Photo by Chuck and Grace Bartlett.
During this fall’s general seasons, Pacific Northwest elk hunters who didn’t apply for a controlled-hunt tag or were not drawn will still have one of the best opportunities in recent years to bag a bull. That’s because many animals escaped harvest in 2006 and enjoyed favorable conditions during the winter.
Oregon hunters are looking forward to some of the best general- season forecasts in years. Elk numbers are also stable in parts of Washington, which has one of the largest elk populations in the country.
“A decent number of bulls survived from last season,” says Mark Vargas, a biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We are seeing good bull ratios after our flights.”
The mild winter allowed plenty of bulls that escaped harvest to grow even bigger for this fall’s seasons. With plenty of bulls left over and a new crop of elk reaching harvest size, this fall is set to be a season to remember for hunters who don’t have one of Washington’s or Oregon’s coveted controlled-hunt tags. In fact, some of the best opportunities are shaping up on lands that many hunters often overlook.
OREGON’S GENERAL SEASON FORECAST
Many Oregon elk hunters set their sights on popular units in the northeastern part of the state or on the Tioga or Saddle Mountain units, which have some of the biggest herds. Often disappointed when they don’t draw a tag, they save up preference points to eventually hunt the Ukiah, Starkey, Snake River or other controlled-hunt units.
This fall, if you didn’t draw a controlled-hunt tag, think twice before passing on elk season. The Trask and Wilson units and 11 units that make up the Cascade Bull Elk Season have the best outlooks this decade for giving you a shot at bulls, including some trophy-class animals.
In the Cascades units, as well as the Wilson and Trask units on the northern Oregon Coast, unfavorable dry weather in fall 2006 allowed many of the Beaver State’s bulls to escape harvest. Those animals, along with a new class of bulls, will be available this fall, making the hills east of Tillamook and the mountains between Medford and Roseburg some of the best locations to get a general-season bull in 2007.
“On our post-season surveys this year, the Trask had a number of really nice bulls left over,” says Dave Nezum, an ODFW biologist in Tillamook. “Both the Trask and Wilson have a pretty fair segment of bigger bulls. Both units are around management objective. The bull ratios are over 10 bulls, even a little higher in the Wilson.”
The Wilson and Trask units produced a harvest of 630 bulls last fall. That may seem impressive, but represents only an 8 percent harvest rate during the first and second seasons in the Wilson Unit, and 12 percent during the first Trask Unit season, followed by 8 percent in the second.
While checking out the herd size earlier this year, Nezum and other biologists noticed that plenty of big bulls had made it through the 2006 hunting seasons and this past winter.
Aside from good numbers of bulls, the Wilson and Trask units, located less than two hours from Portland, also have an impressive amount of public land and access.
“The Wilson is something like 80 percent public land,” Nezum says. Much of it is the Tillamook State Forest. And big chunks of private land are timber company property, and access is available during elk season. “The timber companies open their gates and have pretty good access,” Nezum says.
With active logging operations in the Tillamook area, there are plenty of 2- to 10-year-old clearcuts where you can look for elk. There also are good numbers of logging roads to drive and look for elk sign.
The Wilson and Trask units are favorites for Don Banderbergh, a state wildlife biologist based in the Portland area.
“If I was looking at any unit out there, I’d probably spend most of my opportunities in the Wilson and Trask area,” he says. “The Wilson could be kind of a sleeper because it has really good public access. Both units have the potential to produce a trophy-size animal. We see that class of animals come in every year.”
In the Wilson, Trask, Scappoose, Willamette, Stott Mountain, Alsea and Siuslaw units, the general Coast Bull Elk Season runs Nov. 10 through 13 and Nov. 17 through 23. Hunters have their choice of which season for which they want to buy an over-the-counter tag.
With a good forecast for the Wilson and Trask units, expect some company this fall. “Based on public-land ownership and abundant places to camp, realize there are going to be other hunters in great numbers,” says Nezum. “Even given that, if people work at it, they can find spots away from the crowds.”
He suggests that elk hunters target clearcuts in order to find the biggest bulls.
“The elk don’t range over wide areas too much,” Nezum states. “They will stick to some timber and work the clearcuts in the mornings and evenings.”
While the Wilson and Trask are among the best general-season units for elk in Oregon, the Cascade Bull Elk Season units are also well worth hunting. The group of units includes the Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo, Dixon, Evans Creek, Rogue, Keno, Metolius and portions of the Upper Deschutes, Fort Rock and Sprague units. The Santiam, Dixon and Rogue units often produce the best hunting in the Cascades group of units.
“Without a doubt, the Rogue and Dixon units have the most elk and the most public access, and that’s where I send folks,” says Mark Vargas, an ODFW biologist based in Medford.
Like the Wilson and Trask units, the units of the southern portion of the Cascades general-season hunt saw low harvest numbers in 2006. While 101 elk were taken in the Rogue Unit, that was only a 5 percent hunter-success rate. The Dixon Unit had a 4 percent success rate.
