By Andy Walgamott
For Washington deer hunters, the good news is that this is not fall 2015 – which is also the bad news.
Going into last year’s seasons, the state was a mess, what with massive wildfires, extreme drought and large-scale land closures, as well as bluetongue ravaging whitetails.
It was as if The Blob hadn’t satiated itself on salmon in the Northeast Pacific, so it sidled ashore and chewed on the Evergreen State.
Even so, we had some good things going in our favor in 2015: fantastic buck ratios in Okanogan and Chelan Counties; a late-starting and -ending 11-day rifle muley season; the end of the four-point minimum for whitetails in two super-popular units north of Spokane; and blacktail spikes newly available for harvest in several Westside units.
Those factors and others helped produce a harvest of just over 40,000 deer by general season and permit hunters of all weapons types, the best since 2004 and 10,000 more than as recently as 2011.
What’s more, rifle hunters enjoyed a 30.6 percent general-season success rate — better than any other year back through 1997, as far back as available state records go.
Well, we rocked.
This fall’s prospects look a little bit ’umbler, fellas. But there are bright spots. Here’s a comprehensive look around the state.
Riflemen were the primary beneficiaries of the end of antler restrictions in the Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North Units last season, harvesting 3,004 bucks during October’s and November’s general and rut hunts, nearly 1,200 more than just the year before. True, some of those probably were muleys, but not many.
The good news is that with stable buck-to-doe ratios and moderate winters, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Dana Base is predicting a continuation of recent years’ gradually increasing harvest in the overall district, which includes northern Ferry County, and most of Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties.
He says that overall, the whitetail population is increasing and mule deer are stable to dropping slightly. If there’s one concern, it’s that the September 2015 fawn-to-doe ratio was the lowest since at least 2001, though also not far below recent years. That means there may be slightly fewer spikes this season.
Also note that antlerless opportunities here are more restricted than the printed pamphlet states; see the online version at wdfw.wa.gov for this year’s limited any-deer hunts for youth, disabled and 65-plus modern firearms hunters. Most significantly, GMUs 101, 105, 108, 111, 113, 117 and 121 are only open for any deer Oct. 20-23.
Looking at each of his unit’s rifle harvest, hunter numbers and success rates, Base ranks Huckleberry and Douglas – between Colville and Northport – as best, followed by Aladdin – between the upper-upper Columbia and Pend Oreille – and 49 Degrees North.
SPOKANE, UPPER SCABLANDS, PALOUSE
Last year’s big but patchy outbreak of bluetongue in Michael Atamian’s district appears to have had an impact on 2015’s whitetail harvest, with fewer killed than in 2014, while the mule deer take also dropped, possibly because of drought two years ago.
Those could have continuing impacts this season, but Atamian’s not really worried about either population, especially with how fecund flagtails are.
“There are deer out there. They’re not gone from the landscape, like some are saying,” he says.
While generally among the most productive districts in the state in terms of deer harvest, public deer hunting ground is limited to the Swanson Lakes and Revere Wildlife Areas, chunks of BLM and a few larger pieces of Corps of Engineers habitat lands along the Snake.
“The one general advice I give to every hunter looking to come over to the Palouse or Channeled Scablands is that there is little public land and it is hit hard, so if they can secure private land access they will have a better hunt,” Atamian tips.
It’s pretty late in the game, bub, but take a peak at his agency’s Private Lands Hunting Access page (wdfw.wa.gov) for properties you might reserve or Feel Free To Hunt lands.
BLUE MOUNTAINS, FOOTHILLS
Generally speaking, deer hunters have seen slowly to slightly rising harvests in the core of this wildlife district in Southeast Washington, while the game units on the fringes along the Snake have declined slightly.
Local biologists say last year’s bluetongue outbreak primarily hit whitetails on the east side of the district, but they term it “mild.”
Mule deer numbers are described as stable to increasing outside of the heart of the Blues, and even though this country is better known for elk, it isn’t all that far behind the Okanogan overall in terms of deer production.
Try the state lands available below the forested heights. The Tucannon, Blue Creek and Peola Units average .8 bucks or better killed per square mile.
WESTERN COLUMBIA BASIN
Speaking of the Okanogan, it’s famed for its migratory muleys, but not so well known is that Columbia Basin herds also make significant seasonal movements. If conditions push deer out of their summering areas to the northeast and east, that can help hunters in GMUs 272 and 284, Beezley and Ritzville.
The drawback is that this country is mostly private, so you’ll need to do some knocking to access the larger, rough-country spreads the deer will use.
