Photo courtesy of Battle Creek Outfitters.
Last season’s weather patterns seemed to favor the elk more than the hunters. Snow fell early on the high country, but it melted and winter white came late to many units. The good news is post-season elk escapement was good and winter did not put undue stress on most herds. That bodes well for the coming season for hunters in both Washington and Oregon.
From the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula to the sagebrush steppe, an elk hunt in the Pacific Northwest offers a unique experience. Roosevelt elk inhabit the coastal forests to the east slope of the Cascades. Rocky Mountain elk live in the drier climes from the mountains to the eastern borders.
Here is the 2009 Washington-Oregon Game & Fish forecast for the Pacific Northwest’s best elk hunting. We’ve done our research: We’ll tell you which hunts offer the most animals, and where you have the best chance at tying your tag on a trophy. All you have to do is get out and scout!
Game managers recognize 10 main elk herds in Washington State: 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 between 55,000 and 60,000 animals. Overall harvest hovers between 10 and 11 percent.Western Washington
Jim Mansfield, an outfitter from Forks, guided hunters in archery, muzzleloader and rifle seasons last year. One nice 5×4 bull fell to an archer on the fifth day of the season, and a muzzleloader hunter tagged a 4×3 bull at a river crossing. But it was the story of last year’s November rifle hunt that Mansfield loves to tell.
Tim Ridout found his place at the river’s edge before daylight. About 20 minutes after dawn, he could hear the herd, branches breaking as they came on the run, pushed by hunters on the other side of the river. The elk hit the river all grouped together, with a 4×4 herd bull in the middle of the bunch. Swept down by the current, they spread out and the bull separated from the cows on the near bank.
That was the moment the hunter had waited for. As the bull climbed out of the water, he shot. At the impact, the bull lost his footing, fell back into the river and began to float away. The hunter jumped into the river and tried to pull the still-thrashing bull back to shore, to no avail. The river swept the hunter and the hunted downstream.
Ridout managed to swim, pull and tug the bull to the opposite shore, 120 yards downstream, much to the delight of the hunter that had pushed the elk out of the woods. A phone call to Mansfield initiated the rescue by drift boat. They loaded the elk into the boat for the float out and Ridout had earned a new name — “One Who Swims With Elk.”
Mansfield’s river hunt illustrates how the thick brush hides the elk but makes them easy to pattern. Locate trails into escape cover, and then set up in a downwind stand. Where the river allows access to public lands, use waders or a boat to locate elk.
Mansfield said that there are many elk in his area and many hunters. In Clallam and Jefferson counties, nine tribes have treaty rights, which allow them to hunt before the opener.
For the best hunting in northwest Washington, probe the Peninsula’s Wynoochee River watershed, the upper Humptulips, the Hoh, the upper Quinault and Bear rivers. To the south, river and bay access opens elk hunting opportunity in and around Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.
West of Mount Rainier, Pierce County is good elk country, but it’s heavily hunted by tribal members. Grays Harbor and Pacific counties have good numbers. In Thurston County, landowners fight elk damage on agricultural land. Timber companies may limit vehicle access, but foot traffic and bicycles are allowed.
The Mount St. Helens elk herd is one of the largest in the state, but poaching, habitat loss and winter mortality have taken a toll. A 3-point minimum antler restriction is in place. Herds average six to 20 elk. The bull-to-cow ratio runs higher in GMU 524.
Shane Wilkins, owner of Wilkins Outfitting based in Carson, hunts the Mount St. Helens herd. Last year, his hunters went six for six deep in the Toutle and Winston units.
“You have to get off the beaten path. You have to hike in,” said Wilkins.
Wilkins still finds a lot of elk in his areas, but he said the herd is in decline due to a declining food base.
“They need clearcuts or select log cuts for feed,” he said. “In an old-growth stand, there isn’t much to eat beneath the trees. This winter and last were pretty tough, but there are still good bulls. You’ve got to get out there and find them.”
