Hunting Sherman Unit Deer?
September 29, 2010
The Sherman Unit in northeastern Washington has a lot going for it. Archers love the late-season hunt, while gun hunters enjoy good success rates. All hunters like the extensive public lands. (October 2009)
In recent years, about 50 percent of the Sherman Unit's mule deer sported a 4-point or better rack of antlers.
Photo courtesy of Sherman Creek Outfitters.
When most hunters begin the process of locating a new place to pursue deer, they tend to look for pretty much the same features.
A large and healthy population of animals tops the list for nearly everyone. Most hunters also prefer areas that have track records of producing big deer and 4-plus-point bucks. Access and the availability of public land are other primary considerations, and most hunters look for units where they have a little breathing room and don't see hunter orange everywhere they look.
Ideally, they also want a unit with generous seasons, uncomplicated regulations and weapon options.
Slightly farther down the list -- but still an integral part of the equation for most hunters -- are intangible characteristics such as scenery, chance for solitude and the presence of other wildlife.
These attributes provide the color, the "feel" of a hunting experience.
Many deer are killed every autumn in units that lack one or more of these characteristics. For example, western Washington's big industrial tree farms turn out plenty of blacktail bucks. But they are often crowded on weekends, and clearcuts and uniform stands of Douglas fir don't make for awe-inspiring landscapes.
Similarly, hunters with access to private agricultural lands, whether it's on Whidbey Island or the Palouse, also enjoy high hunter success rates. But you usually have to know someone to get permission to hunt in these places.
The most beloved hunting destinations, however, tend to have a robust combination of most, if not all, of the qualities described.
In Washington, most hunters can recite a litany of these "mega units." Okanogan County has several; the Alta and Pearrygin units come to mind. The Columbia Gorge's East Klickitat and Grayback units are famous as are eastern Washington's Huckleberry and Mount Spokane.
But one unit in particular has all this and more. Decade after decade, Region 1's Sherman Unit is one of the state's most consistently productive deer units.
You can pursue either mule deer or whitetails, and the unit turns out good numbers of 4-plus-point deer. The Sherman Unit is about as remote an area as you can get in Washington, and it has one of the state's highest percentages of public land and timberland. The Sherman Unit, in other words, is a mega unit among mega units.
"There are some really nice mule deer up there," said Jim McGowan, Colville National Forest wildlife biologist. "Each year, I see some tremendous bucks."
PROFILE OF A UNIT
Located in northeastern Washington, between Okanogan and Stevens counties, the Sherman Unit (Game Management Unit 101) encompasses nearly all of northern Ferry County and portions of Okanogan County. Its northern boundary is Canada. On the east is Kettle River. On the south is the Colville Indian Reservation, and on the west is State Route 21 and Toroda Creek.
Much of the unit is rolling forested hills, but treeless slopes and meadows are also abundant.
In addition to the Kettle River, the unit contains a number of significant watersheds, including Sherman, Deadman, Boulder, Curlew and Toroda creeks. The unit's central spine, the Kettle River Range, is considered a lobe of the Rocky Mountains, as are the Okanogan Highlands to the west and the Selkirk Mountains to the east.
According to the last census, Ferry County, which covers 2,257 square miles, had 7,260 residents. That works out to one person for each 3.3 square mile, easily the lowest in the state. Until quite recently, there was only one stoplight in the county. (Continued)
The Colville National Forest is by far the largest landowner in the unit, and it provides hunters excellent access to deer country. The forest contains a good mixture of woods, openings and riparian areas that deer favor. It also has a network of logging and spur roads, many of which are now gated, that provide hunters access to the forest. In addition to federal holdings, there is also considerable timber company land in the unit, as well as popular Sherman Creek Wildlife Area.
As in the rest of Region 1, the Sherman Unit's whitetails and mule deer tend to prefer different habitats. Traditionally, whitetails have been most abundant in lower elevation areas, especially brushy draws and creek bottoms near farms and orchards, and in the eastern portion of the unit.
The unit's mule deer, on the other hand, are happiest among the hills and rocks, particularly in more remote and tough-to-reach areas. However, in recent years, the strict partition of mule and white-tailed deer has broken down somewhat, and whitetails have moved farther to the west and colonized higher-elevation areas. They have even been seen at the top of the Kettle Crest.
