From blacktails to big mulies to wily whitetails, the Beaver State is set for opening day. Here are the best units for finding the most and the biggest deer this year.
By Gary Lewis
We hunted the third day up against the foothills, close to the California border. After two days of blue sky, high clouds were filtering the sun as daylight pushed back the night. Two blacktails, a buck and a doe, crossed the creek and fed out of the shadows of the oak trees and into the open.
With the wind in my face, I waited as the buck fed closer, then found a rest for my rifle. Broadside now, at 60 yards, he sniffed for scent then put his head down again. I snapped the safety to fire, steadied my crosshairs, and tightened up on the trigger.
While we field-dressed my blacktail, our second in three days, our talk turned to 2004 and the eastern Oregon mule deer tags we hoped to draw. We were already looking forward to next season.
Oregon's deer hunting offers more diversity than almost anywhere else in the country. From the coast to the desert, from blacktails to big mule deer to wily northeast whitetails, Oregon's hunters have a difficult choice when they get the new synopsis at the start of each year. With all of the options available, how does a hunter decide? Information is the key, and Washington-Oregon Game & Fish magazine knows where to find it. While you pursued spring turkeys and opening-day trout fishing jaunts, and right into early summer, we were gathering data, interviewing successful hunters, outfitters and wildlife biologists to get a glimpse of the coming deer hunting seasons.
The face of Oregon deer hunting is changing, and many factors are involved - not the least of which is the weather. Last winter's snow pack was the heaviest in years, and we saw the temperature stay low for weeks in some parts of the state. Winterkill, disease and predators have taken their toll in a few deer herds, but numbers are good in other areas.
Here are our recommendations for Oregon's best deer hunting on opening day and beyond. We will tell you what units offer the most deer and where you've got your best chance at tagging a trophy when the sun comes up on opening day.
It was a Friday evening when Bryan Martin and Mark Rhodes parked at the end of a dead-end road, shouldered their packs and began a five-mile hike. An hour and a half after dark, they rolled out their sleeping bags and found shelter from a light rain.
Thirty minutes before daylight, they made a dry breakfast and set up on a rocky point to await sunrise. With no wind, a light fog hung over the valley. Using binoculars, the hunters watched a herd of 40 elk feeding in the mist. Finally, the hunters began to pick out deer in the manzanita and buckbrush, counting bucks and several does at ranges up to 600 yards.
Dan Cruz hunted a roadless area in southwest Oregon to find this quality buck. Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Game Busters
A ravine, choked with scrub oak, cut the basin below. A forked horn came into view and a 4-point buck engaged him in a clash of antlers. A third buck emerged and watched them spar for a few minutes before turning away. Rhodes put down his binoculars and picked up his rangefinder, sighting on the 4-point. "Four hundred twenty yards," he whispered.
Martin, shooting a .270 Weatherby, found a rest, then dialed his scope to 7-power and held the crosshair on the line of the buck's back. He squeezed the trigger. When the 4-point dropped, the younger buck swaggered for a moment as if he had vanquished his foe. Then he made sense of the crack of the rifle echoing across the valley, ducked his head and ran.
The tape measure would later show that Bryan's blacktail buck green-scored 133 Boone and Crockett Club points.
Martin and Rhodes, whose tactics could come from the Army's Scout Sniper manual, credit their success to hard work and target practice. "Your deer hunt comes down to scouting and how far you're willing to go," Martin said.
Scouting, in these days of changing timber practices and road closures, is more important than ever.
Doug Gattis of Southern Oregon Game Busters (www.blacktails.net) is in tune with southwest Oregon's blacktail herd. Last year, his rifle and muzzleloader hunters took some good 3- and 4-point bucks that scored in the 120s and one dandy 4x4 that stretched the tape to 141 B&C points.
Weather made all the difference last season. Bluebird days are only good if you're looking for bluebirds, according to Gattis. His best hunts were made on the rainiest, snowiest, nastiest days.
Gattis is optimistic as he looks forward to the 2004 season. In his area, he is seeing more bucks, fewer mountain lion tracks, and where black bears are hunted, good fawn-to-doe ratios.
