Category Archives: Editor’s Blog

The Buck

Editor’s note: This morning I received the following text from a buddy out in the woods in search of a bruin or wapiti but who ran into another critter he likes to hunt.

By Eric Bell

It starts with a sound.

Deer season in my unit has come to end but I find myself up here this morning pursuing other game. Mainly it’s for the exercise, but there’s always a chance of coming home with a bear or elk.

A RUTTY BUCK RUNS THROUGH A STREAM. (TERRY WIEST)

I passed another hunter on my way up, both of us exchanging pleasantries and cursing at the steep climb we have just made. He’s after bear and is not too familiar with the area, so I give him directions on where to try since I’m going further back.

Now I near an abandoned spur road that holds a lot of memories and personal history — losing a machete as well as a slip-on recoil pad on my rifle. The brush is thick.

I hear a noise. I know what it is. It’s the same sound I wanted to hear during my unsuccessful deer season that ended 10 days ago.

A part of me wants to see what materializes out of the brush and another part is reluctant.

This time I don’t prepare my rifle or binoculars. I don’t drop down to my knees. I don’t unholster my revolver.

I can’t. Season is over. So I stand there and do the only thing I can. Watch.

Sure enough, two gray bodies filter through the brush.

First is a doe, and hot on her heels is a magnificent four-point buck.

She spots me and blows her warning. He doesn’t care. He’s interested in only one thing and it isn’t me.

Both stand below me at 15 yards and I can’t take my eyes off of him. Seeing a mature blacktail buck in rut in his realm is an amazing sight.

His scent is strong as his odor reaches me. I’m in awe and I’m cursing him at the same time. Where were you hiding 10 days ago?

I slowly get my camera ready to take some pics, but the doe doesn’t like the movement and she starts to walk off. The buck isn’t going to let her get away. He pursues.

Two gray bodies moving through the brush.

I continue on further back.

It all started with a sound.

‘A True Washington State Public-land Giant’–The Story Of Jake Fife And His Muley

Written by Jake Fife

It all started in late June, that time of the year when unwavering excitement comes over so many hunters across the state, myself included, as we anxiously await the draw results.

I sat there with my info typed in, waiting to press the login button in hopes of finally seeing “selected” as I was starting to see some posts trickle in. I held my breath like I do every year, expecting to see “not selected,” but after 16 years of applying and never drawing a deer tag I finally saw it: Selected!

WITH AN UNOFFICIAL GREEN SCORE OF 234 7/8 FROM A LOCAL TAXIDERMIST, JAKE FIFE’S NONTYPICAL CENTRAL WASHINGTON MULE DEER TOWERS OVER THE STANDING STATE RECORD, A 203 3/8 BUCK FROM CHELAN COUNTY TAKEN IN 2008. FINAL MEASUREMENTS CAN BE TAKEN AFTER THE DRYING PERIOD ENDS, NOV. 10. (JAKE FIFE)

I knew I had my work cut out for me, as I had very little experience in the unit. But as a school teacher, I knew if I ever drew the tag, I would have a lot of time to scout over summer in hopes of making up for that.

I made it out on my first scouting trip on July 21st and spent the better part of the next five days scouring over different areas in search for a mature buck. But over the course of the next five days it began to sink in that this wasn’t going to be an easy hunt, and I really wasn’t seeing the amount of animals I had hoped to, though it was 100-plus degrees out every day by lunchtime.

About the author: Jake Fife was born and raised in Selah, Washington, by Angie and Gary Fife, and graduated from high school there in 2009. Jake has always been an outgoing guy who loved to play baseball, hunt, fish, spend time with family and friends and be outdoors. After high school he accepted a full ride to play baseball while continuing his education to earn his Bachelor’s Degree. Jake graduated from Central Washington University in 2014 and is currently a PE teacher at Naches Valley High School, where he is also the head varsity baseball coach for the Rangers.

So after a week or so of seeing a few scattered bucks here and there I decided it was time for a new game plan – not only to keep checking other areas but essentially I wanted to start gridding the whole unit. I figured eventually I’d have to run into some big deer somewhere … right?

It wasn’t until my ninth day of scouting that I finally found an area where I began seeing consistent numbers of deer, though not “the one.” About the time I was thinking “There’s got to be big bucks in this area; where are they?!” I encountered a beautiful tall four-point that was probably a 170-inch deer. That got me extremely excited, as it was the first “shooter” I had seen. I thought, “Well, that’s a buck I would be proud to take,” but it was getting later in the morning and now I was eager to keep following these big deep draws and glassing into them in hopes of seeing some more deer before it got too hot out.

Within the next 10 minutes I had gone maybe another 500 yards and run into a bachelor group of six bucks – “Whoa, that’s a nice buck, there’s another nice buck, and another, and a couple smaller ones.”

THOUGH NOT AS WELL KNOWN FOR MONSTER MULEYS AS OTHER WESTERN STATES, WASHINGTON NONETHELESS PRODUCES A FEW. RECENT YEARS’ WHOPPERS HAVE INCLUDED THE TRIPOD BUCK AND OTHERS FROM OKANOGAN COUNTY, AND A 9X12 FROM THE SOUTHERN SCABLANDS. (JAKE FIFE)

I WAS REALLY STARTING TO FEEL GOOD about finally seeing some nice bucks. Then out of nowhere, a different deer stood up and immediately caught my attention. I thought,” Whoa! That’s a real big buck.”

It wasn’t until I pulled up my binoculars for a good steady look that my jaw instantly dropped: Oh my god … There he was! The biggest, most majestic, beautiful deer I had ever laid eyes on, in perfect velvet at 150 yards looking at me. All I could see was a massive body, massive frame, and points sticking out everywhere! I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I instantly called my best friend and hunting partner Trevor Dallman and told him I had just found the buck I wanted to shoot. I tried to explain to him what the deer looked like but just couldn’t find the words. Giant? He was a giant.

With my hunt starting in exactly two weeks I can’t even count how many hours I spent driving out to this area in hopes of seeing the deer again and possibly start trying to figure out his pattern. Over 10 or so trips and countless dollars worth of gas money, I was able to narrow in on the buck’s home, but found he just wasn’t patternable. He was a wanderer; he rarely would get water from the same place or even be working the same trails, and often times he was with a couple other nice bucks constantly watching each other’s back. I finally concluded that my best option would probably be to spot and stalk him after he had bedded down in the morning after he was done feeding.

FIFE WATCHED HIS BUCK FOR DAYS ON END, HOPING TO PATTERN IT, BUT SAYS IT WAS SOMETHING OF A WANDERER. (JAKE FIFE)

I glassed, and glassed, and glassed, so much so that I thought some days my eyes were going to bulge out of my head, but I just couldn’t stop looking at this buck! I tried to keep tabs on him every day leading up to the first day of the hunt. I’d rush home after work to grab my gear and head out to the hills, then come home in the dark. It made for some long, tiring days, but I knew it would all be worth it if I somehow was able to get it done on this deer.

