While we shared breakfast at a Northwest Outdoor Writers Association conference in Bellingham, Wash., accomplished hunter and outdoor writer Gary Lewis of Bend, Ore., confided in a casual tone, "I've discovered the secret to successful deer hunting." A clatter of silverware and coffee cups falling to tables was followed by a tense silence as Gary continued: "Hunt where there are a lot of deer."
Gary was right as rain, as usual, and that's why he gets paid big bucks to present seminars about how to bag big bucks. But I'm not as smart as Gary, and last year I ignored his wisdom and tried to think for myself. Bad idea.
I reviewed the state's big game hunting statistics and discovered a unit on the Snake River that offered easy-to-draw tags, yet few other hunters to compete with, excellent success rate, high buck ratios, a good percentage of mature bucks in the harvest, and more than 90 percent public land.
Sound too good to be true? See, you're smarter than I am, too.
"What's the catch?" I shrewdly asked the district biologist.
"There aren't many deer in the unit, so that's why there aren't many tags," he explained, "and it's almost all wilderness with few access points, so most of the successful hunters use horses."
No problem, I thought. My legs can go anywhere horse legs can go.
But alas, I not only lacked horses and horse sense, I didn't even have enough horsepower to tow my trailer anywhere near the trailheads. So I went home empty-handed, feeling like the south end of a northbound horse.
As always, there are lessons to be learned from my mistakes.
A unit that produces a high success rate but low harvest may support low deer densities, and most of its successful hunters are those with access to private land or horses to reach miles into the backcountry.
Conversely, a big annual harvest with a low success rate indicates a unit that's over-crowded and over-hunted, generating far more tags sold than tags punched, although wildlife managers prefer to use the euphemism "managed for opportunity, not quality."
Units that boast both a great success rate and a huge annual harvest are few and far between in both Oregon and Washington, but several units stand head and antlers above the rest in the most recent big game harvest statistics for each state.
Washington deer hunters should note that the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission recently approved two more days added on to the end of the modern firearm season for mule deer. At the request of hunters, WDFW evaluated harvest numbers and hunter-participation rates and agreed to add two extra hunting days.
The commission also added back some antlerless deer opportunities in northeast Washington, where antlerless hunting had been restricted following some harsh winters. Those herds now show signs of recovery.
Washington offers early and late general season hunts in many units for bow, muzzleloader and modern firearms, as well as some premium limited-entry opportunities for which the controlled hunt drawing is held in the spring. If you have a general season tag and the freedom to choose the unit you will hunt, here's a roundup of Washington units that could provide your best bets for bagging your buck.
Located along Interstate 5 just east of Centralia and Chehalis, the Skookumchuck Unit (667) provides an expansive hunt area that stretches east into the southern extreme of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Its harvest of 1,498 bucks in 2013 ranks at the top for western Washington general season hunting opportunity, as does its 36 percent success rate for modern firearms. Its tally of 475 archery bucks is tough to top, as well.
A good portion of the unit is private timberland, to which access can be obtained with a permit. Logging creates open forage areas in the unit, and the associated network of forest roads provides easy access.
Local WDFW biologist Warren Michaelis reported that the mild winter in the area has produced good overwinter survival, and the result could be more young bucks available this fall.
"I think this year is going to be a good year for hunters," Michaelis said.
Three contiguous units in northeast Washington — Huckleberry (121), 49 Degrees North (117) and Mt. Spokane (124) — produce some of the better annual deer harvests east of the Cascades. These three units combined for more than 3,000 bucks in the general modern firearms seasons alone.
About half national forest land, 49 Degrees North produces both mule deer and whitetail in its annual harvest, which was 614 bucks for modern rifle general seasons in 2013.
Huckleberry and Mt. Spokane, which in the 2013 modern firearms general seasons yielded 974 and 1,649 bucks, respectively, have almost no federal land, and the vast majority of the bucks taken are whitetails that come off private land, including some private timberland that is open to public hunting.
"In any of our units that don't have much national forest land, hunters need to get out and scout and ask for permission to hunt before the season starts," said WDFW biologist Michael Atamian. "Don't just drive up the day of your hunt."
Farther south in the Palouse and Snake River country, the adjoining Steptoe (139) and Prescott (149) units stand out with nearly identical harvests (665-687 modern firearm bucks) and success rates (42-44 percent).
Both units are expansive and offer a variety of habitat to hunt, from whitetails in the wheat fields to mule deer in the desert. The harvest in Steptoe is close to an even split between the two species.
Land ownership is across the board, from BLM to state land to private property enrolled in the private lands access program.
Oregon's deer harvest appears to have finally leveled off after a 20-year decline since the Northwest Forest Plan reduced logging on federal lands and Measure 18 banned the use of dogs to hunt cougars. Disease outbreaks in certain areas haven't helped.
