Monster bucks are rare everywhere, especially in Washington where statewide deer tags are unlimited, hunting pressure is the highest in the 11 Western states, and few units are open for hunters during the rut.
Despite those obstacles, Washington buck-chasers hold an edge found in few other states: the “trifecta” of trophy-deer hunting — mulies, whitetails and blacktails.
Dropping an eye-popping trophy-tined buck of any species anywhere is a hoot-and-holler accomplishment. But the opportunity to put three deer species on the same wall from the same state is a unique challenge all but beyond the reach of hunters outside the Pacific Northwest.
A CHALLENGING PROCESS
The Washington trifecta is a challenge where the trophies never come easy. Every hunter who accomplishes the task invariably follows a season-long process.
First, coordinate your choice of hunting permits by gun, muzzleloader or bow with the hunting units where — and when – big bucks are typically found. Deer hunting in Washington’s game management units open at varying times of the seasons for archery, muzzleloader or rifle hunts. Some offer predictably better chances at finding trophy bucks than others, and for every deer tag you buy, you must declare the type of hunting you will engage in — muzzleloader, modern gun or archery — and fill that tag by your declaration. That’s why big-buck specialists study Washington hunting seasons carefully, planning their entire season around the hunting units open to their type of hunting when buck activity peaks.
In fact, I’ve discovered incredible bucks standing in plain sight in hunting zones open only to bow hunters. At other times, I’ve waited for prime time in otherwise poor hunting zones. For example, some of Washington’s rangeland, especially on the east slopes of the Cascades, is strictly winter-range and practically deer-less until winter storms and snow push bucks out of the high country.
The hardcore trifecta challenger also is competent with all three types of hunting, enjoying the versatility to pick a muzzleloader, bow or rifle that matches firearm and season restrictions in trophy-buck units.
Season to Season
If you’re among the fold, you’ll likely start your quest for the trifecta chasing big mule deer or blacktail bucks in the high-mountains hunt in mid-September. On Sept. 15 the state opens six wilderness peak-and-glacial areas in the Cascade and Olympic mountains for hunting mulies and blacktails. This alpine summer range is for pack-in, hike-in hunts in spectacularly steep road-less country inhabited by bucks in velvet. Get into “mountain shape” and plan to spend a minimum five days in the high country.
Next, you’ve got to be hopelessly lucky during the mid-October general season. Simply put, hunting big bucks during the general October season is a long shot. Heavy-horned whitetails and river-bottom blacktails are rarely seen until the late hunts in November.It’s September and November when the odds are highest for successful hunts for monster mulies and blacktails. You will already have hunted hard during the limited early season; now, you’re planning another hard hunt for the late season when a spate of special hunts open after the general deer season.
Long-time big-buck hunter Noel Cummings of Kent tells me he uses his October calendar to look for big-buck tracks. Then he patterns their movements before he returns to the woods in November when the big boys are rutted up, trashing trees and traveling for does. By the time November and December snows arrive, Cumming points out, the rut and food requirements of mountainland bucks push the animals into lower ranges, where woodland visibility has increased. Reclusive lowland bucks are now moving among bare trees and fallen underbrush and are relatively easy to sight.
Plan for the Long Shot
Trifecta hunters also apply for controlled-buck hunting permits. Always a long shot, being drawn for a special controlled hunt offers the best opportunity to be in the field when big bucks move through choice areas during prime periods after the general season or in areas closed during the general season.
Odds for being drawn for a controlled hunt can range from likely to staggering impossible, depending on the hunting unit, but it’s always worth the effort. Statewide, hunter success on controlled hunts averages 53 percent, twice the success rating of general-season hunters.
Among Washington’s most coveted controlled-hunt permits are the “any buck” permit for Nov. 1-20 in the northeast Cascade Mountains. This one’s “gold” for big mule-deer specialists, and the odds of “winning” these permits are intimidating. For example, in 2009 the coveted Entiat area (GMU 247) north of Wenatchee had 5,488 hunters applying for just 30 any-buck permits good during the November rut. Just two years ago 2,630 hunters hoped to be drawn for a mere 15 “any buck” permits in a prime November hunting unit of the deer-thick Methow Valley in west Okanogan County. But if you don’t enter, you never can win.
THE WHITE-TAILED WILD CARD
Because coastal Washington is dominated by rainforest blacktails, and the east-central half of the state is dominated by sagebrush mule deer, white-tailed deer are the Trifecta hunter’s wildcard.
While their cousins’ ranges are neatly divided by the crest of the Cascade Mountain range (and there likely is some crossover), white-tailed deer are filling in the cracks in the lowland habitat in both eastern and northern Washington, most often elbowing mule deer out of prime winter rangeland. Wonder why?