I was infatuated, obsessed. I would lay in bed at night thinking about hundreds of difference scenarios that could happen, losing countless hours of sleep thinking about this buck, and waking up the next morning for work extremely tired – but looking forward to going back out in search of him again that evening.

FAST-FORWARD TO OPENING MORNING. I was exhausted when my alarm went off because I literally don’t think I was able to get even five minutes of sleep the entire night. Restless, the scenarios had played over and over in my head, as I couldn’t stop thinking about hopefully being able to harvest this buck.

As the sun started to rise on the first day of the hunt I began to see a few deer popping up, and about 15 minutes later there he was. I watched him feed for a couple hours before he bedded down in a draw – by himself!

“This is too perfect,” I thought. For once he was alone, but then again so was I, without a spotter. I’d left the truck on my first official stalk of this deer and he was in a prime location.

As I drew closer and closer to the top of the brushy draw he was bedded in it began to sink in. I just might pull this off on the first stalk on opening day! At that point I figured I had to be within 100 yards of the deer, but he was bedded in some thick stuff and I couldn’t see him. Still, I had pinpointed the bush he was laying under, or so I thought. I ranged the patch of sage at 70 yards.

“Alright, this is good,” I told myself. I had the wind at my face and needed to cover another 20 or so yards, then stand him up at 50 yards. I took that first step and out of nowhere he stood up behind a different sage – at 30 yards!

We locked eyes, then I tilted my head down as subtly as I could and got my release on the string. I pulled back to full draw, but as soon as I got to full draw he took off – gone, not stopping and not looking back.

I sat down as quickly as possible to watch and see where he might go only to watch him disappear two ridges over. I couldn’t believe what I had just done. I had blown it; I had ranged the wrong bush and had no idea I was within 30 yards of him at that time.

“Wow,” I thought, “that might be the only chance I get.”

I looked and looked for him until nightfall to no avail. My stomach churned all day; I was sick: I couldn’t eat or even drink anything as I replayed my screw-up over and over. Driving home that night, I was having a little bit of a pity party for myself when it dawned on me: “Hey, it’s only day one. I’ve got a lot of time and now is not the time to feel sorry for myself or give up. I am determined, I will find this deer again.”

And I did.

AFTER AN INITIAL CHANCE AT THE BUCK ON THE FIRST DAY OF HIS HUNT, FIFE AND THE DEER PLAYED A GAME OF “CAT AND MOUSE” FOR MORE THAN A WEEK AS THE BOWHUNTER TRIED TO LINE UP ANOTHER CHANCE AT IT. (JAKE FIFE)

FOR THE NEXT EIGHT DAYS I PLAYED cat and mouse with this buck, often times getting within 100 to 120 yards of him, but with no play from there. I often ended up sitting in a bush for hours, roasting in the sun only to see him get up and feed over a knob and out of sight. Some days I would glass for hours before he stood up and showed himself; some days I would find him in 10 minutes. Most days he was with three other bucks and I had no play. They would bed up out in the open or be strategically bedded to where there was no way I could get in close enough.

I decided I wanted to play this one the right way. It would have been easy to just go put a stalk on him every time I saw him, but I knew I needed to be smart, patient and wait for the perfect moment, especially after already bumping him pretty hard that first day. I prayed to God for one more chance to find him by himself again. “I won’t screw it up it this time,” I told myself, “I can’t screw it up this time.”

September 10th, day 10 of the hunt, I got to my usual glassing spot and spotted something sticking out of the brush that just didn’t look right. As I looked closer I could see a bright, blood-orange-colored rack, freshly rubbed velvet towering out from behind the sagebrush – that’s him! He had rubbed most of his velvet off throughout the night and it was as fresh as it gets. I watched him feed, then rake his horns on and off every five minutes for the next two and a half hours. It was amazing to see him darken his horns up in that short amount of time! And I was hoping this just might also be the perfect time to get him – he was by himself!

Just as I went to leave the truck for my stalk I spotted a doe and a fawn feeding right where I needed to walk in the bottom of the draw – not good – so I waited another 10 to 15 minutes to head out. Luckily, they fed up and to my side of the draw above the buck about 20 yards.

I knew I had to slip below the does first and thought that if I could make it past them, I would be getting close to the sagebrush I had marked to shoot from. I discussed the game plan with my hunting partner Trevor: I had perfect wind coming up the mountain and I needed to stay right in the bottom of that draw. It was time!

Equipment Used:
Bow: Bowtech Carbon Knight
Arrows: 300 Spine Black Eagle Spartan
Broadheads: Radical Archery Design Ti Con 125
Sight: Spot Hogg 7-pin, Cameron Hanes Edition
Rest: Ripcord Ace Pro
Release: Scotty Mongoose XT
Binoculars: 12×50 Vortex Viper HD Binoculars
Spotting scope: Vortex Viper HD 20-60×80
Clothing: First Lite Llano Merino Crew Top and Kanab 2.0 pants in Fusion Pattern
Boots: Cabela’s Instinct Pursuitz
Pack: Horn Hunter Full Curl System
Rangefinder: Nikon ProStaff 550
Knife: Outdoor Edge Razor Pro
GPS: Garmin 62S

I made my way down the mountain, staying out of sight, and noticed I had a steady 5 to 7 mph wind coming up the draw I was working down – perfect. Once I figured I was about 150 yards from the buck I took my shoes off and continued inching my way through the bottom of the brushy draw, ignoring the cheatgrass and stickers burying themselves in my feet, and kept going. I crawled on my hands and knees just low enough to slip by the other deer – I could literally see their ears as I belly crawled below them, moving about an inch a minute.

After 10 agonizing minutes I made it past them and came into a deeper pocket of the draw, where I was able to stand and take a breath to try and calm my nerves. About that same time I glanced over and noticed the bush I had marked to shoot from; I was only 15 yards from it! The adrenaline kicked right back in and I could feel my heart pounding and beating through my ears. As I took my first step towards the sage, all of the sudden a jackrabbit exploded out of a bush right next to my foot and took off down the draw and ran right by the buck!

PERSISTENCE AND PATIENCE PUT THE BOWMAN IN POSITION FOR ANOTHER SHOT AT THE BUCK, BUT NOT BEFORE TWO OTHER DEER AND A JACKRABBIT  NEARLY UPSET HIS PLAY. (JAKE FIFE)

I stood still praying that the deer wasn’t going to blow out; luckily, he was still there but he had his head up and was alert, so I waited another minute or two for him to relax. As I snuck up to the bush just uphill out of the draw I could see his antler tips but couldn’t get a range on him because 1) there was too much brush in the way, and 2) I’ll admit, I was shaking like a leaf. I decided that wasn’t going to work, so I spotted a little sagebrush on the opposite side of the draw that looked parallel and was able to range it at 43 yards. I figured the deer was right at 40.

