Mild winters like this past one are great for building deer herds, but low snowpacks lead to concerns over water shortages. You'll have to scout hard this year in most of the best Beaver State hunting units.
By Gary Lewis
What state has more diverse deer hunting than Oregon? We have blacktails west of the Cascades, mule deer east of the mountains and whitetails in the northeast. The trophy potential alone draws hunters from all over the world. But when we have hunted here for years and begin to think we have our deer figured out, something changes.
Change is the only thing that hunters can count on. Forests grow, then burn or are logged. New growth replaces the timber, and deer move in and thrive. Predator populations decline, and then explode. Some years, the tanks dry up and the animals drift out of the area looking for moisture. Other years, heavy snowpack fills all the reservoirs.
This past year we had little snowpack and a mild winter. We start hunting a week later than usual, giving us a better chance of seeing some rain at the start of the rifle season. Will all of this make a difference? Bet on it. Deer hunting wouldn't be as much fun if things stayed the same all the time.
How are things shaping up where you plan to hunt this season? Washington-Oregon Game & Fish has been asking Oregon outfitters and wildlife biologists about the prospects for deer hunting in 2003. We even checked in with some of last year's hunters, hoping for a glimpse into what made them successful.
WESTERN OREGON Last season's warm, dry weather kept many forest roads closed to vehicle travel. What was an obstacle for some hunters turned out to be a boon for Eugene's Cliff McClure. It was the second week of the 2002 season and McClure decided to hunt an old Lane County clearcut where he had seen the tracks of a big buck.
The timber had been harvested in 1997, and the new growth was about five feet tall, making visibility difficult. In the late afternoon, McClure parked his truck at the gate and walked a mile uphill to a place where three draws came together to form a little bowl. The depression created a natural funnel that the deer used between feeding and bedding areas. Taking a position where he could see in several directions, McClure sat down against a stump and waited.
Ted Perreard of Shedd, Ore., shot this non-typical 9x9 blacktail in the Evans Creek Unit during the late 2002 archery season. Photo courtesy of Ted Perreard
He first saw the buck when it was about 225 yards away, trotting through the young fir trees. Climbing up on the stump, McClure could see the 4-point clearly now. He raised his rifle to his shoulder, found the buck in his crosshair and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, the buck broke into a dead run and McClure swung with it, leading the animal by a body length and firing a second time. The deer turned and ran straight away from him, uphill. A third shot anchored the deer.
McClure had seen that the buck was big before he raised his rifle. The tape measure would later show its antlers were over 21 inches wide and when the rack was scored for The Record Book of Oregon's Big Game Animals, it was certified to measure 131 Boone and Crockett Club points.
Doug Cottam, a biologist with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, works in the Alsea, Stott Mountain and Siuslaw units. The hair-loss syndrome he has been monitoring for the past two years has caused a serious depletion in deer numbers in the Alsea and Stott Mountain units. The Siuslaw Unit hasn't been hurt as bad. Scouting will be important on the central coast this year. Don't just look for habitat - look for signs of deer using the habitat, and look for tracks, rubs and trail crossings.
Perhaps no other outfitter is more in tune to southwest Oregon's blacktail herd than Doug and Janet Gattis of Southern Oregon Game Busters (www.blacktails.net). Last year, though hunting was tough due to the dry conditions, all of their bowhunting and muzzleloading clients filled tags while their rifle hunters did almost as well. Doug watches deer all year long and reports that the blacktails in his area wintered well. "We're seeing good populations of deer in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Applegate units now," he said. "Maybe not as good as before the predator population increased but still good.
"We lose deer when the temperature drops below freezing for more than a week. That hasn't happened in several years. If anything is getting the young deer, it is the black bears," Gattis added.
Expect to see good numbers of older age-class deer in the Applegate, Evans Creek, Rogue and Dixon units this season. You might see a bear too.
As in previous years, the Santiam and McKenzie units will be good bets for trophy blacktails. Hunt high in the Wilson and Saddle Mountain units for best success on the north coast.
In western Oregon, bucks are hunted primarily with a general-season rifle or archery tag. Archery season runs Aug. 30-Sept. 28, with a bag limit of one deer.
Bowhunters have three late-season hunts. The Alsea, McKenzie, Santiam, Siuslaw, Stott Mountain, Willamette Units, and a portion of the Indigo Unit in the Willamette drainage will be open Nov. 15-Dec. 7.
