From the west side's brush-country blacktails and Columbia whitetails to the east side's open-country mulies and Northeast whitetails, here are the units that offer the most and biggest bucks. (August 2006)
Steve Charron from Gilroy, Calif., headed north to hunt with Go West Outfitters in Oregon's Ochoco Unit. This 190-class buck was bedded in a creek bottom.
Photo courtesy of GoWestOutfitters.com.
But Oregon has whitetails as well, and the herd in the northeast corner of the state is growing. Biologists estimate that about 6,000 whitetails live in the bottoms along the Imnaha, Walla Walla and Grand Ronde rivers. But the real buzz is about Oregon's other whitetail.
In the 1930s, some feared the Columbia whitetail to be extinct. By the late 1960s, biologists had counted them and estimated there were fewer than 1,000 animals left. In the 1970s, the subspecies was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the recovery effort was under way.
Today, two distinct groups of Columbia whitetails are present in Oregon. There's a thriving population of about 6,200 animals in Douglas County, and about 800 deer in the Columbia drainage, inhabiting several islands and the mainland on the shores of Oregon and Washington.
For Oregon hunters, the great news is that theirs is the only state where hunters can pursue blacktail, mule deer, eastern whitetail and Columbia whitetail and meet the minimum qualifications for SCI's North American Grand Slam of deer. (SCI's minimum is four animals from the list of seven subspecies, which also includes the Coues whitetail, desert mule deer and Sitka blacktail.)
Blacktail deer numbers are down in Western Oregon, due in part to changing timber practices and rising predator populations. But deer numbers have always fluctuated, and this is still one of the West's best hunts. Watch the trends and you'll find the deer.
Last season, I accompanied friends Lance Manske and Lee Sandberg of Black Oak Outfitters on a blacktail hunt in Douglas County.
Fog blanketed the valley. But we could see the tops of the hills and a buck in a fold of a grassy hilltop. As we watched through the scope, he picked his way onto a bench, disappeared for a few minutes, and then emerged into the sunlight again. We circled the hill below him, parked along the creek and began ascending the hill. Lance and Lee led the way.
We had the wind in our faces and the contours of the hill to hide us. As the sun came up, it burned the fog out of the valley. Sneaking and peeking, we reached the top of the hill.
The deer had moved out ahead. Which way did he go? The success of the hunt would hinge on our answer. Below us lay a stand of bushes and, at the bottom of the hill, a patch of blackberries.
Ryan, the easterner, guessed that the buck had turned toward the timber, but he was outvoted. The four of us turned away from the trees and slipped along the ridge, looking into the next valley. The 4-point buck had been bedded in the bushes only 50 yards from where we'd held our vote.
It burst from its bed into a dead run. Lance found the buck in his scope and squeezed the trigger. As soon as the buck was down, Lee spotted another buck. This one was bedded below us, right up against the blackberry bushes. Lee sat down, snuggled the gun into his shoulder, and then fired. Two shots and two bucks down in two minutes!
Oregon's blacktail hunters are faced with a constantly changing hunting climate. Adenovirus has receded, while hair-loss syndrome continues to cycle through lowland populations along the coast and inland, toward the Willamette.
Dave Nuzum, an assistant wildlife biologist for the north coast watershed, reported good success. Last season was good to north-coast hunters. "Any time that it's a little bit rainy out, it seems like the hunting conditions improve a little bit," Nuzum said. "I heard of some real nice bucks taken."
Post-season surveys in the Saddle Mountain Unit found a buck-to-doe ratio of 34 to 35 bucks per 100 does. Biologists counted 29:100 in the Wilson and Trask. Fawn ratios were less than desirable, Nuzum said, but the overall herd seems to be in good shape.
According to Nuzum, there are two ways to hunt these deer. "Take the time to very patiently glass the clearcuts. You can't just hop out, have a look and drive away." Your other option is to get out and walk perpendicular to the road and check out good cover. The north coast offers good still-hunting opportunities. Later in the season, antler rattling can bring bucks in.
On the mid-coast, hair-loss is taking its toll. Your best bet is to hunt the high country, where the syndrome doesn't seem to have much effect.
Last year, as part of a five-year study with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ODFW established the first hunt for Columbia whitetail in almost 30 years. For the 2005 season, 23 tags were made available to the public and 110 were issued to private landowners in the region through the Department's Land Owner Preference tag program.