"We now see whitetails in places that in recent memory held only mule deer," McGowan said. "In some of those areas, they now provide 30 or 40 percent of the harvest."
McGowan said he recently looked at a number of records from the 1970s and earlier, and there was little evidence of whitetails.
Road building and fire suppression have created conditions that favor whitetails over mule deer.
Sherman Unit Numbers
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, GMU 101 gave up 1,170 deer in 2007, the last year for which reports are available. Those numbers are considerably lower than the approximately 2,500 deer recorded in the Sherman Creek's sister Region 1 unit, Mount Spokane, and there are also less deer than the 49 Degrees and Huckleberry units to the east.
However, fewer than 5,000 people hunted in the Sherman Unit that year, compared with 8,000 in Mount Spokane. Moreover, there is considerably more public land in the Sherman Unit, which gives hunters a chance to spread out.
However, the Sherman Unit's sizeable population of mule deer is the feature that distinguishes it from the more productive Region 1 units to the east. Indeed, upwards of 90 percent of the deer killed in most northern Region 1 u
nits are whitetails.
In the Sherman Unit, the WDFW manages the unit for mule deer. During the 2005 season, hunters killed 329 mule deer, and it has averaged around 300 mule deer in recent years. As for availability of older deer, approximately 50 percent of the mule deer recorded have had 4 points or more.
The Sherman Unit is also one of the state's most consistent over time.
Over the last five years for which there are reports, the deer harvest ranged from 1,170 last year to 1,430 in 2004. The success rates also only ranged from 25 to 27 percent, and the number of hunters was consistently between 4,500 and 5,000.
By way of comparison, the unit was actually slightly less productive in 1992, when it still known as the Curlew Unit. That year, the total harvest was 895 and the success rate was still 25 percent. However, that can be explained by the participation of far fewer archery hunters -- 85 compared with 511 in 2007 -- and the absence of a muzzleloader hunt.
The Sherman Unit has plenty of geographical features that provide a range of habitats for the deer and varied settings for hunters. For starters, the Kettle River flows into the unit from Canada in two different locations. And by that I mean the actual mainstem river, not two different forks of the river. It first enters the United States near the northwest corner of the country, a few miles north of Toroda. From there, it meanders south and east to the community of Curlew, where it turns and flows north and returns to Canada. After moseying around British Columbia for a while, the river crosses the border again at Laurier. It then continues south more or less in a straight course to the Columbia River.
The unit's other most prominent feature, the Kettle River Range, is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet at the summit, and runs in a north-south direction between the middle (north-flowing) and eastern sections of the river.
The range extends from Canada to the reservation boundary. Rivers draining its eastern slopes flow into the southbound arm of the Kettle River, while the western-flowing creeks empty into the reach of the Kettle that runs north, and its largest tributary, Curlew Creek.
Highway 20 is the only major east-west road that crosses the Kettle crest at Sherman Pass, elevation 5,575 feet.
The portion of the unit east of the Kettle Crest comprises the larger part of the unit, but it contains few paved roads other than State Road 395, which runs along the upper portion of the Columbia River and the Kettle River all the way to the border.
Forest service and logging roads climbing uphill from the river provide rough access. The section of the unit west of Highway 21, including the portion in Okanogan County, contains a handful of paved roads, as well as an intricate network of logging and mining roads.
Hunters with horses or those who like to hike can use the Kettle River Trail, which begins on SR 20 at Sherman Pass, to penetrate wild country both north and south of the highway. It extends 32 miles, from the Indian reservation nearly to Canada. The trail has a number of spurs. However, hunters should be aware that the trail is also very popular with hikers and mountain bikers, so don't expect solitude until you get away from the trail.
Modern Firearms Hunts
The opportunities for modern firearms hunters in the Sherman Unit are slightly different from those in neighboring GMUs. This reflects both the WDFW's policy of managing the unit for mule deer, and the fact that it contains a unique mix of whitetails and mule deer. The most obvious differences are that the Sherman white-tailed deer season, which is an "any-buck" hunt, is two days longer than other northern Region 1 units. But it has no late whitetail hunt. However, hunters over 65 and those who are disabled or qualify for the youth hunt can shoot any white-tailed deer during the modern firearms season.