Archers can also hunt from Nov. 8-30 in the Evans Creek, Melrose, Rogue and Sixes units. Bag limit is one deer.
For general-season archery hunters, the Saddle Mountain Unit will be open from Nov. 22-Dec. 7.
The West High Cascade Buck season, a controlled hunt, begins Sept. 6 and runs through Sept. 14. This hunt includes parts of the Santiam, McKenzie, Indigo, Rogue, Keno and Fort Rock units. Bag limit is one buck having not less than a forked antler.
The Western general centerfire season in the Coast Buck Area begins Oct. 4 and runs through Nov. 5. Hunting in the Wilson and Trask runs Oct. 4-17, and it opens again Oct. 23-Nov. 5.
The Cascade buck hunt runs Oct.4-17 and from Oct. 23-Nov. 5. Bag limit in the western Oregon buck centerfire season is one buck having not less than a forked antler.
For information on the controlled deer muzzleloader hunts, see the Oregon Big Game Regulations.
EASTERN OREGON It was Thanksgiving, the sixth day of a hunt marked by bluebird weather, lonely days on windswept mesas, and frustration. The deer that Steve Jones had seen on the first five days were either on private land or safely behind the refuge boundary. After years of applyin
g for a muzzleloader season in eastern Oregon, his hopes of having a chance to use his tag were fading.
Early in the day, he rattled a pair of shed antlers he had found and drew in a curious buck from afar. But the wide-racked mule deer wouldn't come within range of Jones' primitive 1840's technology weapon. Maybe the next deer would.
He spotted a 4-point buck while driving north. Calling it was his only option, and the deer would have to come within 100 yards for him to take the shot. Steve kept driving on up the road and parked two miles away.
On foot, he circled back to the west, along the rim, carrying his rifle and rattling antlers, then settled in to call. Crashing the antlers together, tickling the tips on rocks, he ground and twisted, and threw dirt in the air. The buck was coming. Jones breathed a quick prayer and watched, continuing to rattle.
When the deer was below the rimrock, Jones dropped the antlers and worked into position. He eased back the hammer, aimed and fired. When the smoke cleared, he picked his way down through the rocks and knelt beside his big 4-point and said a prayer of thanksgiving.
This year, eastern Oregon hunters have reason to give thanks and have reason for concern. The good news is deer were able to find good nutrition through the critical winter months because little snow fell to cover the forage. Winterkill was low or non-existent. The bad news is summer's water supply will be low in many units.
North-central Oregon is often overlooked because of a high percentage of private land there. Those who do have access, however, know that the West Biggs, East Biggs, Maupin and Columbia Basin units offer success rates near 60 percent, with a high percentage of those animals in the 4-point or better class. Even in low water years, these units generally have enough moisture for game because of the proximity of rivers, irrigated land and livestock tanks. Predators are present, but not out of balance. Small game and upland birds keep the coyotes from concentrating on deer.
Justin Karnopp, of Central Oregon Outdoors (541-504-0372), is looking forward to another good season in the West Biggs Unit. "I've hunted there since I was a kid," he told me. "Ten years ago, we didn't see a lot of bucks. Now it is fairly common for our hunters to see 20- to 24-inch, 3- and 4-point bucks. The bigger bucks, in the 25-inch and wider class, are available to the patient and the lucky."
Not only are success ratios high in north-central Oregon but it is also easy to draw a tag for these hunts. If you didn't draw, an outfitter might have an outfitter or landowner tag available.
James Haley of Wild River Ranch (541-468-2900) also hunts the West Biggs, as well as the East Biggs, Maupin, Fossil, Columbia Basin, Heppner and Ukiah units. Last year, his hunters worked hard to find shoot-quality bucks; overall success was still close to 80 percent, with some dandy 3- and 4-poiners being taken. As good as their hunts were, he saw some even bigger bucks, including one big 4x4 with double drop tines, a huge 5x5 and three big non-typicals, during the rut, after the season had closed.
Of the units he hunts, Haley expects the Heppner and Ukiah units to be hurt the most by the lack of snowfall this past winter. He has also seen more evidence of mountain lions in every unit in the past year and has noticed a shift in deer concentrations. "In certain areas where there was a lot of deer five years ago, there are fewer now. But other areas have more deer," Haley said. Overall, he thinks deer numbers in most of his units haven't declined.
