A decline in the hunting pressure in some of the essential Washington and Oregon deer areas coupled with deer numbers either stabilizing or slightly increasing in some of the most popular regions is laying a promising trail of whitetail, blacktail and mule deer tracks across Washington and Oregon.
Surprisingly, two consecutive summers of devastating wildfires in prime mule deer areas do not seem to be having a major impact on deer numbers. In fact, the fires may be responsible for a boost in the number of older 4-point bucks available this year, especially in Washington.
The blazes that roared across much of Okanogan County, Washington's premium mule deer region, and scarred other critical areas in both states east of the Cascade Range, appear to have discouraged or re-routed hunter turnout to other areas. Combined with early fall rains that generated late season forage in the blackened areas, and moderate winter weather conditions, the decrease in hunters resulted in fewer big bucks being harvested last year and a high survival rate for those bucks into this October.
On the west side of the Cascade Range it was the economy, not fires, that reduced hunter turnout in some of the biggest blacktail areas in the Northwest. Many timber companies that previously allowed public hunting shut their gates to anyone not buying an access permit. Those permits discouraged a lot of hunters and concentrated others on non-timber company lands. The result was a drop in blacktail buck kills, leaving a lot of spikes and 2-points to mature into branch antlered trophies and survive in the mountains, foothill jungles and alder bottoms.
Hunters that were willing to pony up the access fees found an unusually large number of big blacktails last year, especially during late November rut hunts, and are expected to find even more this year.
Several hunters who paid the fees told me that they've never seen as many 4-point blacktails on the tree farms as they did last year. That bodes well for big racks again this year.
That could also be good news for savvy hunters, without access, who stalk units adjacent to the fee areas.
Good news for whitetail hunters in Northwest Washington is that the decline in whitetail numbers may have leveled off. Last year hunter success ran above 30 percent in four hunting units, lead by GMU 108, where a full one third of the hunters got their whitetail.
The other three 30-plus percenters were GMU 121, at 31 percent success, and GMUs 111 and 105, both posting 30 percent success rates, compared to a statewide success ratio in the mid 20 percent range.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Deer and Elk Section Manager Jerry Nelson confirmed that, "Harvest has been gradually increasing in District 1 over the past two years, a trend expected to continue."
Fall surveys for the past two years, Nelson noted, also have turned up slightly higher buck to doe and fawn to doe ratios.
"Recent moderate winters have likely contributed to increased overwinter survival," Nelson advised.
The rebuilding whitetail numbers north of Spokane are likely to start encouraging hunting pressure this year, and WDFW game managers expect to see an eventual uptick in the total number tagged whitetails tagged, especially during the late season when tracking snow falls.
The blackening wildfires of the last two summers have hit hardest in Okanogan County, Washington's prized mule deer range. The extremely popular Pearrygin, Chiliwist, Chewuch and Pogue GMUs lost a huge amount of mule deer habitat. According to Nelson, WDFW's management plan for these unit "is to maintain a stable to slightly decreasing population in response to the landscape's reduced ability to support deer." The fires burned "huge tracts of critical winter shrub forage," Nelson said.
Loss of winter range deer browse is forcing WDFW to match herd size to browse availability by adjusting the deer harvest. Nelson said he's hopeful this will recover mule deer numbers in the area.
What didn't burn during the Carlton Complex fire in 2014 burned during last summer's conflagration. The saving grace, according to WDFW, was that fires occurred in mid summer, allowing two months of browse green-up before winter. Snow was deep in the Okanogan, especially the mountains around the Methow River deer-centers of Twisp and Winthrop, but mule deer winter kills appear to be average or less. Even more important, according to Nelson, there is "better than average mule deer fawn winter survivorship for the fifth time in six years. Post-hunting season surveys found 23 bucks per 100 does, which Nelson describes as a good balance.
As in the other blackened areas, hunting pressure bottomed out in this fire-scarred region last year, which should produce an unusually high survival rate of bigger bucks available this year.
"With the possible exception of GMU 209 (Wannacut), all units in District 6 support significant numbers of deer, include large blocks of accessible public land, and offer good to excellent deer hunting opportunity," according to the game manager.
What excludes GMU 209 from the "excellent" category is that it is the driest unit overall and has the highest percentage of private land where access can be difficult.
Mule deer, in particular, are abundant throughout the area, Nelson believes, with the highest densities occurring in the Methow River Valley and along the mountain divide between the Methow and Okanogan Watersheds.
Whitetail hunters, Nelson added, will find "largest (Okanogan) population in GMU 204-Okanogan East, where whitetails comprise about half of the overall deer population. Another whitetail hotspot is the central portion of GMU 215, particularly in the Sinlahekin River Valley and surrounding drainages. Although white-tailed deer numbers are less abundant in the western portion of the district, they are still found in most all drainages up to mid-elevations," he confirmed.
The game manager advised that, GMUs 215-Sinlahekin, 218-Chewuch, 224-Pearrygin and 233-Pogue produce 72 percent of the deer taken in the district.
A little farther south, along the east slope of the Cascades, Chelan County has become a destination hunt for many mule deer purists; many banking on drawing a coveted limited entry permit. This should be another great opportunity year for harvesting adult bucks in Chelan County, according to WDFW deer managers.
The agency's goal of 25 bucks per 100 does is being met and includes a high ratio of 4-point bucks. An impressive 67 percent of the bucks surveyed by the agency were 3- and 4-points, and 23 percent of all the bucks taken in Chelan County were high-racked 5-points.