The Sherman Unit's mule deer hunt is the same nine-day season as the rest of eastern Washington.
During the 2007 season, modern firearms hunters accounted for 786 bucks and 384 does in the unit, and they had a 25 percent hunter success ratio. That was actually down from 2006, when 879 bucks and 341 does were tagged, and less than the 1,044 bucks and 386 does hunters killed in 2004.
An increase in the doe harvest is the tried-and-true tactic to quickly reduce the size of a deer population, and the WDFW uses antlerless permits in the Sherman Unit to maintain the whitetail population at a low enough level that it doesn't compete with mule deer or cause too many landowner complaints.
In recent years, the department issued 50 antlerless whitetail permits than ran concurrently with the general whitetail season. But in 2008, it created 20 new permit antlerless hunts for hunters over 65, 20 for persons with disabilities, 30 youth modern firearms antlerless permits, and 10 youth muzzleloader hunt permits. These permit hunts ran for nine days before the start of the regular season. This year, all of the new permit hunts have been retained, but the 50 antlerless modern firearms permits that ran simultaneously with the general whitetail season have been eliminated.
Popular Archery Unit
The Sherman Unit has been a popular destination for bowhunters for years. The state's harvest reports give an accurate portrait of how productive the unit has been.
In 2007, 784 bowhunters tagged 162 bucks and 81 does. That pencils out to a 31 percent success rate, one of the best in the state, and is actually better than the modern firearms season in the unit.
Moreover, numbers similar to these have remained remarkably consistent over the years. The average deer harvest since 2003 has been 221 and the success rate has hovered a little above 30 percent.
In 2007, 811 hunters took to the field with bows in the Sherman Unit, the most in recent years.
There is one overriding reason why the unit is so popular with archery hunters: There is no late modern firearms whitetail season like there is in most northern Region 1 units, but there is an extended late white-tailed deer bow season.
Beginning in early November, the late hunt gives bowhunters a chance at rutting deer that haven't been hunted for a couple of weeks.
In addition, in recent years, the Sherman Unit's late hunt has been 10 days longer than neighboring units. This year, it will be 16 days longer.
As for mule deer, the early season has traditionally run for the entire month of September, similar to other archery units. However, unlike the other nearby units, the Sherman Unit's early hunt is broken into two sections: Sept. 1-15 has a 3-point minimum regulation, and the rest of the month there is 3-point or antlerless.
This season, however, the WDFW and Fish and Wildlife Commission red
uced the early archery season in the unit by five days. The 2009 early bow season unit now runs Sept. 1-25. There is no late mule deer bowhunt.
More Days for Muzzleloaders
In a year when blackpowder hunters were allocated significantly more hunting opportunity in much of Washington, their advances in GMU 101 were relatively modest.
During 2008, the early season ran for seven days in early October. This year, it will be nine days, and it will run Sept. 26-Oct. 4. As in past years, any whitetail will be legal, but only 3-point-or-better mule deer bucks can be taken. There is, once again, no late blackpowder hunt in the unit.
During the 2007 season, primitive firearms hunters killed 54 bucks and 43 does and achieved a 31 percent success rate.
The trend in the muzzleloader harvest in the Sherman Unit has been on a slow but steady increase over the last five years. Blackpowder hunters took 76 deer in 2003, 88 in '04, 96 in '05, and 93 in '06.
The number of hunters has also gradually increased, from less than 200 in 2003 to 287 in 2007.
How Bad Was The Snow?
The large, persistent and late snowfalls that beset northeast Washington last winter made news throughout the Pacific Northwest. For deer hunters, the first question that comes to mind is "Was there much winterkill?"
Well, there is both good news and bad news for hunters planning a trip to the Sherman Unit this fall.
The bad news is that some winter mortality most likely did result from the snow. However, the snow wasn't as heavy in Ferry County as it was farther east, closer to Spokane.
"It was a severe winter," said Madonna Luers, WDFW Region 1 spokesperson. "But actually the worst was in Pend Oreille County, not Ferry County."
That's reasonably good news for hunters who want to experience the Sherman Unit's forest and mountains, its low human and large deer population, and its ease of access and compelling vistas.
Indeed, this portion of Ferry County offers just about everything a Washington deer hunter could want.