“Okay, here we go; this is it,” I told myself, “don’t screw this up!” I pulled back my bow while crouched behind the bush and then stood up and took a half step out from behind it. Immediately the buck whipped his head right towards me. We locked eyes but I was still pretty hidden by the bush, so we had what had to be a 10-second stare down. All I could see was his head and rack, with my 40-yard pin right between the eyes. There was no way I was taking that shot, and I was also starting to get shaky and wasn’t in the best posture or balance for a shot.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting for the buck to stand my bowstring tried to jump on me! In that moment I instantly realized that things weren’t going to work as is. I picked up my left foot from behind the bush to get a firmer stance, stood up tall and planted myself rock steady at full draw, knowing he might dart out of his bed and I’d have no shot.

I stayed locked in on my 40-yard pin and he stood up and stomped his foot down. As soon as he did that I let fly with a perfect broadside/slight quartering-away shot. I watched my arrow fly true, hitting perfectly right behind his shoulder and disappearing! I smoked him! Perfect shot!

(JAKE FIFE)

I WAS PRETTY SURE IT WAS A PERFECT LETHAL SHOT, but soon realized it wasn’t all said and done as I had hoped. The deer took off like a rocket, showing no signs of being hurt whatsoever. I called Trevor and told him I’d smoked him and thought it was for sure a lethal hit, though if anything it might have been a bit low. “Better a bit low than high,” I thought.

For the next half an hour I searched all over the draw for my arrow and blood. Nothing. What … ?

I really started to get in my own head and second-guess what I knew I had seen. I couldn’t find the arrow, but then I spotted the tiniest little specks of blood towards the top of the draw. By that time I was getting worried. Trevor asked if I was sure I’d hit him because the buck had run like no other, but said he did seem to slow down and look hurt right before he lost sight of him going into sagebrush over a little knoll. In addition to second guessing because my spotter hadn’t seen the deer go down, I got a bit paranoid thinking of the worst possible things, like I had somehow missed vitals or something. I knew what I had seen, though: It looked good.

TWO MORE ANGLES ON THE FIFE BUCK. (JAKE FIFE)

(JAKE FIFE)

I told Trevor I was going to wait another 30 minutes, then at 12:30 I would have him lead me down to where he last saw the buck. After what was the longest hour of my hunting career had finally passed, it was time to go find this buck. I followed an almost nonexistent blood trail for about 250 yards. I was getting close now, tip-toeing in hopes the deer would be dead and I wouldn’t bump him into the next county. I got to 20 yards from the sagebrush pocket and knew that if he was alive he should have gotten up or I should have seen him by then. I took a few more steps and then couldn’t believe my eyes: There he was, laying under a sage, even bigger than I had ever dreamed of him being.

I looked back up the mountain to Trevor and raised my arms. I had done it! I had finally harvested the buck I had been dreaming of and spent so much time focusing on. After all the video, pictures and time behind the spotting scope glassing this deer he just kept growing on me. I was in shock; I was overjoyed; I felt so many emotions I didn’t even know what to say or think. He was a giant – an absolute Giant of a buck – and I was so thankful I had the opportunity to harvest this deer, let alone even see him and be able to hunt him.

JAKE FIFE AND HUNTING PARTNER TREVOR DALLMAN POSE WITH JAKE’S BUCK. (JAKE FIFE)

Trevor made his way down to the deer and I, and I gave him a giant hug and we just stood there in astonishment looking at the deer. We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing and retelling our perspectives of the hunt. After taking what seemed like a hundred pictures it was time to get to work, as I am very particular about making sure to take care of the meat quickly and properly. We were able to get the buck packed to the truck within the next hour and a half and it was all done.

This hunt will be forever etched into my memory as I got to share it my hunting partner. We have been fortunate enough to share a lot of success over the years and I look forward to hopefully many more in the future, but I think this one will always stick out. A true Washington state public-land giant. I am so very humbled and thankful I was even given the opportunity to hunt and harvest this deer. The hunt of a lifetime, The Buck of a Lifetime.

Notes: The buck was scored by Todd Peyser of Peyser Taxidermy the day it was harvested, September 10, 2017. It green gross-scored at 234 7/8ths. Three inches of deductions put it at 231 7/8ths green score net. It had 45½ inches of mass. It will be taken back in after the 60-day drying period on November 10th to be scored again and get the official score.

ONE LAST LOOK AT JAKE FIFE’S 2017 WASHINGTON PUBLIC-LAND GIANT. (JAKE FIFE)

Editor’s note: I’d like to personally thank Jake Fife for sharing his story and photos with us, as well as Mark Bove, Jake’s friend, for working on getting it to us. Thank you, fellas!

Game Pole Starting To Sag With Nice Eastern Washington Muley Harvest

Eastern Washington mule deer hunters appear to be having a decent October, if images sent to Northwest Sportsman this month are any indication.

It’s hardly the final word and it’s impossible to compare it with previous falls, but my photo files hold more than a few critters from the 509 taken by muzzleloaders and riflemen.

And with this morning’s arrival of an especially tall-tined buck in my inbox, I thought I’d share some success pics from our readers

(NOTE: If you’d like to contribute to the game pole as well as appear in our annual Big Game Yearbook in the February 2018 issue, shoot me an email with pics and details at awalgamott@media-inc.com!)

Here’s more from 2017’s harvest so far:

Never give up! On his last morning afield, Andrew Noreen spotted this beefy Okanogan County buck. He says it green scores in the 180 to 190 range before deductions, and weighed a hefty 210 pounds after gutting. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

A 320-yard shot led to a notched tag for Craig Westlin on the Oct. 14 opener. He was hunting in Southeast Washington with Deadman Creek Outfitters. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

A long drive from Grays Harbor to the Okanogan paid off for Brian Blake with this nice buck. Blake is a state representative who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees WDFW-related issues. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Two for two! Grace Smith is off to a heckuva start with her hunting career, tagging this Ritzville doe on the opener after last year bagging a good four-point. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Here’s another look at Dave Anderson’s stout Okanogan buck, taken well away from the madding crowds outside Winthrop. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Let’s not forget the muzzie guys, especially not this kid! That’s Lane Leondard, 20, with his seventh buck in seven years, four taken with a rifle and three, including this Douglas County bruiser, with a smokepole. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Hunting eastern Grant County, Michael Cook bumped into this late afternoon muley. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

The Benson family is going to be eating well this winter after father Jeff tipped over this wide-racked Walla Walla County buck … (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

… And son Jack followed up with this good muley still sporting a bit of velvet. The 11-year-old was toting a .243 and had just completed hunter ed last summer. He thanked landowners for allowing youths on to hunt their property. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Nic Belisle got it done in the Okanogan on opening weekend while hunting with friend Chuck Hartman … (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

… Who in turn notched his own tag with this three-pointer the next day. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

There’s luck, and then there’s luck, and it’s never a bad thing either way. Let’s just say, John Calvert didn’t have far to cart this three-point after downing it over opening weekend. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Jeremy Jones put in a lot of effort on the opener hunting north-central Okanogan County, but it wasn’t until he was headed back to camp that he spotted this nice buck off the road and put the sneak on it to make the shot. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

No, we didn’t get ’em all this month — this big Prescott GMU buck decided against taking the usual backwards glance at Chad Zoller and his son, who was lined up for a shot if it had. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Expect A Mixed Bag For Washington’s 2017 Rifle Elk Seasons

Washington riflemen will find fewer spikes in some herds, but more bulls in others as seasons open later this month and next.