If September and October find you hunting Roosevelts, probe the cool, damp stuff. This is the breeding season. Learn herd habits and pay attention to travel routes. The old bulls and their harems stick to patterns, and you can ambush them in these spots, year after year.
In eastern Washington, much of the hunter effort centers on the Yakima 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 could be anywhere between an elevation of 300 feet to more than 7,000 feet. Some Yakima winter elk migrate west of the Cascades and can be found in GMUs 461, 485, 490, 513, 516 and 653 during the summer. Hunter and harvest numbers have trended upward in recent years.
According to district wildlife biologist Pat Fowler, milder weather conditions tend to increase hunter success in the Blue Mountains.
“This is not a migratory herd to any extent,” Fowler said. “They may move several miles at most. The Wenaha elk usually migrate the farthest, all the way into Oregon.”
In this district, the general season is limited to spike-only harvest. Hunters can pursue antlerless elk if they draw the proper tag. Success rates average less than 10 percent.
“Hunters that really get out
and work, their chances are closer to 20 percent,” Fowler said.
Branch-antler harvest is limited to a lucky few who draw tags.
“It’s about like drawing a bighorn sheep tag,” Fowler said. “Last year, the biggest bull was a 443-inch animal taken on a Governor’s Tag, but you have a reasonable chance of taking a 340-class bull. Hunter success on branch bulls runs 60 to 65 percent and 70 to 80 percent are 6-point or better.”
The Selkirk herd is the smallest recognized herd in eastern Washington. Here in the northeast corner of the state, elk herds are scattered and mainly found in small groups.
According to Dale Denney of Bearpaw Outfitters in Colville, the two areas that have the most elk are units 113 and 117.
“You have to know where the herds hang out, otherwise it is a deer-seeing mission,” said Denney. “You can’t find elk everywhere. These herds hang out in localized areas. There are some good bulls in the 340- to 350-inch class killed every year.”
Despite the low numbers of elk, a hunter can do well by scouting. Be aware that these northeast units are popular because they are open for any bull, not spike-only or 3-point minimum.
If snow falls during the season, a hunter can use it to advantage.
“If you can tell the difference between bull and cow tracks, you can get on the tracks and go,” Denney said.
“Guys should bring a shotgun when they come because we probably have the best grouse hunting in the state and quite a few ducks on the ponds.”
The population of the Roosevelt herd in Western Oregon is estimated at 59,000.
Last season, from the Cascades west to the ocean, 63,174 hunters tagged 6,496 elk for a 10 percent success rate. South Coast hunters were the most effective with a 16 percent success rate, while Cascade area hunters averaged 6 percent success.
On the South Coast, the Sixes Unit turned in the best numbers with 32 percent success. It’s not an easy hunt, though. Hunters spent an average of 6.75 days in the field. One of the most popular units is the Tioga, which saw 4,487 hunters last year. They spent an average of 6.27 days in the field for a success rate of 15 percent.
North Coast units with the best success rates were Saddle Mountain (18 percent), Scappoose (13 percent) and Trask (13 percent).
According to Chris Yee, assistant district wildlife biologist, Cascade elk populations “don’t fluctuate that much from year to year.”
“Hunter success is more driven by the seasonal conditions. Cooler, overcast days are best,” Yee said. “They know when they’re being hunted, and they go onto the very steep slopes and into heavy cover. The general Cascade hunt is a hard hunt.”
Yee said the guys who are willing to go into the steep, nasty stuff would get into the elk every year.
The biologist pointed out that successful scouting is different than merely finding elk.
A lot of guys make the mistake of looking where the elk are going to be during the non-hunting times of the year, said Yee.
It’s important to get to know the area you’re hunting. You have to look at areas where the elk are going to be hiding, and not necessarily in the feeding areas.
“They’ll wait it out,” he said. “In a weeklong season, it is nothing for them to spend all day bedded down and then go nocturnal and get up and go to feed at night,” he said.
