My heart sank when I hung a right off the paved highway in Washington's North Cascades and realized that instead of the two-track curving along a hillside where bent grass and snowberries skirted giant Ponderosa pines above a creek bottom thick with deer food and cover, it now went straight into a dead zone, forbidding and seemingly barren.
The hunting spot I'd dreamed about for months had been caught in the full fury of the Okanogan Complex Fire, the largest wildfire in Washington's history. A year earlier, the fire ravaged more than 400 square miles of prime mule deer and whitetail country, and seemed to burn, in the words of one resident, "everything that didn't burn in the Carlton Fire the year before."
Some of the best mule deer hunting country in the Northwest was now a stark black and gray no-man's land. Rain was pouring down when I rounded a bend and saw green above the road. From the uphill side of the two-track the green wall of browse, trees and healthy brush climbed into a forested basin that in other years I'd considered marginal and rarely worth hunting. Now, however, it was an oasis of coveted green — deer habitat that had been spared by a fire that devoured everything around it. I spotted my first two mulies in the timber within 10 minutes of still-hunting and had my shot before lunch time. I never saw another hunter, although I heard several trucks passing by on the two-track.
Oregon had its share of wildfires in the last couple of years, as well, but it was the wickedly cold winter that's re-routing mule deer hunts there.
ODFW District Wildlife Biologist Brian Ratliff said that spring aerial surveys revealed that the winter took a toll on mule deer in central and eastern Oregon. Temperatures hung below freezing for 28 straight days and fell to 23 below zero in Baker County, a major mule deer region on the Idaho border that includes huge chunks of Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and parts of the Blue, Wallowa and Elkhorn Mountains. In an average year, he said, ODFW expects to see an 8 percent winter loss. This year winter kills soared to 32 percent in Baker County. Fawn survival is normally 30 percent. This year it went as low as 8 percent. The impact will be felt for several years, and is already resulting in major reductions in available hunting permits.
Mule deer licenses are available over the counter in Washington, but are limited in Oregon. Controlled permits are being drastically reduced in some areas and eliminated in others this year. Landowner preference tags were also cutback.
"Baker County buck tags will be reduced by 50 percent," according to ODFW, and two doe hunts on agricultural lands in the Sumpter-Unity and Keating units have been canceled. Union and Malheur County buck tags will be reduced 35 percent and there will be 40 percent fewer tags in the Beulah Unit. The Owyhee mule deer unit lost 25 percent of its buck permit.
Mule deer licenses in the popular Starkey, Malheur River, Mt. Emily and Catherine Creek units were reduced by 35 percent.
The controlled hunt mule deer permits are highly coveted in Oregon partly because hunters enjoy a 35 percent success rate — even higher in specific units. For example, in the scenic Steens Mountain Unit in southeast Oregon, 270 permit-packing rifle hunters had a 60 percent success rate, taking 162 bucks. Almost three-quarters of the bucks had 3, 4 or more points.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior
(Via North American Whitetail)
Ratliff thinks that hunters in the hard-hit units can expect to see fewer yearling animals (spikes and 2-points) this fall. Those young deer made up about 33 percent of Baker County's buck harvest last year. The biologist compared winter this year to the deer-killing winter of 1993-94. "It came early, it lasted long and the snow kept accumulating," he said. "We have had winters like this historically but not in the last 10 years."
He expects that even with reduced hunting pressure it will take a few years of good fawn production to bring back the mule deer population in central and eastern Oregon.
In the short-term, Beaver State hunters would be wise to head to the west side for blacktails. Buck permits are unlimited and available over the counter, winter kill was average and prospects are average or better in most areas. The success rate is lower than on the east side, but the hunting season is longer, good blacktail hunting is often close to metropolitan areas and seasons are split or extended to include the November rut. Western Cascade buck areas are open from Oct. 3-16 then re-open Oct. 24-Nov. 6. On the coast, the buck season runs straight through from Oct. 3-Nov. 6. Limited permits for antlerless blacktails and Columbian whitetails are issued on a draw.
By far, the best public blacktail hunting is in the southwest units where hunter success is over 30 percent in the Sixes Unit. More than half of Sixes' bucks were 3-points or 4-points. In the nearby Rogue Unit almost 30 percent of the bucks dropped are 4-points — one of the highest in the state. The Rogue Unit also produces more blacktails than any other unit in western Oregon — almost 1,300 at last count. But it also attracts almost twice as much hunting pressure as most other units
According to ODFW harvest statistics the best chance to drop a blacktail will be to hunt in the southern and central coastal areas. Northern blacktail hunting in the Tillamook Bay, Saddle Mountain-Scappoose region is tough, and harvests are low.
The best chance of putting an Oregon blacktail buck on the ground, according to ODFW, is in the Sixes, Chetco and Melrose units in the far southwest corner of the coastal area. A third of the hunters there score, and hunting pressure is among the lowest in the state.