Well, the whitetails’ invasion into the winter range of mule deer is actually a retro-fitting of the species’ range. Western mule deer originated as a species by cross-breeding between blacktails and whitetails. Although blacktail bucks have now been pushed into coastal Washington, less than 200 years ago their herds ranged into prairies east of the Rockies. Confirmed blacktails were hunted as late as 1846 near West Laramie, Wyoming.
Blacktails have since retreated west of the Rockies and the Cascades to the dark cedar swamps and thick alder bottoms along the west slope of the Cascades and into the coastal mountains. At the same time whitetails have been pushing in from the east and have driven north through eastern Washington from the breaks of the Grande Ronde River region through the Pend Oreille country to Canada; and westward, just south of the British Columbia border to the crest of the Cascade Mountains. In fact, hunters are hearing sporadic reports among their peers of whitetails creeping down
the west side of the Cascades into the last refuge of blacktails in western Washington.
Indeed, numbers of heavy-horned whitetail bucks are found in Okanogan County, the premier mule-deer winter range of northern Washington. With both species abundant here, Okanogan County offers the best shot for anchoring two legs of the Trifecta within rifle range of each other. The third leg is only available in the Cascade Mountains and west.
THE BUCK STOPS WHERE?
Whether they’re mule deer, whitetails or blacktails, big bucks of all three species hide in strange places and not always in the most remote spots. Rugged, steep, remote mountains hide giant bucks for sure, but you’re just as likely to see one eating the neighbor’s raspberries!
Columbia Basin deer will tuck into distant coulees on the seldom-visited rims of wheat fields, and I’m occasionally surprised during the heat of summer to see high-and-wide non-migrating mule deer sipping midday water from sea-level trout streams near homes and barking dogs.
More trophy whitetails are taken during the mid-November rut hunts in the snowy regions north of Spokane.
Only a very few special permits, issued by drawing, will get you into the prime zones for mule deer during the late season. Those lucky November tag holders have a super chance of finding big muley bucks that spend most of the general season in remote, nearly inaccessible high-mountain sanctuaries. It takes deep snow and the power of the rut to bring those old timers down to shooting levels.
And huge blacktail bucks, especially, tend to thrive on the edge of residential areas. These deer are secretive and rarely venture into the open before full nightfall, but I’ve seen jaw-dropping images of fantastic bucks snapped by trail cameras in neighborhood woodlots.
WHERE TO BAG YOUR BLACKTAIL
The world-record typical blacktail buck was killed by Lester Miller in 1953 on a rainy morning in a slide chute near Lincoln Creek in Lewis County. Miller dropped the 5-point monster, which scored 182 2/8 Boone & Crockett points, with a heart shot at 80 yards. The spread was 20 2/8 inches, with twin beams that both exceeded 24 inches.
According to records kept by Dave Morris, founder of Blacktail Legends of the Northwest, 13 of the state’s top-50 typical blacktails were killed in Lewis County. Even now, the slide chutes, clear cuts, swamps, cedar thickets and stump fields of Lewis County produce some of the largest blacktail bucks in the Northwest. Just last season 13-year-old Devin Gray of Chehalis anchored a beautiful dark-tined buck that went into the Washington record book. Hunting in the heart of Lewis County, the young sportsman killed the 4×4 while hunting in the Skookumchuck area (Unit 667).
But the success is widespread, as well. Every county in western Washington has produced a blacktail buck that fits into the record book. Of course, some regions consistently out-produce others.
- Olympic Penninsula – It’s all blacktails here among the deer-hunting units of the Olympic Peninsula and most of the oceanfront hunting units. As a whole, the region consistently ranks as the second-best deer-hunting region in the state. Blacktail hunters annually take around 5,000 bucks here, most during the November half of the split season.
- Grays Harbor, Cowlitz, Pierce and Skamania counties hold excellent blacktails. Pierce and Cowlitz counties, like Lewis County, are long narrow geographic areas that stretch from well up in the remote Cascade Mountains to the fields and flatlands that flank Interstate 5.
A major river cuts through the heart of each county, providing the drainages, bottomlands and thick brush blacktails thrive in. Numerous clear cuts provide good foraging areas, too, but will soon be overgrown and re-forested, greatly reducing their value to the deer.
- Suburban zones – Implausible as it seems, some of the largest blacktails Washington hunters see come out of urbanized areas. Bow hunters, especially, are finding big bucks close to housing areas in suburban settings. The big bucks are an unintended consequence of “no shooting” zones that spring up around residential housing sprawl built on former clear cuts outside city limits.
Twenty years ago these ‘cuts were heavily hunted and legal bucks were heavily cropped. Most of those bucks included spikes and 2-pointers. Since that time, the housing areas and no-shooting zones have created unintended sanctuaries, free of most predators, where the virtually unhunted blacktails now grow to old age and develop massive racks.