Biologist Rich Finger expects this year’s prospects to dip slightly due to depressed fawn:doe numbers two years ago – this year’s 21/2-year-old bucks. They were down as much as 38 percent in the Ritzville Unit, he reports.
In the Beezley Unit, hunters will want to be aware of a large fire that burned near Wilson Creek.
“Scouting is always a good use of time, but for the Black Rock Fire area especially, I would recommend that hunters who hunt south of Marlin or Wilson Creek (specifically, south of State Route 28 from Road S to Batum Road) scout conditions before hunting in this area,” Finger tips.
BENTON, FRANKLIN COUNTIES
It may be the polar opposite of what you think of as classic Washington mule deer habitat, but the southern end of the Columbia Basin actually is important ground for the species.
Muleys use the Kahlotus Unit as wintering ground, and according to Jason Fidorra, the local wildlife biologist, they begin arriving around the start of October’s rifle hunt, though late muzzleloader may present even better numbers if we see a harsher fall.
Coming out of last season, the buck-to-doe ratio sat at 17:100, a notched tag below the 10-year average, and as for this season, the herd’s fawn production in 2014 was as high as it’s been in over a decade, and that means decent numbers of those 2 1/2-year-old bucks on tap.
The unit’s strong success percentage — 33 percent last fall — is due to the counties’ wide-open spaces and high percentage of private ground.
If you don’t have permission to hunt agricultural or rangeland areas, WDFW points to two units of the Sunnyside-Snake River Wildlife Area (Thornton and Rattlesnake) and BLM ground in the Horse Heaven Hills, Fidorra tips.
If I just see a deer this month up at Deer Camp, I’ll be happy.
OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement, but to say we Okanogan riflemen enjoyed a bang-up season in 2015 would be the exact opposite. We killed 2,616 last October, 800 more than the previous year, and the overall general season harvest was 3,603 – the best in more than 20 years, which takes us all the way back to the days when any buck was legal.
Ahem, it also trimmed the posthunt buck-doe ratio back from 23:100 to 16:100.
“So no, I do not expect a repeat of last year,” says district biologist Scott Fitkin, who adds, “but it should still be a decent season.”
He points to better-than-average recruitment last year, which should translate into fair numbers of 21/2-year-old three-points this fall. And the still-decent buck ratio plus the good grits growing in those older, larger burns such as Tripod and Farewell, means the county will produce some studs this season.
Why last October was so good is something of an enigma.
“The most truthful answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” says Fitkin. “Yes, the season dates – particularly the late start (last year’s hunt ran Oct. 17-27) – contributed, but probably not as much as it could have given the mild weather we experienced during the general. I suspect the extreme drought was a primary driver, but I’m not sure exactly why. One theory is that with the forage base parched even up high, and with many high-elevation water sources dried up, deer may have just started moving to winter range a bit early in hopes of finding better conditions.”
Those environmental conditions weren’t repeated in 2016, but for the second year of three, there are two extra days of mule deer hunting that puts the end of season all the way back to a half hour past sundown Oct. 25. As someone who took advantage of that last fall (OK, desperately needed it to avoid another winter of tag soup), that second weekend and two weekdays could be worth it to catch early migrants to the winter range.
The Wannacut and Chiliwist Units enjoyed the highest success percentages last year, 35 and 32 percent, roughly, but Okanogan East gave up the most bucks, 866. The district’s largest unit, it hosts mule deer and whitetails and there is a good amount of public land in it above the valleys.
CHELAN, DOUGLAS COUNTIES
Just as elsewhere in the central core of Washington, hunters on either side of the Columbia around Wenatchee and Chelan did well in 2015 – a 33 percent increase versus 2014 – and that will probably affect the availability of bucks this year.
“Harvest of older age-class deer should be flatter in 2016, given success rates last year,” reports biologist Dave Volsen, “and hunters should expect leaner buck numbers than 2015.”
Where Chelan County grows the bulk of his district’s deer, Volsen reports that on the Douglas County side of the river, the herd is growing and should provide “excellent” hunting this year. Bucks tend not to live as long east of Highway 97 as west of it due to the more open nature of the country, but that side isn’t all wheat. It hides more publicly accessible land than a glance might suggest.
But that said, the Entiat, Chelan and Wenatchee Valleys are famed for their bucks and high percentages of national forest. Volsen says that despite last year’s large harvest, buck numbers should bounce back pretty fast.
After a long series of depressed deer harvests, Yakima and Kittitas County hunters saw an uptick last year – at least by the numbers. Wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz has his grains of salt ready, but notes that three very mild winters and a herd slowly building back from the exotic louse infestation may have helped grow a decent year-class of bucks.
Sadly, drought and a harsh winter took a heavy toll on does, which has ramifications for next year’s season.