Editor’s note: This is an expanded version of an article that appears in the October 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.

By Andy Walgamott

There are high notes and lows in this season’s Washington elk forecast for fall’s modern firearms seasons.

On the plus side, the North Willapa Herd is cranking out lots of bulls and the Mt. Rainier herd is increasing.

On the negative, the Yakima, Colockum and Blues Herds have fewer spikes due to drought and winter conditions in recent years.

Here’s what state wildlife biologists have to say about this fall’s hunting:

Kalee Brown, then 19, bagged her first elk and game critter on 2015’s Eastern Washington elk opener, this spike. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

SELKIRK MOUNTAINS

Washington’s whitetail heartland also holds a fair-sized elk herd – just don’t come here armed with tactics from elsewhere in the 509 or think it’s a slam dunk.

Official word from state biologists Dana Base and Annemarie Prince is that hunting this thickly wooded corner of the state is “no small challenge,” words they actually bolded in their annual game prospects. Backing that assertion is a table they created showed that rifle hunters harvested between .02 and .05 elk per square mile in most units in recent years, and as few as .002 in the westernmost unit of their district, Sherman.

Thomas Jimeno of Spokane gave up on elk hunting about 10 years ago after six unsuccessful seasons, but last year a friend wouldn’t take no for an answer, so they hit Pend Oreille County’s woods where but he managed to hit this six-by-seven on the move, dropping the bull within 50 yards. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If there’s good news, it’s that the small, scattered herds weathered last winter, so hunters should see similar numbers of elk and kill around 200 or so this year, half during the general rifle hunt.

By harvest stat, Selkirk, 49 Degrees North and Huckleberry account for three-quarters of the modern firearms take and all three units offer good amounts of actively managed timber and locked gates, which create refuges from pressure for elk but don’t bar walk-in access.

Douglas might be worth a sniff too, as the unit between Colville and Northport featured the fewest days per kill (45.6) of all the district’s units last year and highest hunter success of the past three (8.8 percent).

Wherever you hunt, beating the thicker, heavier, marshier cover may pay off better than watching clearcuts in hopes of catching a bull out in the open at this stage of the season.

2016 general season harvest: 240 (rifle: 115, archery: 81; muzzleloader: 32; multiple weapons: 12); Top rifle: Huckleberry, 29; top success percentage: Douglas, 8.8; lowest days per kill: Douglas, 45.6

More info: District 1 Hunting Prospects

MT. SPOKANE, PALOUSE

It’s easy to dismiss the Palouse and Spokane area for elk – at least until you look at the harvest stats and realize that District 2 gave up more wapiti than all but one other Eastern Washington zone, Yakima and Kittitas Counties.

No, it’s not your average week at Elk Camp, but last year, 171 general season modern firearms hunters tagged out on bulls and cows, a 13.2 percent success rate. Granted, there’s very little public land overall, but in Mt. Spokane and Mica Peak there’s some access through state and Inland Empire Paper lands.

A small herd of elk roams across a marsh portion of the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. (TURNBULL NWR)

Elsewhere, it boils down to farmers and ranchers signed up through the state’s various private lands programs. Elk numbers are said to be expanding in Almota and Steptoe, in south Mica Peak and northwest Mt. Spokane, so establishing a rapport with landowners experiencing crop damage might pay off. Also consider looking into the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Management Association’s hunting program.

2016 general season harvest: 287 (rifle: 171; muzzleloader: 77; archery: 35; multiple weapons: 4); Top rifle: Mica Peak, 59; top success percentage: Mica Peak, 19.6; lowest days per kill: Steptoe, 19.1.

More info: District 2 Hunting Prospects

BLUE MOUNTAINS

The Blues are the traditional elk hunting grounds for many Southcentral and Southeast Washington residents, especially those from Tri-Cities, and undoubtedly many will return this fall. Unfortunately, the prognosis is not all that good for wapiti season, no thanks to the same long, snowy winter those same citizens suffered through.

According to biologist Paul Wik, it caused a “significant decline” in elk numbers, especially among calves. Surveys this spring turned up just half the five-year average of young elk, an estimated 466 versus 998, meaning there will likely be half the number of spikes roaming between Walla Walla, Pomeroy and Asotin for general season hunters. Branch bulls were down too, and that could affect coming years’ permit levels, Wik adds.

A snowfall covers the wall tent at the Blue Mountains elk camp known as Scoggin Hole in late October 2009. The extended Scoggin family has set up on the east side of the range since, you guessed it, 1937. (LARRY SCOGGIN)

Though elk do roam out into the wheatfields all the way to the Snake River Breaks, the public lands units are where state managers want to keep the herd. Dayton and Tucannon on the northwest and northern sides of the Blues are the primary producers, followed by Mountain View and Lick Creek. They’re yielding between .11 and .22 spikes a square mile for rifle hunters in recent years, and Mountain View had the quartet’s highest success percentage in 2016, 6.6, as well as 2015’s, 10.2. How well that holds up this year remains to be seen.

Tucked on the south side of the famed fall steelhead river, the eponymous Grande Ronde Unit offers an even higher success percentage and good amounts of public land but very tough access. It’s pretty much all straight up, whether you try and tackle it from the Snake, Ronde or Joseph Creek Road.

Whichever unit in the heart of the Blues you hit, Wik has three key pieces of advice: Bulls typically will move to “north aspect, mid-slope timbered hillsides” right after the opener; scour topo maps and glass the breaks for benches elk will lay up on during the day; and don’t overlook walking gated roads on open lands.

And tuck this away for future years: Where 2015’s Grizzly Bear fire in the wilderness Wenaha Unit burned more lightly may have helped clear out rank forage, improving the quality of elk feed.

2016 general season harvest: 112 (rifle: 56, archery: 39; multiple weapons: 9; muzzleloader: 8); Top rifle: Mountain View, 14; top success percentage: Grande Ronde, 16 (small sample); lowest days per kill: Grande Ronde, 22

More info: District 3 Hunting Prospects

NORTHCENTRAL

There aren’t many elk in the northern half of the east side of the Cascades or the Okanogan Highlands, but those that do reside here can mostly be found at either end of the region, where the Selkirk and Colockum Herds bleed over.