Chelan County hunters have been having the best luck in GMU 247-Entiat, where they harvested 309 deer. And in GMU 248-Big Bend, on the southern edge of the Colville Reservation, 233 deer were taken.
More evidence that a good hunting season is on tap in the Chelan-Entiat area is last year's high fawn production, mild winter and average snow depth.
Farther south along the east slope of the Cascades, prospects are not as bright. The Teanaway, Colockum, Manastash, Clemans and Bethel Ridge areas are not recovering from several winter kills as rapidly as hoped. Hunting pressure is fairly high, and deer numbers fairly low.These areas are a mountainous complex of big timber and open sage with a mix of mulies and mulie-blackail cross breeds. You can find a good buck here, but you'll need to hunt hard, scout and be prepared to see mostly illegal spikes and fork- horns.
South of the Yakama Reservation, the East Klickitat Unit-382 has also not recovered from a severe weather hit several years ago. WDFW worries that the deer populations are going to remain low for another season or so. The West Klickitat Unit-578 blacktail population remains stable, along with Grayback Unit 388. But expect to hunt hard for a blacktail buck in the deeply forested mountains of Lewis River-560; Wind River-574 and Siouxon-572. Hunter success here runs 15 to 20 percent, largely because the clearcuts that a couple of decades ago provided ideal blacktail habitat and food are overgrown with mature trees that shade out critical forage.
If you're looking for a big blacktail buck during the extended season in November you should scout hard in Ryderwood-530, Lincoln-501, Winston-520 and Coweeman-550. WDFW believes these three units are "among the best in the state for black-tails."
Some of the biggest trophy bucks will be found on the logged timber company properties with lots of clearcuts where the number of hunters is limited and access fees are charged.
One of the most popular and productive blacktail units in the state is Weyerhaeuser's Vail Tree Farm. A maximum of 800 permits are sold at $250 each.
Hancock Timber Resources also requires an access permit for motorized access to the popular Kapowsin and Eatonville Tree Farms and the not-so-productive White River Tree Farm near Encumclaw. White River is now owned by Muckleshoot Indian Reservation and managed by Hancock. Permits vary from $250 to $375.
On the far southeast side of the state, some of the biggest mule deer bucks and hunter success ratios above 40 percent are developing in the sprawling private ranches and farms of the Palouse. These vast agricultural areas and horizon-to-horizon fields don't look like typical Northwest deer country but they support some of the biggest bucks in the state. In Steptoe GMU 139 for example of the 885 bucks taken 658 were 4- or 5- pointers. GMU 181, in the far southeast corner of the state, produced only 226 bucks. But 143 were 4-points or better.
The Mayview GMU 145 is almost all vast wheat fields, but success for rifle hunters with access runs to 50 percent — nearly double the state average. And some of these mulie bucks are huge. The trick is getting permission to hunt.
Unlike neighboring Washington, mule deer hunting in Oregon is entirely a permit draw for specific controlled hunting units. It reduces hunting pressure but makes getting a permit a gamble. Blacktail hunting west of the Cascades, however, is open to everyone with an across-the-counter deer tag. But, just as in Washington, timber companies here are starting to limit access and charge fees.
Whitetails are scarce in most of Oregon and off limits on all of the west side except for special permit holders allowed to hunt Columbian whitetails only in the Roseburg area. Columbian whitetails only recently recovered enough to be taken off the endangered species list.
The top whitetail hunting areas are on the far eastern edge, bordering the Snake River in Hells Canyon and the foothills of the Wallowa and Blue Mountains.
On the upside, Oregon has a lot of room to hunt. Sixty percent of the state is public, compared to 42 percent in Washington. And much of it is prime deer country.
Private-land fee programs are also having an impact in Oregon. Unlike the over-the-counter statewide deer hunting allowed during the general season in Washington, Oregon's eastern county mule deer areas are all controlled hunts, requiring permits awarded by drawing. General open seasons are found on the west side.
Hunting pressure on the east side is controlled by the number of permits allocated, and success runs 80 to 100 percent. For an example of why mule deer permits are highly coveted on the east slope of Mount Hood in the White River Unit, 20 permit-packing rifle hunters took 20 bucks. All but three were big 4-points or better.
Unfortunately, the limited entry mule deer hunts east of the Cascades drives unsuccessful permit applicants into the blacktail regions of western Oregon, along with over-the-counter general season hunters.
By far, the best public blacktail hunting is in the southwest units where hunter success is about 30 percent in the Sixes Unit. Almost a quarter of Sixes' bucks are 4-points. In the nearby Rogue Unit, 30 percent of the bucks dropped are 4-points — the highest in the state. The Rogue unit also produces more blacktails than any other unit in western Oregon — almost 1,400 at last count, but it also attracts almost twice as much hunting pressure of other units.
According to ODFW harvest counts the best chance to drop a blacktail will be to hunt in the southern and central coastal areas. Northern blacktail hunting in the Tillamook Bay, Saddle Mountain-Scappoose region is tough, and harvests are low.
An area to steer away from is the Santiam Unit where the number of hunters is over 8,000, the highest in the state. Success is 13 percent, which is the lowest in the state.
According to ODFW, the three best units to look for a blacktail buck are Sixes, Chetco and Melrose units, where a third of the hunters put brown on the ground and hunting pressure is among the lowest in the state.