Despite the decline, a few units have fared better than others in terms of deer harvest. Eastern Oregon firearm hunts are all limited-entry. But for those lucky enough to draw tags for these units, as well as those who have general season bow tags or western Oregon rifle tags that offer a choice of units to hunt, here's a look at units that may offer your best shot.
You want big harvest numbers? Go Rogue. Southwest Oregon's Rogue Unit blew the doors off with 1,396 bucks in 2013 and a marginally respectable harvest rate of 19 percent. The 7,292 Rogue hunters put in 48,313 days to take those bucks, making the Rogue one of the hardest hunted units in the state, trailing only the Santiam, which is more than twice the size of the Rogue.
You want high success rates? Go West, young man. The Chetco and Sixes units on the south coast have generated success rates the last two years between the mid-30s and low 40s, which are off the charts for general season blacktail rifle hunts.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District wildlife biologist Mark Vargas called the Chetco and Sixes "sleeper units" that attract less hunting pressure because they are a fair distance from population centers. Access is a key difference in these two units; Chetco consists of 82 percent public land, while only 29 percent of Sixes is public ground.
The Rogue and Sixes units also offer late-season general archery opportunity.
The Trask Unit on Oregon's north coast is an average-sized unit with an above-average harvest and success rate. In 2013, 5,093 hunters tagged 1,046 blacktail bucks in the Trask Unit for a 21 percent success rate. Compare that to the popular Santiam Unit on the other side of the Willamette Valley, where 8,055 hunters bagged 959 bucks for a mere 13 percent success rate.
"Trask is a productive unit," said Don VandeBergh, ODFW biologist at Sauvie Island. "It's got both Willamette Valley habitat type and coastal habitat type, which I think really helps deer populations find a mix of habitat and expand into it."
VandeBergh said bucks may be reclusive during that October window between shedding their velvet and entering the rut, but he noted that where you find does, you will find bucks the last two weeks of the rifle season.
The Trask Unit is 42 percent public land, offering plenty of access to that diverse habitat. In addition, ODFW biologist Herman Biederbeck in Tillamook notes that timber companies such as Stimson and Weyerhaeuser allow access to private timberland that has been more actively managed than most federal land.
Biederbeck also advised that a good portion of the unit is steep with deep draws, and hunters should be prepared for rugged terrain.
Farther south on Oregon's coast, the Alsea Unit continues to offer some of Oregon's most productive black-tailed deer hunting. The Alsea yielded 928 bucks and a 21 percent success rate in 2013.
ODFW wildlife biologist Doug Cottam in Newport shared that the east half of the unit is generally more productive than the west half. The southwest corner in particular is better elk country than deer country. "It's more forested and it's harder to hunt," Cottam explained.
Like the Trask, the Alsea is 42 percent public land. Private timber companies such as Plum Creek, Hancock and Starker offer some public hunting access, but it's greatly restricted during fire season, and Cottam noted that can affect the entire early archery season and a portion of the rifle season. The Alsea also offers a late archery season that runs Nov. 21 to Dec. 13 this fall.
White River Unit
The limited-entry White River Unit in north central Oregon hosts an intriguing mix of habitat where blacktail and mule deer range collide in the rain shadow of the Cascades. A migratory herd of deer descends from the National Forest land on Mt. Hood to the winter range in the lowlands, where the White River Wildlife Area acts as a buffer to keep deer away from agricultural crops. White River hunters enjoyed a 48 percent success rate in 2013 while taking 818 bucks. Public land comprises 43 percent of the unit.
ODFW district biologist Jeremy Thompson in The Dalles notes that deer do not arrive in droves at the wildlife area until the end of rifle season, and that hunters must hunt the forested upper elevations to find deer until the migration begins in mid-October. He also cautioned that ATV use is tightly restricted in the unit.
"Interstate has been a good solid unit," said ODFW district biologist Craig Foster in Lakeview. "We've had 30-35 percent success and buck ratios over management objective."
Though well east of the Cascades, the limited-entry Interstate Unit is about 90 percent timberland, and some of the best hunting happens where the 56 percent public land interfaces with private agricultural lands and private timberlands, on which public access is offered by Access & Habitat properties owned by JWTR and Green Diamond.
"The private timberland has a good forage component, and the forested areas offer cover," Foster explained. "Hunt on the edge where they meet, and you may do well."
Oregon's limited-entry Heppner Unit, where the Columbia Basin meets the Blue Mountains, offers easy-to-draw tags and a fair amount of public land (34 percent), where hunters in 2013 tagged 938 bucks for a 33 percent success rate.
In addition to the public ground, the unit is home to the year-round 40,000-acre Heppner Regulated Hunt Area, which was around long before private land access programs became trendy.
Most of the deer available to the public are taken in forested areas of the unit, according to ODFW district biologist Steve Cherry in Pendleton, but hunters in the grassy foothills find success by running deer to each other.
For an overview of public hunting access on private land in Oregon, visit oregonhuntingmap.com.