The Mission Unit of southern Chelan County produces a harvest on par with the best of the Blues units, 26 last year for riflemen, for a 7 percent success rate. Biologist Dave Volsen says the animals roam throughout Mission, but you’ll probably have better success in the rugged wooded uplands around Blewett Pass and southeast of Mission Peak in the headwaters of Stemilt and Colockum Creeks.

This fall a large herd has been causing issues near Havillah, but unfortunately this is mostly private land and the elk were primarily cows in this any-bull country.

2016 general season harvest: 58 (rifle: 35; muzzleloader: 12; archery: 11); Top rifle: Mission, 26; top success percentage: Wannacut, 15.8 (small sample); lowest days per kill: Wannacut, 14

More info: District 6 Hunting Prospects
More info: District 7 Hunting Prospects

Michelle Schreiber at Verle’s in Shelton tagged out in 2012 with this special permit bull near White Pass. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

WESTERN YAKIMA COUNTY, COLOCKUM

There’s trouble in the Eastside’s top elk district, a double whammy from two successive years of bad weather for wapiti. The drought of 2015 left elk in poor condition going into that winter, resulting in higher mortality, and last winter of course was rough in not only the Blues but the South Cascades too.

Two years ago also saw a harvest of nearly 2,000 cows, highest of the past 10 years, undoubtedly depressing fecundity. Year over year surveys saw the Yakima herd decline from 10,856 to 8,326 in early 2017, the Colockum from 5,087 to 4,672.

As you can imagine, the calves took the brunt of the weather beating, leading to the “the lowest numbers ever seen in the district,” reports biologist Jeff Bernatowicz in his game prospects. “This does not bode well for general season spike hunters, as fewer calves seen on February/March surveys means fewer legal elk in the fall.”

Antlerless tags have been dramatically reduced for this year in western Yakima County, where Kylie Core, 15, of St. Maries, Idaho, toppled this cow last November with a single shot from her .30-06-caliber Ruger bolt action. Her family has been hunting the area for four generations. (DAVE WORKMAN)

Still, there will be spikes running around out there, and, no, the Yakima herd doesn’t all skip across the Cascades to get away from hunters with Eastside tags. Bernie reports that most elk stay on the 509 side and his hunting prospects this year includes the peregrinations of several radio-collared cows, which the spikes tend to run with, during fall’s seasons. The data does show many locations up where the Pacific Crest Trail treads, including the Norse Peak Wilderness, which saw a big fire this summer, and the William O. Douglas Wilderness to the south.

A WDFW map shows the locations of Yakima Herd collared cow elk in early to midfall. (WDFW)

But there’s also plenty of activity on either side of the border between the Bumping and Nile and Bumping and Bethel Units, southeast side of Rimrock, southwestern corner of Cowiche and the central portion of the border between Little Naches and Manastash.

Locations in the Colockum strongly cluster on the northern edge of Naneum, its central core in the canyon, and along its edge with Quilomene and throughout the upper two thirds of that unit.

A photo collage from Matt Paxton shows he and friends enjoyed a good hunt in the Little Naches Unit during 2013’s season. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

As ever, the key to elk hunting this country is the weather. No matter what happens, higher units’ harvests are typically stable, the biologist reports, but get some heavy weather and that can push the herds in a hurry to the feeding grounds, opening up opportunities. The timing of the rifle season and recent autumns haven’t been too conducive for that, however.

2016 general season harvest: 1,226 (rifle: 571; archery: 522; muzzleloader: 98; multiple weapons: 35); Top rifle: Quilomene, 122; top success percentage: Quilomene, 9.4; lowest days per kill: Quilomene, 46.7

More info: District 8 Hunting Prospects

SOUTH CASCADES, COWLITZ BASIN

Just like elsewhere across the southern belt of Washington, elk here suffered through a long, cold winter, and biologists estimate that the Mt. St. Helens Herd declined 30 to 35 percent. That’s not a small drop – bios say the elk here don’t typically have the fat reserves to get them through harsher winters like we just saw. The Willapa Herd wasn’t surveyed in 2017, but it isn’t affected by winter like mountain elk are, and recent years have shown stable to slightly increasing numbers, which should probably contribute to a season not unlike last year.

Hunting since she was 8, Amber Kolb tagged out in 2015 with this big Southwest Washington bull, taken on a special permit and while hunting with her dad, grandfather and a family friend. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Between Districts 9 (Clark, Skamania and Klickitat Counties) and 10 (Lewis, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum Counties), rifle hunters bagged 765 elk last November. Ten’s overall, all-harvest tally was just shy of 1,500, just about the same as the previous three seasons but less than half of 2012’s concerted effort to decrease the size of the Mt. St. Helens herd through special permits.

The South Cascades’ top rifle units by kill last year were Lewis River (139 bulls), Winston (112), Ryderwood (86) and Coweeman (78). The opening of the Margaret in 2015 produced an immediate windfall, but last year’s harvest tailed off to 40, though most were four-point or better animals and the 11.8 percent success rate was second only to Mossyrock (16.2 percent). That said, Margaret is entirely owned by Weyerhaueser and most of Mossyrock is as well, so you’ll need a permit (wyrecreation.com/permits; some were available at press time early last month).

2016 general season harvest: 1,790  (rifle: 765; archery: 585; muzzleloader: 347; multiple weapons: 93); Top rifle: Lewis River, 139; top success percentage: Mossyrock, 16.2; lowest days per kill: Mossyrock, 28.7

More info: District 9 Hunting Prospects

SOUTH COAST

Good numbers of bulls – not so good numbers of big ones. That might be the summary for elk in the hills above Grays Harbor and Willapa Bays.

“Both calf-to-cow and bull-to-cow ratios for the North Willapa Hills herd area are exceptionally robust, indicating a highly productive herd with great harvest opportunities,” notes biologist Anthony Novack in his game prospects.

Bobby Wilson out of Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands harvested this nice bull near Naselle early in 2014’s season. Friend Kevin Klein sent the pic. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Spring surveys found bull ratios in Fall River, Lincoln Minot Peak and North River at 20:100 cows, well above the goal of 12:100, but again trophy critters were scarce – “Only one mature bull was seen during the entire survey,” Novack reported.

Williams Creek produces one of the Westside’s best harvests – 111 mostly four-points and .436 killed per square mile last year – and does have some state lands at its northeast and southwest sides.

2016 general season harvest: 642 (rifle: 281; archery: 236; muzzleloader: 86; multiple weapons: 39); Top rifle: Williams Creek, 111; top success percentage: Long Beach, 20 (small sample); lowest days per kill: Copalis, Long Beach, 26.5 (small samples)

More info: District 17 Hunting Prospects

MT. RAINIER

Expect harvest on the lower flanks of Washington’s highest mountain to continue its upwards trajectory as elk herds here increase. Since 2008, the all-weapons kill has doubled to more than 400, according to biologist Michelle Tirhi’s preseason prospects. Note that the Muckleshoot Tribe did undertake feeding in the White River Unit this past winter.