Moving north, spend your time on the higher ground on public lands and private timber property. If you hunt the central coast, you know that deer populations are down in the region. Scouting will be more important than ever. Don't just look for habitat, look for deer using the habitat, and look for tracks, rubs and trail crossings before you select a place to hunt.
Don VandeBergh, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been keeping an eye on local deer herds in northwest Oregon. According to VandeBergh, the Trask Unit has seen some of the same disease issues that have affected deer herds on the central coast. Best bets will be on timber company land and at higher elevations.
In the Scappoose Unit, expect to see fewer antlerless deer hunters this year. The department has been cutting antlerless tags, and opportunities for buck hunting will be average.
If you have private-land connections in the Willamette Unit and were fortunate enough to draw a 600- or 800-series tag, you're in for an interesting season. The ODFW lengthened the hunt this year to help reduce wildlife damage to vineyards, nurseries and farms. VandeBergh expects a high and steady harvest for Willamette Unit hunters.
Santiam Unit buck ratios are good, and some tremendous bucks are available, according to VandeBergh. Recent timber harvests have been low; don't expect to find many clearcuts to hunt. Spend a few weekends scouting feeding and bedding areas, then get ready to hunt from first light to last light when the season opens.
In western Oregon, deer are hunted with a general season rifle, archery or muzzleloader tag. Archery season runs Aug. 28 through Sept. 26. Bag limit is one buck deer with not les
s than one forked antler. The Fish & Wildlife Commission had not decided on antlerless hunts in time for this article. Bag limits in some units may change. If this occurs, look for a flyer specifying regulation changes at ODFW and license agents.
Bowhunters have three late-season hunts: Alsea, McKenzie, Santiam, Siuslaw, Stott Mountain, Willamette, and a portion of the Indigo Unit in the Willamette drainage will be open from Nov. 20 through Dec. 12; archers can also hunt from Nov. 6-28 in the Evans Creek, Melrose, Rogue and Sixes units; the Saddle Mountain Unit will be open to bowhunters from Nov. 20 through Dec. 5.
The West High Cascade buck season, a controlled rifle hunt, begins Sept. 11 and runs through Sept. 19. 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 runs Oct. 2-15 and reopens Oct. 23 through Nov. 5. Hunting in Wilson and Trask runs Oct. 2-15 and Oct. 21-Nov. 5.
The Coast buck hunt runs Oct. 2 through Nov. 5. Bag limit is one buck deer having not less than one forked antler.
For information on the controlled deer muzzleloader hunts, see the Oregon Big Game Regulations.
After a week of scouting and six days of hunting in the Ochocos, Bob Keffer was hoping to relax and rest his tired feet on Friday afternoon. But when his partners suggested that he come and help them make a drive, he said he'd go as long as it didn't involve a big walk.
Keffer made his stand at the bottom of a ravine, sitting on a fallen tree. From where he sat, he could see for about 200 yards through the lodgepole pine. He'd been sitting for the better part of an hour when he heard something coming.
He saw the tips of antlers above the top of a fold in the ground and thought for a moment that the drivers had pushed out an elk. Then he saw glimpses of color, as the buck put obstacles between himself and the drivers, and knew it was a big mule deer he was watching. Resting his rifle on the fallen tree, he waited for the animal to come through an opening in the timber.
The big buck was still on the other side of a slight rise when Keffer pulled the trigger. His first shot fell inches short, kicking a spray of rocks as the buck broke into a run. Working the bolt, Keffer chambered another round and swung. When the buck broke into another opening, the hunter put his crosshair on the tip of its nose and fired the shot that anchored the running deer.
Keffer picked his way through the blowdown and brush and knelt beside the fallen animal and waited for his partners to come along. Teamwork had paid off. When they finally measured the antlers back at camp, the tape read 27 inches from side to side and stretched to 20 inches high, making this one of the best bucks of Keffer's long hunting career.
The drought of the last several years is over and Oregon's mountain snowpack is well above normal. Water is abundant thanks to last winter's moisture, and the herds have been growing fat on the abundant forage.