Biologists estimate the Rocky Mountain elk population at about 56,000. As breeding season approaches and pressure mounts during the fall hunts, the bigger groups disperse. By mid-November, the herds begin to re-assemble.
It was Sept. 8, a day guide Mike Crawford of Battle Creek Outfitters would not soon forget. He had seen a bull get whipped by a bigger bull early that morning and now the bull that lost his herd was mad, bugling every hour. Crawford knew that the lone bull would be going for water by evening.
His client, Kip Read of Black Diamond, Wash., was tucked into some trees at the edge of a waterhole with an arrow nocked on his string.
Up on the hill behind Read, Crawford cow-called and the bull came in as if he were on a string. When the bull slaked his thirst at the water’s edge, Read drew his arrow and tickled the release.
His 6-point Heppner bull was so symmetrical that only three-eighths of an inch difference was found between the two beams for a total score of 322, Pope and Young.
Crawford and his partner, Steve Mathers, have hunted the Heppner Unit for years. Last season, their hunters enjoyed a 90 percent success rate, and with increasing elk numbers, they expect that hunters on both public and private land should be seeing more animals this year.
Heppner Unit archers and rifle hunters enjoyed a 13 percent success rate last season, with an average of 5.93 days in the field. To make the Heppner Unit pay off, plan to spend five or six days on the hunt.
Mathers and Crawford also guide elk hunters in the Starkey, Beulah, Fossil and Sumpter units. To ensure success rates that run between 60 percent and 100 percent dependent on the property, they spend a lot of time scouting.
“Those high-desert elk are very mobile; they can be one place one day and then gone for four or five,” Mathers said. “They don’t have anything holding them in one spot. And they just move. Pre-scouting is really important. The elk are not in the same place every year.”
Oregon’s eastside elk hunters harvested 6,636 elk in the 2008 season for a 13 percent success rate. The most elk came out of the Ochoco-Malheur zone (2,531) and the Umatilla-Whitman zone (2,357). The success rate (rifle and archery combined), at 23 percent, was highest in the high-desert area.
Jeff Miller, owner of Field N’ Marsh Outfitters, hunted the east slope of Mount Hood last year. But for 2009 he has his sights set on one of his favorite units, the North Sumpter.
“There weren’t as many elk in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, that herd has expanded,” he said.
Miller said there is some mountain lion predation, but the numbers are holding up well.
“We look to see a better-than-average year for 265- to 300-inch class bulls,” Miller said.
According to Pat McFeley from McLagan’s Taxidermy in Bend, some of central Oregon’s biggest elk come from the Ochoco, Grizzly and Fort Rock units. The Ochoco Unit is managed f
or trophy elk and a high-quality hunting experience. Hunters averaged 20 percent success in this unit with an average 5.9 days in the field.
McFeley and McLagan also recorded several big bulls from the Wallowa zone. Here, hunters found the best success in the Lookout Mountain (32 percent success) and Pine Creek (17 percent) units.
In the Umatilla-Whitman zone, the Columbia Basin (24 percent) and Fossil (23 percent) units produced the highest rate of success per hunter last year.
Up in the northeast corner of the state, hunter success (archery and rifle seasons combined) averaged 15 to 16 percent. Hunter success averaged highest in the Lookout Mountain and Snake River units, where 32 percent of hunters tagged their elk. Hunters spent an average of six days in the field in the Minam Unit for a success rate of 13 percent. They hunted harder in the Mount Emily Unit for a 14 percent success rate in an average of 6.88 days of effort.
Barry Cox of Del Sol Wilderness Adventures hunts the Minam Unit with clients each year. “Our archery season can be as good in there as anywhere,” he said.
For rifle season, the Snake River Unit is their premier hunt.
“I really see it looking good for 2009,” said Cox. “I think from what I see and from what the biologists are confirming, the bulls are getting older and the quality seems to be going up as far as your chances for taking a mature bull.”
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