“It really comes down to weather for the general Cascades season. If we get some snow, that really makes a big difference,” Vargas says. “If the weather is warm, concentrate on higher elevations, north-facing slopes where it’s a little cooler.”
During dry weather, sneaking up on big bulls is mo
re difficult. “Some years it’s so dry it’s like walking on cornflakes,” he says.
Last year, Vargas had predicted a higher harvest in Southern Oregon. But the low harvest in 2006 is good news for hunters planning on buying a general-season tag for this fall. The Cascade Bull Elk Season runs Oct. 20 through 26, and tags can be purchased up until the day before the season begins.
Hunters new to the southern portion of the Cascades season can find plenty of access on vast stretch of highways and logging roads. Highway 62 near Prospect and Union Creek leads to good elk habitat, while elk also can be found near the Butte Falls Highway, Highway 140 between Medford and Klamath Falls, and Dead Indian Memorial Road. Fish Lake, Howard Prairie Lake and Hyatt Lake are good areas to begin scouting for elk in the Rogue Unit.
“If people want to get away from the roads,” Vargas says, “I’m sending them to the Sky Lakes Wilderness Area and Rogue-Umpqua Divide.”
Also, a fair amount of industrial timberlands grant access to hunters during elk season. Many will open their gates during hunting seasons, or allow hunters to park beside the logging roads and walk into gated areas,
Many public forest roads in Southern Oregon are closed to vehicle traffic during elk season, which has help elk flourish in the Cascades over the past 20 years. “Elk numbers were really low, about four or five bulls per 100 cows,” Vargas says of Cascade elk numbers in 1987.
“We proposed a change in the two November seasons to make it one October season. That allowed more elk to escape harvest. Over the course of a few years, the elk herds started to increase. Over time, the herds built up. Those travel management areas provide great bull escapement and provide an opportunity for a better quality hunt that allows hunters to walk on a road and not have a vehicle come by all the time.”
Check the regulations carefully for road closures during elk season in the Cascade units.
With high bear populations in southwestern Oregon, Vargas says that elk hunters also may want to carry a bear tag. Many of the bears harvested each fall are by elk hunters who run across a bear in the Rogue, Tioga, Chetco, Applegate, Dixon and Powers units.
“Southwestern Oregon has some of the higher bear populations in the state,” Vargas says. “Coos and Curry counties are probably the highest. It’s a great opportunity for elk hunters. We have lots of bear, and we have lots of cougars. I would suggest people carry a cougar tag as well.”
An Oregon hunting license costs $22.50 for residents and $76.50 for non-residents. Elk tags are $34.50 for residents, $361.50 for non-residents. General-season tags can be purchased up until the evening before the season opens. Bear tags must be purchased by the day before general deer seasons open.
WASHINGTON GENERAL-SEASON FORECAST
With an estimated population of more than 60,000, Washington State has one of the highest elk populations in the country. Elk numbers are fairly stable throughout the state, which has vast opportunities for general-season hunts.
Unlike many Western states, Washington has a generous amount of over-the-counter tags for elk.
“We have good opportunities in that regard,” says Jerry Nelson, Washington’s elk and deer program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
For most general-season hunts, Washington hunters are limited to spikes on only the eastern half of the state and three points or better in the western hunting units. “Most of our GMUs that have elk have some sort of general season,” Nelson says of over-the-counter tags.
While November was cold in Washington with snow and freezing weather, the winter was mild overall, which allowed many bulls to carry over. Harvest was about average in 2006 in Washington.
General-season elk hunters generally target the Willapa Hills, Mount St. Helens and Yakima herds, Nelson says. All have healthy elk populations and big bulls, as well as plenty of spikes for eastside hunters hunting the Yakima herd’s general-season GMUs.
The Willapa Hills herd occupies hunting units in the southwestern portion of the state between Interstate 5 and the coast. Much of the herd lives on state forestland and private timberland where hunters are often allowed to hunt during elk season.
“Most private timber companies allow some sort of public access,” Nelson says, although hunters must obey no trespassing signs.
In the past years, increased timber harvest has allowed hunter-harvest rates to increase in southwestern Washington, although the Willapa Herd remains stable and provides some of the best opportunities at big bucks for general-season hunters in the Evergreen State.
The Mount St. Helens herd has been growing, but suffered a setback two winters ago when dozens of bulls were trapped by heavy snow and starved. But the herd continues to produce large bulls.
The Yakima Herd of nearly 10,000 elk appears to be increasing after the harvest of antlerless elk was reduced a few years ago. Access is good on Forest Service and BLM lands.
The western Washington general elk rifle season runs from Nov. 3 through 12 in units 407, 448, 460, 466, 503 through 520, 530, 550, 560, 572, 601 through 618, 624, 627 through 633, 638 through 652, and 654 through 684. GMU 501 is open Nov. 3 through 12, as are units 564, 568, 574, 578, 666 and 454.
Seasons can vary by game management unit, so check the regulations carefully before hunting.
Find more about Washington-Oregon fishing and hunting at WOgameandfish.com