Of the successful hunters with LOP tags, seven bagged forked-horns, 26 hunters bagged 3-pointers and 13 tied their tags to bucks with 4 points or more. One hunter bagged a forked-horn blacktail, and four others bagged blacktails with 4 points or better per side.
This season, the opportunity has been expanded to include a hunt in the North Bank Habitat Management Area, a public reserve near Roseburg.
District wildlife biologist Mark Vargas, who oversees the South Dixon, Rogue, Evans Creek, Applegate and Chetco units, saw a good harvest of blacktail bucks. "Weather conditions were real favorable, catching migratory deer coming out of the Cascades. We saw a similar condition in the Applegate Unit coming out of the Siskiyous. We should see a similar pattern this year, based on herd composition." The buck-to-doe ratio in the Rogue Unit is down slightly, but the opportunity is high. According to Vargas, the overall herd population is starting to increase.
Hair-loss syndrome is hitting south-coast deer at low elevations. If you're headed to the Chetco Unit, hunt the high country.
According to district wildlife biologist Bill Castillo, similar conditions exist in the Siuslaw and, to a lesser extent, in the McKenzie Unit. Does and fawns are most vulnerable. The good news is that the deer that survive seem to develop a resistance to the exotic lice that are the cause of the hair loss.
Castillo has seen hunter numbers decline, but their success rates have stayed high. "We're seeing the success rates stay fairly good during the buck season," he said. "Bucks are more vulnerable when fewer hunters are chasing them.
"People who are serious about deer hunting still have a pretty good chance," Castillo said. "Higher elevations and Forest Service lands have not been effected by the hair-loss syndrome."
Marne Allbritten, an assistant wildlife biologist in the Roseburg office, reported that deer in her region are doing well. "Last season, I heard everything from 'I tagged the nicest deer I've ever gotten,' to 'I didn't see a single deer the whole season and I drove hundreds of miles,' " she said.
"The majority of the blacktail population is on private land and around farms," Allbritten added. "We're seeing some very nice deer on national forest lands." Her advice: Scout first.
In the Santiam, your best bet for a blacktail buck is in the high country. Find vantage points on timbered slopes, or use a stand to watch dense bedding cover, trail crossings and clearings.
The Western Oregon archery season runs Aug. 26 through Sept. 2, and bowhunters have three late-season hunts. The Alsea, McKenzie, Santiam, Siuslaw, Stott Mountain and Willamette units, and a portion of the Indigo Unit in the Willamette drainage, will be open from Nov. 18 through Dec. 10. Archers can also hunt from Nov. 11 through Dec. 3 in the Evans Creek, Melrose, Rogue, and Sixes units. From Nov. 25 through Dec. 10, a portion of the Saddle Mountain Unit will be open to bowhunters.
The West High Cascade Buck season, a controlled rifle hunt, runs Sept. 9 through 17. This hunt includes parts of the Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo, Dixon, Rogue, Keno and Fort Rock units.
The western general centerfire season in the Cascade buck area begins Sept. 30 and runs through Oct. 20, opening again from Oct. 28 through Nov. 3. Hunting in the Coast Buck Area runs Sept. 30 through Nov. 3.
Steve Charron from Gilroy, Calif., headed north to hunt in Oregon's Ochoco Unit with Go West Outfitters, which you can contact by calling (541) 419-1027, or visit them online at www.gowestoutfitters.com. During archery season, guide Shawn Jones had been watching a big buck, but wasn't able to get close enough for a shot. On opening day of rifle season, the rules changed.
The buck was unusual, in that it stayed low along the brushy creek bottom rather than bedding on the high slopes.
Rifle season opened foggy and rainy. Visibility from the usual vantage points was poor, so the pair still-hunted along the canyon edge. From a low knoll, they spotted a small group of bucks. The biggest one turned his head, and Jones knew he'd found the buck he was after. Already within rifle range, the pair waited for the buck to turn broadside.
Charron finished his hunt before lunchtime. Later, the buck would score 192 Boone and Crockett.
Last year's cutback on tags has paid off in Central Oregon. Brian Ferry, a biologist in the Prineville office, said that he'd seen "some of the better fawn ratios in the last decade or decade and a half. And higher buck ratios."
The Grizzly Unit came out of last season with 15 bucks per 100 does and 61 fawns per 100 does. In the Maury Unit, biologists counted 18 bucks per 100 does and 64 fawns per 100 does.
In the Ochoco Unit, the department classified 987 in one representative geographic area and calculated ratios of 16 bucks and 70 fawns per 100 does.