As for this one, Bernie says that the Teanaway, Manastash and Umtanum Units are typically the most productive, and that probably won’t be very different this season.
Expect another harvest of around 2,500 bucks in Klickitat, Skamania and Clark Counties, says biologist David Anderson.
He says the take here remains “remarkably consistent” from year to year, but does note that he expects better hunting in East Klickitat, thanks to improving buck numbers.
That area includes new state lands in the Simcoes, part of an ongoing purchase of private timberlands east of Goldendale. This year that ground will be open for walk-in hunting off Box Springs Road near Bickleton, but Anderson says next year it could become a permit-only hunt, like the Eder Ranch in the Okanogan and 4-O in Asotin County.
Where Eastside biologists do their best to count the herds twice a year, it’s a different story on the Westside, where blacktails hunker in the thick brush and make gauging year-to-year populations impossible. Still, there are certain factors we can look to for trends.
In the Cowlitz Basin and along the southern leg of I-5, wildlife bio Eric Holman expects favorable harvest trends in his district to continue, thanks to warm, dry springs that have made life easier on fawns in recent years and mild winters that have helped out the overall population.
His units are among the state’s best for blacktail, and if this year is like others, the Ryderwood, Lincoln, Winston and Coweeman will be the most productive.
That said, while there is state land in each, unless you’ve been living in a hermetically sealed box under a rock inside a cave the past few years, you know that you’ll need to pay to play to access the best hunting lands, which in this district are generally owned by Weyerhaeuser. At press time, some motorized and walk-in permits were available to the various tree farms. See wyrecreationnw.com.
Holman also suggests using his agency’s GoHunt site to research where to go, and next year you might even consider putting in for the chance to hunt with a bow, rifle and muzzleloader.
“If you just keep getting out there and giving yourself more and more chances for something good to happen and be ready to execute when the opportunity arises, you’ll do well,” he says. “I believe that this is part of why our multiseason tag holders are so successful – they have a lot of chances and sometimes good results happen when you give yourself a chance and you’re ready to take advantage when it arises.”
MT. RAINIER, FOOTHILLS
With tighter controls on access to lower-elevation private timberlands, longterm data trends are showing a slowly decreasing harvest across Thurston and Pierce Counties and the Vail Tree Farm in Lewis County’s Skookumchuck Unit. The flip side is that success rates have generally climbed and the days needed per kill have declined.
Much of biologist Michelle Tirhi’s district is owned by Weyerhaeuser and Hancock Timberlands (hancockrecreationnw.com), which require permits to access – bad news on the Vail Tree Farm, it sold out long ago – and while she says that many hunters oppose that system, they’re also adjusting to it.
If you’re a holdout, there are fair-sized blocks of state and federal land east of the Vail, and north and south of National and Ashford.
The counties along this hook-shaped fjord have seen improving harvest stats in recent years, and last year’s removal of the two-point minimum in the Skokomish Unit yielded a significant bump. That was probably a one-off, but this year’s hunt should continue trends.
“Generally, I suspect pretty similar prospects for blacktail hunters in my GMUs this year,” says biologist Bryan Murphie.
He says that with populations pretty stable thanks to the weather, for hunters it all comes down to habitat changes and “detectability.”
“I look for areas that offer a good mix of 3- to 10-year-old stands, mature timber (40 to 50-plus years that contain Douglas fir, big leaf maple and sword fern, as the most obvious plant species), and riparian habitats. If the area you like to hunt is dominated by stands that are older than 12 years, as hard as it is to change it up, it is probably time to find a new favorite spot. Deer will still use these areas; it just becomes harder to see them in the denser vegetation and eventually deer numbers will decline.”
He also looks for land behind locked gates and notes that where you find good sign – “tracks, trails, rubs, etc., chances are you’ll find a buck. The challenge is figuring out the best way to hunt that particular spot.”
CENTRAL, SOUTH COAST
It’s not that there aren’t any deer on the saltwater side of Anthony Novack’s district between the Quinault and the Columbia, but you’ll find better deer hunting inland.
The best units by harvest are Capital Peak and Wynoochee. The former offers a large chunk of state land while the latter is primarily private timberland owned by Green Diamond, Rayonier and Weyerhaeuser and requires access permits.
“Deer harvest should remain stable although, I wouldn’t be too surprised if we saw a decline in the harvest of spikes,” Novack reports. “Last year’s drought and hot weather might have impacted the survival of fawns. WDFW biologists assisting with research on blacktail deer found a few fawns that died of unknown causes last year. Multiple mortalities occurred during the height of the drought.”