Hunting on an antlerless tag in the Mashel Unit west of Mt. Rainier late last season, Brennon Hart bagged his first elk with a 120-yard shot from his Knight Ultralight and a 300-grain Smackdown Bullet. He was hunting with his dad, Randy. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Tirhi points to public lands surrounding Mt. Rainier National Park as prime spots to patrol for elk heading for winter range, including high-elevation roads on its north and east sides, as well as walk-, ride- and bike-in state forestlands on its southwest corner. Lower still, Hancock-managed timber in White River (permit only) and Mashel are called out as good bets. There are also increasing elk issues in the lowlands, but access is pretty tough and there may be firearms restrictions to contend with. Indeed, muzzleloaders have been doing particularly well in Thurston and central Pierce Counties.

2016 general season harvest: 404 (muzzleloader: 136; rifle: 121; archery: 120; multiple weapons: 27); Top rifle: Mashel, 35; top success percentage: Deschutes, 23.2; lowest days per kill: Deschutes, 13.8

More info: District 11 Hunting Prospects

REST OF THE WESTSIDE

Elk are increasing not only in the Skagit Valley but the Snoqualmie, with more showing up down near Duvall. The caveat is that this all farmland of one sort or another, there are firearms restrictions and the archery boys have been sniffing around the herd. Keep an eye out next year for the possibility that the Cascade Unit will open for elk – not that there are many here. On the Olympic Peninsula, bull harvest in the Clearwater and Pysht Units have been increasing, but in most others it’s been flat or declining this millennium.

Ryley Absher, then 16, bagged this bull in eastern King County during 2012’s season with a Remington 700 in .30-06. His dad reported that after four days of watching the elk, it finally gave him a shot opportunity. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

One final note on Westside elk: With confirmation of treponeme-associated hoof disease in Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, King and Mason County elk, the ban on transporting hooves from a kill site is now in effect in North Sound, Nooksack, Sauk, Issaquah, Mason and Skokomish, Units 407, 418, 437, 454, 633 and 636. That’s in addition to all units in Clark, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Lewis, Pacific, Thurston and Pierce, most of Grays Harbor and northern Skamania Counties. The idea is to try and slow or halt the spread of the disease. NS

2016 general season harvest: 347 (archery: 128; rifle: 104; muzzleloader: 99; multiple weapons: 16); Top rifle: Clearwater, Satsop, 17; top success percentage: Coyle, 20 (very low sample); lowest days per kill: Coyle, 12

More info: District 12 Hunting Prospects — King County
More info: District 13 Hunting Prospects — Snohomish County
More info: District 14 Hunting Prospects
— Whatcom, Skagit Counties
More info: District 15 Hunting Prospects — Mason, Kitsap, east Jefferson Counties
More info: District 16 Hunting Prospects — western Clallam, Jefferson Counties

Some Puget Sound Pink Salmon Runs In Trouble

This year’s low return reminds us that despite the explosion of odd-year salmon in increasingly developed Pugetropolis, humpies are still affected by floods, ocean conditions.

Editor’s note: This is an expanded and updated version of an article that appears in the October 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.

By Andy Walgamott

You may not recall Sunday, October 20, 2003, but it sticks in my memory for two reasons:

1) At shooting light – or what passed for it that gloomy-ass day – while sitting in the rain under a leaky poncho I flubbed an excellent opportunity at a nice Methow muley due to the puddle in my scope.

2) Indeed, it rained like hell that day – several inches there in western Okanogan County, 5 inches at SeaTac Airport, 10 and change on the slopes of Glacier Peak.

I went home venisonless; on the other side of Washington’s North Cascades, freshly dug Skagit River pink salmon redds were utterly destroyed.

Yes, it’s all ancient history now, but if you’re wondering what happened with Puget Sound pinks this year, the Day of the Deluge is a useful starting point.

A Duwamish River pink salmon thrashes on the end of the editor’s line during 2015’s run. Humpies bit amazingly well in the salt and rivers that year, masking what was a smaller run that was then hit hard by repeated floods, leading to this year’s forecast of just over 1 million, the fewest expected in Puget Sound in nearly 20 years. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

THAT FALL, SOMEWHERE around 867,000 humpies made it back to the gravel on the Skagit and its tribs. (Just under 310,000 were harvested beforehand.)

By Oct. 19, most had spawned and were well on their way to assaulting the olfactory organs of everyone from Mount Vernon to Marblemount.

Then Oct. 20’s atmospheric river hit. An atmospheric river is what meteorologists call the long, continuous band of moisture that gets sucked out of the central Pacific and is jet streamed to the Northwest, where it becomes terrestrial rivers that run willy-nilly. (Pineapple Expresses are those that originate near Hawaii.)

Floodwater, silt, sand, trees – all sorts and manner of debris washed away or covered the redds.

It was a disaster for Skagit pinks. Two years later, 2005 saw a run of just 83,000 limp back to the mouth of the river, with an escapement estimate of a mere 60,000.

The next run of the odd-year fish improved, with 300,000 hitting the gravel, though harvest actually declined to roughly 15,000, state stats show.

It wasn’t until six years after the big flood, 2009, that the Skagit was back in business as a prime producer of pinks, thanks to a run of 1.6 million.

The U.S. Geological Survey gauge for the Skykomish, an undammed river pouring out of the Cascades east of Everett, shows the four fall 2015 floods that hit pink and other salmon species’ redds. Scientists say repeated scour events like these are increasing to the detriment of the fish. (USGS)

FALL 2015 WAS not unlike Oct. 20, 2003, in several ways. It didn’t see one monster flood; it saw four big ones, all again after that year’s pinks had spawned. The first downpour arrived on Halloween, with another two weeks later, followed by a third just four days after the second, and the last coming in mid-December.

Flood heights vary by river system and where each storm hits, of course, but to use the Skykomish as an example, 2015’s quartet crested at Gold Bar at 70,000 cubic feet per second, 60,000 cfs, nearly 100,000 cfs and 80,000 cfs, respectively. Not all-time records, but not insubstantial either — flows on the South Fork were the third highest on record. The average for the Sky that time of year is between 3,000 and 4,000 cfs. Systems controlled by dams saw similar surges.

The Northwest is of course floodprone, especially in mid to late fall as the jet stream migrates back south for the winter and we get rain-on-top-of-snow events the deeper into the season we get. Salmon have evolved to deal with that, spreading their spawning runs out, but scientists say we’re seeing increasing numbers of sharp flow fluctuations this time of year. That’s not good news for fall salmon – even for pinks, which have adapted to spend very little of their lifespan in freshwater.

“Nooksack, we have a preliminary estimate of 24,000. Just barely got done with surveys there. We are not done (theoretically) with spawning surveys on the Skagit, but by the time we can get back visibility, the fish will likely be done spawning. Doesn’t matter, it’s bad. Best guess is about 40,000, but don’t hold me to it. Last night’s storm probably wiped half of what spawned. Upper Skagit tribs all blew up. Sauk blew up … We have a huge hole to dig out of now.”

