From Washington's rain forest Roosevelts to the Cascade's high-country herds to the dry side's Rocky Mountain elk, here are the hunts that offer the most and biggest bulls.
Carey Leckron of Corbett, Ore., found this quality 6x6 bull in the Ukiah Unit while hunting with his dad, Jim Leckron.
Photo by Jim Leckron
It's more than meat on the table or antlers on the wall. It's possibility and determination that pushes us to go another mile. It's the sparks in the campfire that can be stirred and fanned back to flame, the stars that wink against the darkening sky and the glow of the wood stove in a canvas tent. It's the November rain falling on a moss-covered log, frost winking like diamonds in the moonlight, 2 inches of tracking snow on a mountain ridge, and the hope that rises with the sun on opening day. It's elk season in the Pacific Northwest, and there's nothing else like it anywhere in the world.
Here is our forecast for the Northwest's best elk hunting. We've talked to biologists, outfitters and successful hunters in both states to help you put the finishing touches on your elk hunting plans. We'll tell you which hunts offer the most animals and where you've got your best chance at tying your tag to a big bull.
Only three states and one province offer hunting for the majestic Roosevelt elk, and for a flavor of the primordial hunt, there's nowhere like the rainforests of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. If it's Roosevelt elk you're after, here you'll find some of the biggest of the big.
There are plenty of elk on the peninsula, but you've got to put your time in if you crave the good hard work of packing one out of the woods. Jim Mansfield (360-374-9018), an outfitter based in Forks, recommends that hunters probe the cool, wet spots if they want to find elk during the rut. Learn their habits and pay attention to the routes they travel when they sense danger is near. The old bulls and their cows are creatures of habit and you can ambush them in these spots, season after season.
Last year, one of Mansfield's clients killed an old, battle-scarred bull. The animal's left front foot was torn off, its tongue was bitten almost in two, and it was missing several teeth. Hanging, the meat weighed more than 550 pounds. The elk's head and neck were so big that the taxidermist had to trim the form of a medium bull moose to get the hide to fit.
In Washington's Clallam and Jefferson counties, the elk herd is doing fairly well. Nine tribes here have reserved treaty hunting rights, which allow them to hunt elk for subsistence prior to the opening of the general season.
Grays Harbor and Pacific counties have good elk populations and an abundance of opportunity. Private timber companies, however, limit vehicle access. Foot traffic and bicycles are permitted. If you hunt on private timberlands, you'll have to work harder at it.
Jack Smith, the wildlife program manager in Washington's Region 6, recommends that hunters consider using river or bay access to explore the elk hunting opportunity in and around Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. The Wynoochee River, the upper Humptulips, the Hoh, the upper Quinault and Bear River are good bets for accessing elk habitat. Waders, a drift boat or a raft can help you locate unpressured elk on public lands.
Dan Wood, a guide for Icicle Outfitters, was one of 25 people that drew a special permit hunt in the Malaga region south and west of Wenatchee. Not only did he score the coveted tag, he was also blessed with the snow and cold temperatures to get the elk moving. When he cut the track of five good bulls, Dan stuck with them until he bounced the bulls from their beds. At 75 yards, he dropped a 340-class 6x6 bull and watched the other four as they made their escape.
The Alpine and Mission units might make better mule deer country than elk habitat, but it is a good bet for archery hunters with overlapping seasons for both species. One bowhunter has taken three 6x6 bulls in the last four years, including one that will rank in Washington's top five all-time archery records. According to Bruce Wick, of Icicle Outfitters & Guides (800-497-3912), elk cannot be found everywhere, but they will generally use the same places year after year. Preseason scouting is the key if you want to find elk. Later in the year, when the special permit seasons open, snow and cold weather can tip the odds in hunters' favor.
In southeast Washington, elk herds in the Tucannon drainage in and around the Umatilla National Forest are living large. Agricultural lands draw and hold the herds through September's archery season. Because of damage and crop losses, many landowners welcome cow elk hunters. Some lands are accessible with written permission, and others can be accessed by paying a trespass fee. Wilbur Eaton, from Double E Outdoors (509-382-4924), suggests that the archery season is the best time to ambush a herd moving back and forth from bedding areas to feed on private croplands. At this time of year, you'll find animals in herds of 30 to 40 and as many as 150.