"If we have a dry summer, we'll be working just as hard this year as we did last year," Haley said.
Corey Heath, an ODFW biologist in the Bend office, reported that buck-to-doe ratios in the Upper Deschutes Unit were good going into the winter, but that overall, deer populations were down. Adenovirus killed deer in the Upper Deschutes and Metolius units last year.
The outlook for the Paulina, north Fort Rock and north Wagontire units is brighter. Hunters should see decent numbers of younger and older age-class bucks.
Steve Mathers of Battle Creek Outfitters (541-389-0743) began scouting the Beulah Unit in November and saw several nice bucks that made it through last season. Area ranchers are committed to predator control, helping to keep Beulah's big game in balance. Battle Creek Outfitters has been hunting the Heppner, Fossil and Maury units for several years. Winter was easy for the deer herd in the Heppner Unit. Lions have kept herds from growing, but hunters should find decent numbers of deer in the fall.
The Fossil Unit has been home to good numbers of deer for a long time. Private land makes access difficult, and big bucks are available to those who have permission. Check road restrictions with the ODFW Heppner Field Office (541-676-5230) before you go hunting.
Predators continue to be a factor in keeping Maury Unit deer herds from growing. Prospects for older age-class deer are good.
Jim Workman, owner of Backcountry Outfitters (800-966-8080), saw another successful season last year in the Snake River and Walla units. His hunters bagged mule deer last year, though a few whitetail bucks can be found ranging the high country he hunts. The mild winters of the last few years have contributed to the expansion of the whitetail herd in the Sled Springs and Minam units.
Mike Schaffeld of High Lonesome Hunts (541-473-2628) has been hunting the Beulah, Sumpter, Owyhee and Whitehorse units for many years. The past winter was easy on eastern Oregon deer, but he has seen a decline in deer numbers in most areas he hunts. Last season was a good one for Schaffeld, and he expects the upcoming hunt to be productive but expects to work harder.
Schaffeld has seen a lot of lion tracks in the Sumpter Unit. "Carry a cougar tag," Schaffeld suggested. "The opportunity to happen onto a cat is so much greater than it ever has been." The lack of snow over most of the area meant that deer had plenty to eat during the winter. Nutrition was good during the cold months.
Pre-season scouting is important in the Owyhee and Whitehorse units. Deer are more likely to be found within 800 yards of water. "If you see a big one before the season," Schaffeld advised, "and can't find him on opening day, don't think he's left. He's just hiding. That's why he got so big."
Craig Foster is an ODFW biologist in the Lakeview office. He monitors the Juniper, Warner, Wagontire, Interstate, Beatys Butte, Silver Lake and Fort Rock units. He reports fall buck-to-doe ratios at or above management objectives, but cites poor fawn-to-doe ratios going into last winter. Foster suspects that juniper encroachment and noxious weeds are the reasons that the habitat does not support as many deer as it used to.
Foster also noted an increase in indicators of predation. "Coyote populations appear to be on the increase again," Foster reported, "after a decline a couple of years ago. Cougar n
umbers appear substantially higher than they were in the late '80s."
In summary, eastern Oregon hunters will have an easier time in areas with reliable water sources such as major rivers, irrigation and snowmelt. Desert hunts may be more difficult this year. The deer will still be there, but will be harder to find. With some ranchers canceling their irrigation plans, fields that usually draw game will be dry. The season opens a week later than normal, raising the likelihood that we will get rain, snow or cold weather during the season. That could help.
With predator numbers on the rise in almost every unit, deer hunters should watch for coyotes, and carry black bear and cougar tags. The deadline for tag purchase is Oct. 3.
In eastern Oregon, archery season runs Aug. 30-Sept. 28. Bag limit is one buck with visible antler. Check your Oregon Big Game Regulations for details.
The Hood-White River hunt will be open Sept. 6-14.
Eastern Oregon's controlled buck centerfire season runs Oct. 4-15. A valid, unused deer rifle tag is required for that time period in each unit. The bag limit is one buck with visible antler.
(Editor's Note: To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis' latest book, Deer Hunting - Tactics for Today's Big-Game Hunter, send $24 [includes shipping and handling] to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. The 208-page book is packed with valuable information and almost 100 photos.)
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