Bowhunters do well to scout the areas outside the no-shooting areas, identifying where these bucks travel and hang out. I vividly recall seeing no less than four huge 5-pointers browsing on flower beds on an afternoon drive through Port Townsend on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. And in King County, the population center of Washington, housing developments that reach like fingers into its eastern flanks are producing some huge blacktail bucks. The lawn of a church, less than a half-mile from my house is regularly attended by a 5×4 that disappears into a jungle of Douglas fir, and a basket-racked 5×6 buck regularly glides in and out of a fenced watershed east of Kent.
WHERE TO BAG YOUR MULE DEER
Mule deer numbers are sliding statewide, but there are still a good number of hat-rack bucks.
- Okanogan, Chelan and Ferry counties are among the top of the list where you can add a monster muley to your Trifecta. This sparsely settled region is prime mule-deer range and grows bucks that will make your eyes pop!
Later in the year the odds are better for finding a bruiser even in this region. Head for the small towns of Republic, Tonasket, Conconully and Winthrop in Okanogan County. The ridges above Toats Coulee (Unit 215, aka the Sinlahekin area), east of Loomis, are a thoroughfare for heavy-horned mountain mulies when the snow blows.
According to the Washington Department of Game and Fish, deer hunters in Okanogan County should see an uptick in buck numbers in the next few seasons because of huge wildfire burns – more than 400,000 acres – and the subsequent re-growth of key deer habitat and forage.
The little Columbia River town of Entitat in Chelan County is a jumping-off spot for a road that follows the Entitat River straight into big-buck country on the east edge of Glacier Peak Wilderness (Cascade area, Unit 45; and Clark area, Unit 244). The canyons and ridges along the road are prime mule-deer habitat.
- Columbia Basin – Surprising to many hunters, some of Washington’s finest mule-deer country is in the sagebrush and wheat fields of the semi-arid Columbia Basin. Most of the land in the region is private and requires landowner permission to hunt, but big bucks live most of their lives out of sight of the public in the Basin’s coulees and draws.
Hunter success in the Ritzville area (Unit 284), dead-center in the Basin, runs 31.3 percent, solidly above the statewide average of 27 percent.
- Northeast Cascades — But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Hunter success runs only 17 percent in
the Chewuch area (Unit 218), 14 percent in the Sinlahekin area (Unit 215) and 11 percent in the Entita are (Unit 247). But when the weather cooperates with early heavy snows, these units produce far more 4- and 5-point mulies than the more productive units.
Hunter success is likewise low at only 15 percent in the Pogue area (Unit 233), but the canyons here that reach into the north Cascade hold some of the biggest bucks in the state. Draw one of the 15 available November hunt permits and you’re likely to see more big bucks than you ever thought existed in the Evergreen State.
WHERE TO BAG YOUR WHITETAIL
Washington whitetails are creatures of the brush; the thicker it is, the more likely it is to hold a wall-hanger. The hardest part of the November-December whitetail season is letting that 4-point whitetail walk away in the snow, while hoping the 7-pointer shows up before dark.
- Pend Oreille (units 113, 117), Colville (units 121, 117) and Chewuch (Unit 218) areas – The largest herds of white-tailed deer in Washington are located in these areas north of Spokane. Really big whitetail bucks are increasing in number along the edges of western Okanogan County, traditional mule-deer range. The mulies now fight for the habitat, and whitetails are winning.
Trophy hunters rarely go afield until the second week in November when the second half of the season reopens in the Kelly Hill (Unit 105) and Mount Spokane (Unit 124) areas, and there’s a likelihood of tracking deer in the snow.
- Stevens, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Okanogan – Wait for the November hunts and concentrate on the low hills and heavy woods here.
- Mount Spokane (Unit 124), Huckleberry (Unit 121) and Forty-Nine Degrees North (Unit 117) areas – It’s hard to find any better areas to hunt whitetails in the Evergreen State than these areas. Hunter success in the related game management unit annually averages about 30 percent, and more bucks are taken here than in any other part of the geographic Pend Oreille area.
- Methow Valley – If you’re one of the lucky hunters who win one of the 100 mid-November whitetail buck permits in the Methow Valley, you’ll get a legitimate opportunity to match your deer-hunting skills with some massive bucks in the underbrush. Area GMUs include Alta, Unit 242; Chilliwist, Unit 239; Pearrygin, Unit 2245; Gadner, Unit 231; and Chewuch, Unit 218.
There, you have it! Only Washington and Oregon hold huntable populations of all three deer species. And only Washington offers over-the-counter license opportunities for rifle, muzzleloader and bow hunters to challenge the Trifecta. Over-the-counter deer tags are $39.60 for residents and $396 for non-residents, and are good for hunting statewide.