–WDFW Nooksack-Samish-Skagit Fisheries Biologist Brett Barkdull, October 19, 2017

Fall 2015’s four floods probably had an outsized impact on pinks for two more reasons. If you recall, that year was the height of the Blob, which really ought to be a four-letter word around these parts for what it did to Northwest fish, wildlife and habitat. That year’s run was starved at sea, and so they came into Puget Sound smaller than usual. The females produced fewer eggs. It’s also likely the fish weren’t able to dig as robust redds as usual.

Meanwhile, the previous winter had been warm, with rain falling even in the high mountains, leading to a failed snowpack, with spring and summer runoff setting new all-time lows. By fall, pinks had no place left to lay their diminished supply of eggs except in what essentially was the middle of river channels, where scour is typically greatest. And scour the floods did that fall. This year’s paltry preseason forecast of 1.1 million pinks is largely a reflection of that, say state biologists.

That’s not to discount the ocean, so important in the pinks’ lifecycle. While the Blob faded and we rejoiced, as it turns out, it left the Pacific with a massive hangover – species in the wrong places, prey-switching up and down the coast – that also affected this year’s Columbia Basin sockeye and steelhead runs. Unlike those stocks, however, pinks are almost entirely wild, so how long it will takes the runs to rebuild is a good question.

A WDFW graph shows the brief spike of Puget Sound pink salmon returns in the mid-1960s and the spike in the 2000s as South Sound rivers came on line as the basin’s primary pink producers. (WDFW)

WE WERE SPOILED beyond imagination, we Puget Sound pink salmon anglers, by the flood of fish. We had it good – better than good. We witnessed the most productive and greatest expansion of humpy fisheries of the modern era. It is unlike anything seen in the Northwest salmon world.

Since 2001, the Dawn Of Humpydom, in which yours truly recalls sitting in a leaky canoe off downtown Snohomish with a friend and utterly killing it one day, this millennium has provided a streak with no equal in WDFW records that stretch back to 1959.

There’s just a single spike in pink runs and catches in the 40 years between the end of the Eisenhower Administration and the end of the Clinton Administration, and a whole lot of blah not unlike this year’s forecast and fisheries.

Outside of 1963’s where-in-the-hell-did-that-come-from? run of 7 million, the best years produced 2 million and change, while the worst years – 1969, ’75, ’81, ’97 – barely reached half a million or fell decidedly short of that mark.

But starting in 2001 with Humpzilla and Humpzilla’s slightly bigger brother, Puget Sound became the Bristol Bay of the humpy world.

We saw returns of 3.8 million pinks that year, 3.3 million in ’03, 2 million in ’05 and 3.2 million in ’07, when the standing state-record 15-plus-pounder was caught.

Then things really got sideways: ’09, 10.3 million; ’11, 5.3 million; ’13, 8.75 million; and ’15, 3.7 million. Those last four runs alone – 28 million fish – roughly equal how many returned between 1961 and 1999.

State records for pink salmon started falling fast in 1999 when in the month of August alone, at least seven topped the standing saltwater record, then in 2001 freshwater records started toppling before Adam Stewart set the benchmark at 15.4 pounds in 2007. (WDFW)

The explosion of salmon primarily occurred in three rivers. While the North Sound’s Snohomish, Stillaguamish and Skagit had long accounted for all but the tip of the pinks’ hump when it came to production and harvest, South Sound rivers suddenly came into their own.

There is literally no catch data for the Duwamish until 1999 when five dozen pinks were recorded. That figure and all those in this section include sport, commercial and tribal catches in the river and marine areas. It was followed by 790 in 2001, then 8,646, 18,491, 30,249 and in 2009, things went nuclear – 393,806.

There appears to have always been pinks in the Nisqually and Puyallup but numbers didn’t blow up until recent years. All of one fish was recorded as reaching the former river during 2001’s run, but by 2013 it produced a harvest of 101,676. The Puyallup’s 1999 take was just 179 fish. By 2009 that figure climbed to 298,485 and it still has yet to drop below a couple hundred thousand. Well, until surely 2017.

And it wasn’t like those North Sound rivers gave up either. The Nooksack lit up, producing back-to-back harvests better than any seen in Whatcom County in 50 years. The Snohomish yielded 1.13 million alone in 2013, the Skagit 720,000 that year.

Our Little Chiefs couldn’t keep up with the bounty; all the salmon smoking we did helped push CO2 levels over the 400-parts-per-million mark. Not really, but still.

WDFW Sunset Falls (SF Skykomish) Pink Salmon Count*
Oct. 19, 2017: 1,205
Oct. 15, 2015: 17,293
Oct. 17, 2013: 54,644
Oct. 20, 2011: 23,643
Oct. 22, 2009: 98,158
Oct. 18, 2007: 41,168
Oct. 13, 2005: 17,595
Oct. 16, 2003: 18,822
Oct. 18, 2001: 12,444
Oct. 21, 1999: 962
* Passage is typically greater than 99.7 percent complete by mid-October

THROUGH THAT LENS, there was no way 2017’s return was going to be anything but the redheaded, warty, mutant, split-tongued bastard cousin at the barn dance. The preseason prediction was the lowest since 1999, which produced a sport catch of just 35,067 for those hucking Humpy Special spoons and other OG lures.

I’ll be honest, I went ahead and bought Buzz Bombs anyway, along with 1/0 and 2/0 hooks and two different kinds of pink hoochies. I’m weird like that; it makes tackle shacks happy, and probably gives them a laugh about the fool and his money. But I’m an optimist and I had visions of catching pinks off my local beach all summer long. In the end I hooked coho and kings, but no humpies. It wasn’t just me: WDFW’s daily saltwater creel checks rang up a ridiculous number of goose eggs in the pink salmon column when the Straits and Sound should’ve been boiling with the buggers, even with a low run.

“We haven’t done preliminary estimates yet for the Snohomish or Stillaguamish, but all the indexes showed feeble peak counts. It’s going to be well below the forecast which was 171,000 Snohomish and 40,000 Stillaguamish, and much worse than the parent year of 2015 which had escapement of 389,000 Snohomish and 91,000 Stillaguamish.

“This coming weekend’s rain, with predicted flood stages on Monday, should be the end for pink spawning this year and will likely not be kind to eggs in the gravel.”

–WDFW Snohomish-Stillaguamish Fisheries Biologist Jenni Whitney, October 19, 2017

My initial late summer forays on the Duwamish River were also desultory, to say the least: one snag-up and someone dropped a deuce in my high-tide spot. Eventually I did begin catching some, big bucks easily twice the size of 2015’s.

It’s probable the fish just didn’t need to feed in our saltwater like two years ago, and when they get in the rivers they can be notoriously lockjawed. With far fewer coming back, it’s no wonder we caught so few. It was also a humbling reminder I wasn’t exactly the angler I thought I was.

