There is no hard work like the toil of packing an elk out of the woods. It puts soreness in the sinew and satisfaction in the soul like no other experience in hunting.
But elk don’t come easy. You need information before the hunt. Guess what? You’ve come to the right place!
From Roosevelt elk in the rainforests of western Washington to the Rocky Mountain elk in the high desert in southeast Oregon, no other region in the U.S. offers the diversity of an elk-hunting experience like the Pacific Northwest. And an easy winter in 2009-10 across both states provides a good start toward the 2010 elk hunts in Washington and Oregon.
Here is our forecast for the Pacific Northwest’s best elk hunting. We profile the hunts that offer the most animals and give you a glimpse at the places where you have the best chance at tying your tag on a big bull.
The Coast And Cascades
In the latest data available from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, 64,295 people hunted western Oregon in 2008 from the coast to the Cascade hunts and tagged 6,392 elk for a 10 percent hunter success rate.
On the South Coast, the Sixes turned in the best numbers with a 44 percent success rate. Chetco Unit hunters enjoyed 24 percent success. One of the most popular units in this area is the Tioga, which saw 4,618 hunters last year. They spent an average of 6.36 days in the field for a success rate of 11 percent.
North Coast units with the best success rates were Saddle Mountain (20 percent), Scappoose (15 percent) and Trask (13 percent).
In the Cascade Area, the Dixon Unit turned out the best success rate (8 percent) in 2008, followed by the Indigo (7 percent), Evans Creek (7 percent) and Rogue (7 percent) units.
John McCollum, owner of Eden Ridge Outfitters (www.edenridgeoutfitters.com) in Myrtle Point, guided his hunters to 13 elk in 2009 — the biggest, a 280-inch 6-point from the Powers Unit.
“It’s the best unit in the state as far as I’m concerned. There is a lot more land to hunt, a lot of national forest,” McCollum pointed out. “We killed a 351 bull out of there two years ago.”
The Sixes Unit is a good choice for private-land hunting. With higher tag numbers in this unit, competition grows on the public-access areas. A late muzzleloader deer season and archery season overlap the rifle elk season.
In the Tioga Unit, hunter numbers are high, but there is also a lot of country to cover and a lot of elk for patient and persistent hunters.
McCollum likes what the Chetco hunt has to offer.
“It is a pretty quiet unit. You have to do your homework,” he admitted, “… and you do have the area that was burned by the Biscuit Fire. I think the bowhunt would be your best chance to kill a big bull out of that area.”
Another good bet is the December Sitkum muzzleloader hunt (antlerless or 3-point plus), where in 2008 the area hunters collectively posted a 32 percent success rate.
Timber companies own much of the elk habitat in western Oregon. Hunters should call forestland owners for the latest information on closures due to wildfire danger or logging activity:• Weyerhaeuser Oregon Hotline, (888) 741-5403
• Cascade Timber, (541) 367-2111
• Hampton Affiliates, (503) 365-8400
• Longview Fiber, (503) 873-6457 or (503) 668-8933
• Starker Forests, (541) 929-2477
Rocky Mountain Elk
With the calf segment of the herd up, and predator numbers down a little bit, elk hunts in the Heppner Unit are likely to excite Oregon elk hunters this season.
“I haven’t seen a lot of calves,” Crawford reported, “but cow numbers and bull numbers were great last year.”
On Battle Creek Outfitters’ ranch in the Beulah Unit, one of Crawford’s hunters last season tagged a 323-inch bull. On their ranch in the Starkey Unit, BCO’s clients saw a lot of elk, and younger age-class bulls. “I am expecting a good year with the mild winter we had,” Crawford said.
According to Barry Cox, owner of Del Sol Wilderness Adventures (www.delsolwildernessadventures.com) in Wallowa, the hunters they packed in to drop camps in the Snake River Unit during rifle season had 100 percent success. Their archery camps didn’t fare near that well, but the bowhunters did see some success. One hunter tagged a 350-class bull in the Eagle Caps.