Washington's mule deer herds were spared the brutally low winter temperatures that hit neighboring Oregon but are also coming off the two years of extreme wildfires that ravaged much of Okanogan County's winter range in the state's best mule deer region. The county is also developing a large whitetail population, especially in Game Management Unit 204 bordering the Colville Indian Reservation and GMU 215, which includes the Sinlahekin River valley and WDFW wildlife area. Whitetails are also turning up in growing numbers in almost every river valley and creek bottom from the foothills east to the open sage plains.
Last year the state's top deer county got a break from consecutive summers of wildfire rampages, possibly because much of the deer range had burned in the firestorms of the previous two years.
"Despite the massive fires, district deer populations are doing fine," reported Scott Fitkin, WDFW wildlife biologist. He credits above normal fall green-up and mild winters that produced near-average fawn survival. According to Fitkin, the buck-to-doe ratio is about 16 to 100, about where WDFW wants it.
Hunting success has been running higher than normal in the Okanogan, with 26 percent of rifle hunters scoring and 25 percent of muzzleloader hunters filling a tag. The highest success was posted by bowhunters, at 35 percent. The percentages were some of the highest success rates in the last 20 years, possibly because deer were concentrated in smaller unburned areas.
The post-fire green-up is proving to be a windfall for fawn survival, which bodes well for hunters several years out. To be legal, except for controlled permit holders, mule deer must have a minimum of 3 antler points in Washington. On the west side of the Cascades, except for a couple of specific areas, any blacktail buck is legal. Antlerless permits are issued for all three species by draw statewide.
The highest density of mule deer in Okanogan County, according to Fitkin, is in the Methow Valley and along the high divide between the Methow and Okanogan river watersheds.
"With the possible exception of GMU 209, all units support significant numbers of deer, include large blocks of accessible public land, and offer good to excellent deer hunting opportunity," Fitkin advised.
Whitetails far outnumber mule deer in the northeast corner of the state, but both overlap throughout the region. Two years ago the whitetail herd was hit with an outbreak of bluetongue which killed many of the bigger older bucks. The disease is a product of drought, and appears to have been curtailed by two good water years. The effects, however, are still being felt.
The state's top whitetail area runs north of Spokane to the Canadian border. And although there are regional fluctuations, the overall herd size appears stable. The best GMU, according to WDFW, is 121. Rifle hunter success runs close to 46 percent — almost all whitetails. The second best is GMU 108, the Douglas Unit. Hunters looking for a big mule deer in this region should focus on GMU 101, the remote Sherman Unit.
Some of the biggest mule deer racks in the state come from the grasslands, foothills and agricultural country in the southeast corner of Washington. Whitetails also run the creek bottoms and overlap most of the good mule deer range. Best hunting here is invariably on private land where big bucks escape the pressure of nearby public BLM and Forest Service ranges. The local WDFW office picks out GMUs 145, 149, 178 and 181 as tops in hunter success for both mule deer and whitetails. But much of this area is private and requires permission.
The east slope of the central Cascades from Wenatchee to Yakima have never recovered from a severe winter kill decades ago, and hunters who score here do their homework. The mountainous west side of the Teanaway can provide some incredible 4- and 5-point mulies, but it takes scouting to dig them out. In the Yakima/Ellensburg region there is a lot of blacktail/mule deer crossbreeds, and antlers tend to be smaller and tighter than in the Okanogan or Walla Walla region. The exception is Klickitat County, which straddles the Cascades along the Columbia River and tends to produce bucks, even crossbreeds, with genes that develop large mule deer-type antlers. The West and East Klickitat and Grayback units are managed for trophy bucks with 3-point minimums, unlike most blacktail units which are open for any buck. It's a rare year that hunters don't take at least 1,000 of the big Klickitat bucks.
The west side of the state is all blacktail hunting, and the season is split between a mid-October hunt and a re-opening in early November that takes advantage of the rut, foliage drop and possibility of snow. The highest success, best hunting conditions, and biggest bucks are always taken during the second season.
Much of the west side's prime hunting is in logging country, much of which is now accessible only by buying a permit from the timber company. Still, there are good units with lots of public area. Try GMUs 530, 501, 520 and 550.
With few exceptions, blacktail herds are stable throughout western Washington, according to WDFW.
They believe that some of the best hunting will take place during the second season on the west slope of the Cascades south and east of Seattle. They recommend timberlands in the Vail Tree Farm (GMU 667) and Hancock Timber Resources Group managed properties, Kapowsin Tree Farm in GMU 654, Buckley Block in GMU 653, and White River Tree Farms owned by Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and managed by Hancock in GMU 653. These are timber permit hunts, and the costs for a permit varies.
However, there is also public land in this area that includes prime high-mountain hunting. WDFW recommends scouting during the early season for trophy blacktail bucks in the eastern portions of GMUs 653 and 654, in portions of the Norse Peak, Clearwater and Glacier View Wilderness Areas, and Crystal Mountain Resort. Typically, many of these areas will be snowbound by the November re-opening, with most of the bucks migrated to lower river valleys for the second season.
Closer to the coast, WDFW noted the best blacktail hunts are expected in GMUs 663, 648, 672, and 660. There's a mix of timber company permit land, DNR, Forest Service and private hunting areas. And there are also some very large blacktail bucks.