The Winston (520), Coweeman (550), Lewis River (560), Siouxon (572) and Packwood (516) are our best producers,” he said.
Steve Leonard, of Washougal Taxidermy, saw a number of hunters come into his shop last season, with the most success from the Siouxon Unit. He took time out to hunt the West Klickitat muzzleloader season for antlerless elk. With a tracking snow and less hunting pressure than expected, he saw a lot of elk. Leonard’s partner bagged a cow on the second day of the season. Shooting his 50-caliber Knight rifle, Leonard tagged out on day four.
Washington’s second biggest elk herd is the Yakima. Over the course of a year, depending on terrain, season and weather, the elk range from 300 feet to as high as 7,000 feet above sea level. Some Yakima elk migrate west of the crest to spend the summer in GMUs 461, 485, 490, 513, 516 and 653.
Nelson said the Yakima herd is “holding fairly stable. Mature bull numbers are up and we do have increased opportunity for mature bulls in 2011 by special permit.”
“A hunter needs to walk,” Nelson said. “Walk away from the crowds. Look at your maps and figure out a plan on where you can get to in advance. If you can do some preseason scouting, you really raise your chances. If you’re young enough and healthy enough to do the non-motorized approach, there are a lot of wilderness and roadless areas. Look for elk habitat and go where elk are. Your chances are going to increase by having a plan to get away from the roads, get away from the truck.”
Biologists are working to rebuild the Colockum herd. GMU 251 (Mission) is the best bet in this region. The 249 (Alpine) and 245 (Chiwawa) are second and third, but success runs lower than the statewide average.
The Colockumn has rebounded in total numbers, according to Nelson. “With our spike restrictions, we’re trying to get more yearling bull survival, but we’re still not doing well in mature bull numbers. The yearling bulls look better now than they have in several years.”
Archery and muzzleloader hunters seem to have an advantage in the northeast corner of the state. Selkirk elk live in small bands and cover a lot of territory. They are more apt to be vocal during archery and muzzleloader seasons. A strategic plan that focuses on cow-calling or bugling can make the difference.
Dale Denney, of Bearpaw Outfitters (www.bearpawoutfitters.com, 509-684-6294) in Colville, guides a few hunters each year in the Selkirk. “This corner of the state attracts a certain amount of attention because of the less restrictive bag limits. The herd is slowly building and we plan to hunt it more. There are elk here; you just have to find the groups.”
Denney recommends that hunters have a cougar tag and a bear tag in their pocket. Last year, his hunters had shot opportunities at elk. Neither connected, but both shot bears.
Elk numbers in the Blue Mountain herd (Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin counties) have improved to management objectives in most sub-herd populations. Here, the general season is limited to spike harvest.
“The Blue Mountain herd produces some tremendous bulls,” Nelson said. “Special permits for these units are up slightly in 2011. If you were lucky enough to draw a permit, you have a good chance of getting a big bull.”
“I know people who hunt it every year and they use the opportunity to try to take a yearling bull and continue to scout the neighborhood. When they finally do draw that branch-antler tag, they have a good idea how they want to approach it.”
To order a copy of Northwest Elk Academy — the DVD, send $20.00 (free S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709.