The Paulina Unit is managed for access and hunting success, not necessarily for trophy bucks -- but there are some to be found. Last season, one of the best bucks taken in Oregon came from the Paulina Unit. Matt Owens, 17, scouted all summer, and his time in the field paid off on opening day with a 35-inch 4-pointer.
Last year's fawn crop was high, and survival was good going into the winter, at 72 fawns per 100 does. Biologist Corey Heath said that these deer were "some of the fattest I've seen. They went into winter in incredible shape." The Paulina will likely be one of the most productive hunts again this year.
Things are looking up in the Metolius Unit. Measures that ODFW took in the last few years to control poaching seem to be working. This unit is managed for trophy potential, and buck ratios are now up to 25 bucks per 100 does. Going into winter, biologists counted 74 fawns per 100 does.
In the Upper Deschutes, buck ratios are at 23:100. In the southern portion of the unit, interestingly, there seem to be more bucks per does than on the north side. Going into winter, fawn numbers were close to average at 59:100.
Going into winter, fawn numbers in the Wagontire Unit were high, with an average of 83:100. Buck-to-doe ratios are near management objectives.
The Fort Rock Unit should be a good bet again this year. Buck ratios are at 20:100, and the fawn count also came in at over 80:100.
This year, hunters in the Beulah, Owyhee and Whitehorse should see good numbers of yearling bucks. Walt Van Dyke, the district wildlife biologist, said that coming out of last season, his units met all the buck escapement goals and went into winter with one of the best fawn ratios he'd ever seen. "The last two years have been pretty good for deer," Van Dyke said. "We've had good green-up in the fall, and most of our winter ranges have stayed open."
Take a scouting trip, Van Dyke advises. "Desert hunting is different than timber hunting. You have to have good optics and take the time to learn how to use them. Find the buck, bed him down and then figure out how to get in on him and kill him."
The deer are there. You just have to have the patience to find them. "I have people, especially from the Whitehorse Unit, call me on their cell phones and want to know where all the deer are," Van Dyke said, with a laugh. There is no substitute for scouting.
Craig Foster, district wildlife biologist for the Lake and Klamath districts, saw what he called some of the best fawn ratios in years, going into winter. "We had a high precipitation year, but not a hard winter," he said.
With the exception of the North Warner area, buck ratios are at or above management objectives from Keno to Beattys Butte and from Fort Rock to Interstate, though deer numbers are down in some of his units. "We're up to 18 bucks per 100 does in the North Warner," Foster said. This hunt is managed for trophy-class bucks, but you'll look long and hard before you find one.
Wildlife thieves continue to be a problem in the Silver Lake and Fort Rock units and on the Warner winter range. Coyote numbers, which had dropped a few years ago, are on the rise. Cougar numbers remain high.
Hunting in the
Snake River Unit last fall, 12-year-old Jacob Lum from Roseburg passed up a chance at a forked-horn for a chance at a big whitetail that he and his dad had scouted in the summer. In the middle of the morning in a pounding rain, Jacob made a stalk and a perfect shot on his 22-inch 3-pointer. When the buck was scored, it stretched the tape to 126 4/8 Boone and Crockett points.
The most significant whitetail numbers are found in the Wallowa Valley (Sled Springs and Chesnimnus units), Minam and Imnaha units. Last year's fawn crops were healthy and went into winter with an average of 55 mule deer fawns per 100 does and 66 whitetail fawns per 100 does.
Coming out of deer season, buck-to-doe ratios were at management objectives (18:100 for mule deer, 26:100 for whitetails). Winter brought lots of precipitation and a few bouts of bitter cold. Wildlife biologist Vic Coggins reported that deer in forest habitats weathered winter well, while deer herds in grassland habitats suffered. There was winterkill of fawns in the Wenaha and Chesnimnus units. But in this region, Coggins reported that "mule deer are doing better than they have for a while."
Eastern Oregon's archery season runs Aug. 26 through Sept. 24, and the Hood-White River hunt will run Sept. 9 through 17. Eastern Oregon's controlled buck centerfire season runs from Sept. 30 through Oct. 11.
Wherever you hunt this year, make sure you have a bear tag and a cougar tag in your wallet. With high predator numbers in almost all units, you've got a chance to bring some relief to the local deer herd and pack home a unique trophy. The deadline for tag purchase is Sept. 29.
(Editor's Note: To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis' book, Deer Hunting -- Tactics for Today's Big-Game Hunter, send $23.95, which includes shipping and handling, to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. The 208-page book is packed with valuable information and almost 100 photos.)