Herd numbers are up throughout the Blue Mountains, including in the Mountain View, Lick Creek, Dayton and Mill Creek watersheds. The Wenaha Unit, where calf recruitment has been down for a few years, is the exception. After several years of spike-only general season hunts in the Blues, the numbers of hunters have declined and the quality of the experience has improved.
Pat Fowler, the district wildlife biologist in Walla Walla, suggests that hunters spend the first two days of the season hunting open country, where they can keep watch on well-traveled trails. "By the third day, it's a good idea to still-hunt the timber and try to predict the elk behavior as they respond to hunters and the weather."
Elk numbers are down in the Colockum area. A research program is under way to determine the causes. The archery and antlerless hunts have been dropped, with the exception of a few antlerless tags left in place to aid in the research.
Elk numbers in the nearby Yakima region are stable or expanding, and the WDFW has increased permits over the last few years. Because of limited opportunity in the Colockum, hunting is getting crowded in the Yakima. Success rates are reasonable. Lee Stream, the regional wildlife program manager in Yakima, suggests that, if current weather trends hold, and we have a mild season, that the elk will stay in the high country. If that happens, the animals will be found in smaller groups. If we get extreme cold and snow, the weather may bring the animals into lower country, funneling them into larger herds.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Recovering radio collars from hunter-taken animals can provide valuable information to WDFW biologists. If your
elk is wearing such equipment, contact the researcher or government agency marked on the radio collar, or notify a WDFW enforcement officer or biologist that you have taken a radio-marked animal. They will make arrangements to return the equipment to the appropriate agency.
James Flaherty was hunting alone in a roadless area near the Pacific Crest Trail on the second weekend of the 2004 October Cascades elk season. Marginal elk numbers and poor access had kept other hunters away.
On a ridge above a timbered valley, he stopped and bugled, sparking a reply from a loner bull below him. The bull attempted to climb the ridge but couldn't find a way up. James circled downhill around a steep shale slide and set up to ambush the bull, calling him back. When the 5x5 paused to rake a tree with its antlers, James dropped it with one shot from his .243 rifle.
The Cascades, with its general-season tags and any-bull harvest, draws hunters from all over the state. Some areas, especially in the Upper Deschutes Unit and portions of the Santiam and McKenzie, see a lot of hunting pressure, while other sections see few, if any of the orange-clad horde.
Unlike the Rocky Mountain elk in the open country east of the Cascades, west slope herds tend to stay in smaller groups and are likely to disperse when they feel threatened. They are also less apt to move around and will return to the same area unless harassed.
Chris Yee, an assistant district wildlife biologist from the Springfield office, reported that elk herds in the Cascades have been increasing over the last decade. Bull-to-cow ratios, at 15 to 18 bulls per 100 cows, are above the management objective. However, hunters don't always capitalize on the high numbers of animals. Yee recommends that hunters scout and find places in which elk live and other hunters pass by. "If you push them out, bide your time and be patient. The elk will come back."
Elk populations on the north Oregon coast are thriving. In some areas, hunting has never been better. To the south, herds in the Alsea and Stott Mountain units are growing. Private lands and clear cuts are attracting and holding good numbers of animals. In the Stott Mountain Unit, on private lands where timber has been cleared, elk are more visible. The Alsea Unit has more Forest Service land and fewer clearings, but elk are there in good numbers. Road closures may limit vehicle travel, but hunters can access a lot of that land on foot, by bicycle or on horseback.
Tami Wagner, an assistant wildlife biologist on the mid coast, recommends that hunters contact the large timber companies to ask where elk damage is occurring, and where the land managers would like them to hunt. Some gated roads that are closed during the bull season may be opened during the antlerless hunts. Early in the season, some lands may be closed due to fire danger. It's best to know before you go. Contact Plum Creek Timberlands in Toledo and Forest Capital Partners in Monmouth for more information.
In Douglas County, hunters don't see a lot of animals because the habitat is so thick. Hunters with access to private land will do well again this year. If you hunt the Tioga, you know that there are a lot of animals but that the terrain helps keep the success rate low.