Corey Heath, an ODFW biologist in the Bend office, keeps his finger on the pulse of the Paulina, Upper Deschutes, Metolius, Fort Rock and North Wagontire units. According to Heath, deer herds emerged from last fall in good shape with buck-to-doe ratios close to management objectives across the region. Last year's fawn crop (this year's spike and forked horn bucks) was decent going into winter. There is always some winterkill on our deer range, and this year is no different, but certainly it was not as bad as it could have been.
Deer numbers in the Upper Deschutes Unit are down, while the nearby Paulina Unit is in good shape. Look for the best numbers of bucks in the southern portion of the unit.
Much of the Metolius Unit burned last year, and many deer were lost to disease in the last couple of years. Hunters will find fewer deer in the Metolius Unit in the short term, but long-term prospects should improve as new growth takes over in the burned area. If you're set on hunting the Metolius this year, take heart: The mature buck component is high.
Hunters in the Fort Rock and North Wagontire units should find good numbers of deer again this year. The Wagontire is winter range for deer from the surrounding units. With more water available, some of those deer might just stay around till hunting season.
North-central Oregon is often overlooked because of the high percentage of private land. Those who do have access, however, know 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.
James Haley of Wild River Ranch (541-468-2900) hunts in the West Biggs, East Biggs, Beulah, Maupin, Fossil, Columbia Basin, Heppner, Murderer's Creek and Ukiah units.
Last season, Haley's hunters spotted some outstanding bucks on his properties, but met with high winds and high temperatures for the first days of rifle season. Things improved as the season went on, and Haley ended his season with a high percentage of success. Haley's hunters tagged several bucks that were over 27 inches wide, two over 28 inches, and one over 29 inches. The best buck was a long-tined 23-inch 4x4 that scored 176 7/8 B&C points.
Because last season's hunting was windy and dry, fewer bucks than average were taken in many units. However, Haley predicts an outstanding season this year due to the fact that a lot of last year's mature bucks are still out there.
According to Steve Mathers of Battle Creek Outfitters (541-389-0743), it may take a few years for deer in the driest eastern Oregon units to recover from last year's weather. But this year's moisture should improve the hunting in many other units this season. His hunters in the Beulah Unit found several 180-class bucks. Looking ahead, Mathers predicts good hunting in the Beulah, Malheur River and Owyhee units. Though the winter was hard, the snow didn't crust over, leaving browse available to deer on winter range.
Russ Morgan is a biologist with the ODFW in the Heppner Field Office. Drought over the last few years has kept deer populations depressed in the Heppner, Fossil, East Biggs and Columbia Basin. Heavy snow and cold temperatures may have had localized impact on some deer, but most of the winter range thawed faster than the snows in the forest. To offset the depressed fawn production, the department cut the number of antlerless tags. Hunters in these units are likely to see fewer deer this season, but may see more mature mule deer.
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. Fall buck-to-doe ratios in his region were at management objectives, with the exception of the Warner Unit, which saw fewer bucks in the herd than in previous years. Across the region, fawn-to-doe
ratios averaged 51:100 going into winter. Though a lot of snow fell across the desert, deer stayed in the hills, and Foster saw few signs of winter mortality.
In the northeast, white-tailed deer continue their expansion into the Sled Springs, Walla Walla and Minam units. For mule deer and big whitetails, hunt the high country.
Last winter's weather was not kind to northeast Oregon's deer herds. Todd Callaway, a biologist with the ODFW in the Baker region, has been keeping tabs on the Sumpter, Lookout Mountain and Keating units. An unusually dry summer and winter's deep, crusted snow hurt last year's fawns, making them vulnerable to predators.
In summary, eastern Oregon hunters will find mule deer and whitetail herds stable in most units. More moisture in the ground translated to abundant browse in the dry country and should offer opportunity across more territory.
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. 1.
In eastern Oregon, archery season runs Aug. 28 through Sept. 26. Bag limit is one buck with visible antlers. Check your Oregon Big Game Regulations for details.
The Hood-White River hunt will run Sept. 11-19.
Eastern Oregon's controlled buck centerfire season runs Oct. 2-15. 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 $23.95 (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.)
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