“One thing I noticed in the Snake River Unit was the vast amounts of elk in the openings and burns,” Cox said. “What was exciting was the amount of young animals. In the past I wasn’t seeing large numbers of calves. Last year we counted quite a few spikes and a lot of calves. It makes me feel like our elk herd is doing better. We used to see a herd of 100 head of cows and maybe two calves in the whole herd. But that number has jumped up a lot. That’s what I’m seeing.”
Harvest success across eastern Oregon averaged 14 percent in 2008. There were 49,823 licensed hunters with a total elk harvest of 7,169 animals. The Pine Creek and Maupin units saw the state’s highest hunter-success rate at 29 percent. The Fossil, Columbia Basin, Wagontire and Steens Mountain hunts were close behind.
Washington wildlife biologists manage 10 primary elk herds: the Yakima, Selkirk, Blue Mountain, Colockum, North Cascades, North Rainier, South Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Willapa Hills and Olympic herds. Statewide, elk populations are estimated at approximately 55,000 animals. In the 2008 seas
on, the last year for which data was available, hunters enjoyed a 9 percent harvest success rate, which was down somewhat from previous years.
In 2008, a total of 76,193 licensed hunters tagged 6,826 elk. Of those, 4,101 were antlered bulls. General-season hunter success ranged from 6.2 percent for rifle hunters, to 6.6 percent for muzzleloader hunters, to 9.1 percent for bowhunters. Special-permit season holders averaged 35.6 percent for all weapon types.
State wildlife managers have heard some frustration from hunters in recent years. The complaints have centered on the selection process used to issue the special-hunt permits. Successful applicants enjoy hunting options beyond those authorized by a general hunting license. Randomly drawn from the same pool of applicants seeking a general hunting license, applicants seeking special-hunt permits face a choice between applying for popular hunts or settling for less popular hunts with better odds.
Now, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has created separate applications for seven different categories of deer and elk permits.
“We’ve divided up the different categories into quality, bulls, antlerless, youth, seniors, and hunters with disabilities,” said Jerry Nelson, the WDFW’s elk and deer program manager. “In the past, when you put in for special permits, you had one pot of preference points. Regardless of which hunt you drew, your preference points would zero out. Now, if you draw a hunt in the quality category, you won’t lose your points in the antlerless category.”
Under the new plan, points accrued by hunters toward special permits in previous years would be applied to each of the new permit categories created under the new plan. All funds raised by the sale of additional permit applications are to be used to expand hunter access to private lands.
West Of The Cascades
In northwest Washington, some of the best elk hunting takes place in the Peninsula’s Wynoochee River watershed, the upper Humptulips, the Hoh, the upper Quinault and Bear River. To the south, river and bay access opens elk hunting opportunity in and around Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
Jim Mansfield, an outfitter from Forks who also provides guided fishing services (www.olympicpeninsulafishing.com), guided his clients to three bulls last year. Two of his hunters took bulls early in their archery hunts. The third finished his rifle season with a last-day 5-point. Mansfield attributes his successes in the last few years to limited entry in the areas he hunts.
“These locked gates are really helping these elk survive the poachers. One-hundred-eighty gates were put in about 15 years ago, and there are a lot more elk now.” In the warm weather of early archery season, the animals seem to feed away from the rivers in the early morning, and then move back toward water in the heat of the day.
Coastal Roosevelt elk take in smaller home ranges than Rocky Mountain elk, making them easier to pattern. Prior to the season, scouting can tip the odds in the hunter’s favor. Locate trails into bedding or escape cover, and then set up in a downwind stand. Depending on the area and the herd, Roosevelt elk are likely to follow a cycle that will put them in the same area every five to seven days.
According to Jerry Nelson, most of the elk populations on the Peninsula are holding stable. In the dense coastal environment, the elk are difficult to count and quantify. The WDFW is planning a Peninsula-wide study, while coordinating their work with tribal biologists. “They invest a lot of money and time in elk management,” Nelson added.
In southwest Washington’s Thurston County, landowners fight elk damage on agricultural land, and there are opportunities for hunters to help.