Eric Bunn of Western Oregon Outfitters (503-324-9552) suggests hunters should spend as much time as possible scouting in the preseason. "Know where they are," he said, "then hit the same areas where you saw them in the summer." Setting up a drive can tip the odds in your favor. This is steep country and you have to start the season in shape, spending the time out in the canyons and on the ridges where the elk live.
On the first day of Memorial Day weekend, Walt Ramage and his partner Jon worked into the wind, along the face of the ridge. A north-facing slope with a lot of rolling finger ridges, they've come to call it The Hotel, because it is either vacant or packed with animals.
At the bottom of a drainage, Ramage set up above Jon and looked at his watch as he began to call. It was 7:12 a.m. After the first series of calls, he heard something coming, but since he was down in a draw, he couldn't see more than 90 yards in any direction. Ramage expected that any nearby elk might pass Jon on the way in, but this bull was higher on the ridge and came in as if he was on a string. With an arrow nocked, Ramage waited. Suddenly, the bull appeared above him, looked up and down the drainage, ran down the hill and turned to its right.
With a well-timed cow call, Ramage stopped the bull, picked his spot and released the arrow. The 6x4 ran uphill, out of sight and crashed on the ridge above him. After four bulls in five years, you can bet Ramage will be back at The Hotel again this season.
In central Oregon, elk populations in the east Fort Rock, Paulina and Wagontire units are down from the highs of six to eight years ago.
Herd numbers west of Highway 97 in the Upper Deschutes and Metolius units are stable to increasing. As you move west into the Cascades, you'll find the elk dispersed, mainly in groups of fewer than 10 animals. Corey Heath, with the Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend, recommends that hunters look for thick cover in areas with low road density. A lot of hunting in this area is done from roads, and hunters looking for a higher-quality experience will find more elk and fewer hunters away from the roads, both inside and outside of the wilderness areas.
In the Northside, Desolation and Murderer's Creek units, elk numbers are high. The ODFW reports that bull ratios and wintering populations are at or above management objectives. The Desolation may have the highest density of elk in the region. Hunters in the Murderers Creek Unit saw a tremendous bull season last year.
"We got elk," reported Darren Bruning, an ODFW biologist for the Northside, Desolation and Murderer's Creek units. "Elk are well-distributed across the district. Get out and cover some ground and you should come across them."
To the east, the western half of the Beulah Unit is gaining more respect for its elk hunting. After-season harvest reports, surveys and landowner contacts show that this deer country's elk herd is thriving.
Last season's elk hunters did very well in the Starkey Unit. According to assistant biologist Jim Cadwell, hunter surveys showed 40 percent success in the any-elk season. But calf recruitment is down in this and several other northeast Oregon units. With fewer elk, fewer tags are issued. Still, the hunting can be good if you draw the tag.
Northeast Oregon's Rocky Mountain elk habitat is as good a country as can be found anywhere in the nation. Last year, the Minam Unit produced an archery bull that had 386 inches of scoreable antler, and a hunter with Wilderness Outfitters took a 372-inch bull from the Keating Unit. Another client missed a bull that, according to his guide, would have scored in the low 400s.
The Minam Unit, lying largely within the wilderness, is always a good bet. Elk numbers, while
not as high as they could be, still provide good opportunity for the hunter prepared to make the ride in and out with pack animals. The Keating Unit offers another rugged, remote, mountainous hunt with ideal deer and elk habitat and good numbers of elk.
According to Norm Young with Wilderness Outfitters (888-420-7855), herds are stable in the Imnaha and Snake units. Even though black bears and mountain lions are taking a toll on elk calves, this is still a great hunt for a chance at a good bull, due to the open habitat and terraced terrain.
In summary, northeast Oregon is still a great bet if you're after Rocky Mountain elk. With predator numbers on the rise, elk hunters should carry black bear and cougar tags. And good optics and pre-season scouting will tip the balance in favor of the prepared hunter.
(Editor's note: To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis' book Hunting Oregon, send $18.95 [includes shipping and handling] to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. The book is packed with valuable information and more than 100 photos.)