Amy, I knew we should have bought that house on acreage on Maury Island!!
In perhaps one of the most unusual statistics in the 2015 game harvest report, riflemen killed more bucks on 37-square-mile Vashon-Maury Island (81) than the much larger Issaquah Unit (63), as well as more per square mile than the sprawling Snoqualmie Unit (134) in the Cascades and foothills!
Now for the 15,000,000.45 caveats, asterisks and footnotes needed to fully explain that single sentence.
The short version is that hunting on the island(s) is limited to farms whose owners are fed up with blacktails nibbling on their crops, and King County’s Island Center Forest, where 200 acres are available to hunters (no rifles, but other firearms are OK).
The Issaquah Unit, while being managed for a liberal harvest, is primarily a pavement and no-scary-weapons zone, but there is some public ground outside the firearms restriction area in the southern end of the unit. Otherwise, you’ll need to get permission from folks who own larger blocks of land that might be partially treed and covered in fields.
As for the Snoqualmie Unit, rule out everything east of a line between Mt. Si and Mt. Persis and you should have a good starting point. Next, get yourself a pass from the latest owners of the Snoqualmie Tree Farm (this month it’s Campbell Global) and head into the clearcuts.
“Hunters should focus on early seral forests (less than 30 years old) adjacent to mid- (40 to 80 years old) or late successional (greater than 80 years old) stands,” tips district wildlife biologist Chris Anderson in his hunting prospects. “Additional emphasis should be placed on riparian forest habitats that provide ample forage and cover.”
NORTH SOUND COUNTIES
While camping this summer in the San Juans with my fam and father-in-law we hiked all over Lopez Hill Preserve, and I’ll admit that my aim was not just to stretch my legs but to size up its hunting possibilities. True, we didn’t see any blacktails — I blame our two chatterboxes and the dog — but I liked the layout of the forest and trail system.
Elsewhere in the archipelago and on those two vast piles of glacial detritus, Whidbey and Camano Islands, there are similar scattered plots of public (BLM, DNR, county public works) and sorta-public land (a community forest) that are viable options if you can’t get permission from local residents to depress their deer herds (albeit temporarily).
If you plan on hunting the BLM land on Lopez, you’re advised to check in with the San Juan Islands National Monument in Lopez Village (37 Washburn Ave.; 360-378-2240).
The state’s large share of Cypress Island is also huntable, but accessing it is a bit of a challenge.
Wherever you hunt in da islands, remember to check on weapons restrictions, be considerate of other property users, help maintain hunters’ reputation and record the right game management unit when you file your report at the end of the season. Practically every island, wave-washed rock and reef up here has its own GMU these days.
On the mainland, the North Sound Unit was, by harvest stat, the second most productive in all of Western Washington last year and provided four out of every 10 bucks killed in Skagit, Whatcom and the bulk of Snohomish Counties.
“The drastic difference in harvest rates between GMU 407 and other GMUs within the district is related to the number of hunting days available, deer densities, and ease of access,” noted Fenner Yarborough, the Skagit-Whatcom district wildlife biologist, in his annual hunting prospects document. “GMU 407 provides hunting opportunities that the other GMUs do not and today’s hunters have learned to adapt to this and take advantage of it.”
If, however, you prefer to do your deer hunting more than 2.66 miles from the nearest latte stand and outside of earshot of I-5, you will want to hit up the DNR, Sierra Pacific and other actively logged timberlands in the foothills of the Cascades. Be warned, it may take awhile to pattern, let alone spot, the secretive blacktails that haunt these managed forests.
For a shot at trophies or more secluded hunting, skip over the midelevation national forest and peer into alpine basins. A certain correspondent recently told us about watching an eye-popping number of bucks in one drainage … though getting to them was another matter.
Our last stop is the northern Olympic Peninsula, but really more like the eastern end of the Straits. Blacktail populations west of the Elwha are described as “generally sparse,” and while some blacktails are available, the harvest in the drier Coyle and Olympic Units stands above the West End’s wet brush.
Coyle fronts the saltwater and while it is entirely a firearms restriction area, unlike some of the other Westside spots with similar rules, it actually has large swaths of hunting areas. Pope Resources opens much — but not all — of its lands along Highway 104 between the Hood Canal Bridge and Disco Bay for walk-in hunting.
The Olympic Unit is much larger with more public and private timberlands, and biologist Anita McMillan says its middle and lower elevation areas have “high densities” of deer. Again, seek out those managed forests and use WDFW biologists advice on where to look for blacktails.
Whether you’re heading into the woods around Quilcene, the hills out of Clarkston, the woods around Colville or anywhere else in Washington this season, hunt safe and good luck!