“We do have a few isolated areas where folks get elk doing some damage and crossing fence lines, knocking fences down,” Nelson said. “That’s a constant challenge to keep the livestock in.”
A good deal of Pierce County is an urban environment, but elk do roam the county.
“The White River drainage and the Michelle Unit (part of the Rainier herd) are doing fine,” Nelson said. “The folks that know the landscape and the area do well. Grays Harbor and Pacific counties have always been good elk producing areas.”
And the WDFW just wrapped up a research project in the Williams Creek area.
“We’re satisfied with keeping the regulations the way they are,” Nelson reported. “A fair number of nice bulls are coming out of there.”
One of the most important herds for Washington elk hunters is the Mount St. Helens herd. One of the largest in the state, the herd has suffered from poaching, and habitat loss has taken some animals. Here, a 3-point minimum antler restriction is in place.
Check with the local WDFW office for detailed information about elk hunting west of the Cascades. By summertime, biologists have completed herd composition studies and have more data available. Phone numbers can be found in the Washington big-game hunting regulations and online at www.wdfw.wa.gov.
East Of The Cascades
According to Dale Denney, of Bearpaw Outfitters (www.bearpawoutfitters.com) in Colville, the good old days of elk hunting are taking place right now.
“We have wolves coming onto the scene. They haven’t really affected anything yet,” Denney said, “but if you look at other states where wolves have been introduced, these are the good old days of hunting in Washington. We have a sprinkling of wolves showing up now, and there are more than the state says there is. Now is the time to elk hunt.”
The Selkirk elk herd in the northeast corner continues to do well, according to Jerry Nelson.
“The elk are spread out thinly over the landscape and harvest continues to increase,” Nelson reported. “They seem to travel in small bands of 15 to 20 animals. There is a lot of ponderosa pine forest, and it can be a lot like hunting whitetail deer in the ponderosa woods. Folks that live up there and have the time to scout, to pattern their activities, have been fairly successful. Folks going in cold on public land are going to take a few seasons to have much success.”
“A person is best-off scouting during the archery season in September. Cover ground and look for elk tracks before the season opens,” he suggested, “because as soon as deer season opens the elk get pushed away from the roads. The best thing a person can do is cover a lot of ground, drive the mountain roads and look for tracks on cut banks. The elk are still moving a lot that time of year. Locate a general area and figure out where the elk are holding up away from the
road. There are some elk in every unit in the northeast corner of the state, but units 113 and 117 have the most elk.”
In eastern Washington, much of the hunter effort centers on the Yakima, Blue Mountain and the Colockum herds. The Yakima is Washington’s biggest elk herd. Best access is on the Cascade slope where the federal government owns 57 percent of the land; the state owns 21 percent; and timber companies own 15 percent.
Depending on the terrain, time of the season and the weather, the elk range across elevations from 300 feet to more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Some Yakima elk migrate west of the Cascades to spend the summer in GMUs 461, 485, 490, 513, 516, and 653.
General hunting opportunities for antlerless elk are being reduced, but some new opportunities will be allowed in GMU 346. “The Yakima herd is stable, but we are cutting back some on our targets there to keep that population where it is,” Nelson reported.
Blue Mountains elk are doing well, according to Nelson, who adds the population objectives have been met in almost every unit.
“Bull numbers are up slightly. The population is responding well to a number of recent wildfires,” he said, “and the forage that responds to those fire events is looking pretty good in the Blues.”
The Colockum herd is still down, but Nelson said the WDFW has instituted some more restrictive regulations, in terms of legal bulls, to see if game managers can improve bull survival.”
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Hunters in Oregon and Washington are required to provide information on their big-game harvest and effort.
In Oregon, report by telephone — call (866) 947-6339 — or online at www.dfw.state.or.us/resources/hunting/reporting/index.asp.
In Washington, report by telephone — call (877) 945-3492 — or online at www.fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.
Editor’s Note: To order a copy of Northwest Elk Academy — the DVD, send $24.80 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709.