A buck returns to the Duwamish to continue on its way upstream. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

THE PINK EXPLOSION suggested, in a sense, we could have our pie and eat it too. Puget Sound Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum and steelhead runs are in increasing trouble from a king tide of habitat destruction, lack of political will to do much about it and an ever-growing human population that’s less and less attached to the water but is still willing to fund fixing things with “guilt money.”

That’s the term Oregon State University Professor Robert T. Lackey used in a decidedly pessimistic but perhaps more honest paper than what you otherwise hear from those of us in the trenches, whether at the state, tribal, federal or NGO level, or in the fishing industry.

Indeed, you can’t be a hook-and-bullet magazine editor and believe the sky is falling. It just doesn’t work well. I want to believe recovery really is possible. I want to believe the gravel parking pad my family had turned into a rain garden – and many, many more like it – will help, that a couple of the juvenile coho my boys have been stocking in a nearby tributary return and make more, and those will make more, etc.

Meanwhile, pinks were bucking it all.

Or at least did until flood and ocean conditions caught up with them too.

“Pink salmon are still spawning in the Green River and we haven’t finalized an escapement estimate yet. Our forecast was for about 120,000. The survey crew tells me it seems like a pretty robust pink return this year. Sounds like the pink run has a good chance of coming in close to, or slightly below our forecast — maybe this year’s escapement will be around 100,000 pinks. That’s the best guess I can hazard for now, though.”

—-WDFW Green-Duwamish Fisheries Biologist Aaron Bosworth, October 20, 2017*

No, they’re not one of the glamour stocks. They’re an every-other-year oddity that created a cottage industry for the makers of small spoons, hoochie jigs and other tackle. They provided big-number days for anglers of all abilities. They brought heaps of marine nutrients home.

Here’s hoping Puget Sound pinks recover faster than how long it took for the Skagit’s to get back on track after October 20, 2003. 

* Editor’s note: Upon further consultation with Green-Duwamish River stream surveyors, WDFW district fisheries biologist Aaron Bosworth downgraded his expectations for pink salmon returns to the system and his quote was updated to reflect that.

Rifle Deer Opener On Par In Northeast WA, Down In Okanogan

UPDATED 10:25 A.M., OCT. 18, 2017 WITH INFORMATION ON KLICKITAT WILDLIFE AREA OPENER RESULTS (NEAR BOTTOM OF STORY)

Deer harvest was down sharply on one side of northern Eastern Washington, but opening weekend of rifle deer season saw roughly the same success percentage as last year in the other corner.

That’s based on check station data collected by WDFW wildlife biologists.

At Deer Park north of Spokane, Dana Base reported 174 hunters coming through with 38 whitetails and mule deer, up from 101 with 24 in 2016 — 22 percent and 24 percent success rates, respectively.

THIS TALL-TINED FIVE-POINT WAS AMONG THE 14 ADULT WHITETAIL BUCKS CHECKED AT DEER PARK. (WDFW)

As usual, nearly all of the deer were whitetails, including 22 bucks and 14 antlerless animals, but two muley bucks were also checked, including one dandy.

NORTHEAST WASHINGTONN DOESN’T PRODUCE A LOT OF MULE DEER, BUT SOME OF THE BUCKS ARE BIG. WDFW CHECKED THIS ONE AT DEER PARK OVER OPENING WEEKEND. (WDFW)

Base reports that 14 of the flagtail bucks were adults and eight were yearlings.

By comparison, in 2016 there were eight adult bucks and 11 spikes.

Over at the Red Barn in Winthrop, Scott Fitkin and Jeff Heinlen checked 83 hunters and seven deer — and one of those was actually shot down in Douglas County.

That’s the same number of hunters as 2016’s rain-soaked opener, but just 35 percent of that year’s harvest.

NIC BELISLE BAGGED THIS NICE MULEY IN THE OKANOGAN DURING OPENING WEEKEND. HE WAS HUNTING WITH FRIEND CHUCK HARTMAN, WHO SENT THE IMAGE OUR WAY. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

And it’s way down from 2015’s bumper opener, when 101 hunters came out with 39 deer. But that was also an unusually successful campaign that followed on a snow drought and massive conflagrations.

The caveat with the above figures is that the check stations are voluntary and participation probably varies based on hunters’ moods (less likely if unsuccessful, more likely if tagged out).

For what it’s worth, two of the six hunters in our party got their bucks over opening weekend in Okanogan County, but that success rate was not enjoyed by others camping nearby.

AFTER HELPING HIS FRIEND NIC, CHUCK HARTMAN NOTCHED HIS TAG WITH THIS OKANOGAN COUNTY THREE-POINT YESTERDAY. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Where biologists wait for hunters to stop by the Winthrop and Deer Park stations, Susan Van Leuven takes a more direct approach on the Klickitat Wildlife Area, driving around to camps in the central Klickitat County state lands.

She and an assistant manager saw lower turnout than usual “with several popular campsites unoccupied and fewer vehicles encountered on the roads.” Of 62 hunters encountered on Saturday and 69 on Sunday, only one had a deer, a doe taken the second morning, though word is that someone got a three-point on the sprawling Soda Springs Unit on opening morning.

“The resident deer population appears to be in worse shape than we thought,” Van Leuven reports. “After the hard winter and a disease outbreak in East Klickitat during the summer we knew the numbers would be down, but weren’t expecting the season to be this poor.”

Rifle deer season for whitetails runs through October 24 or 27, depending on the unit, while mule deer are open through Tuesday, Oct. 24.

“Significant snow forecast for the high country may improve prospects for the second weekend,” Fitkin notes.

WDFW DISTRICT WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST SCOTT FITKIN AGES AN UNUSUAL CRITTER BROUGHT THROUGH THE RED BARN CHECK STATION IN WINTHROP. (WDFW)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this blog inexplicably listed Chuck Hartman as Kevin Hartman because the editur is stupid and can’t read what’s directly in front of his nose. Our apologies.

Washington’s Rifle Deer Season Opens This Weekend

If you’re like this Washington rifle deer hunter, you’re probably in giddy final preparations for this weekend’s opener.

I spent much of last Saturday washing all of my hunting clothes in scent-free detergent and packing them in totes with sprigs of Doug fir, hauled out my Work Sharps and honed a collection of knives, and gathered and checked equipment.

(ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Speaking of gear, a month or so back I reclaimed my deer hoist from the boys.

True story: River and Kiran had absconded with it and one of our spaghetti-pot lids to fashion — of all things — a guillotine.

(This part didn’t make my blog or magazine article about our spring trip through Germany, but our sons utterly horrified an English-speaking tour guide at the Marksburg castle on the Rhine with their over-the-top interest in torture and torture devices; they fit right in at Rothenburg’s Kriminalmuseum.)

The boys are pushing hard to join me and Grandpa at Deer Camp, and they will soon enough, but we’ve got a little more work to do on their stalking skills — they showed those off during a stop last month in Olga while crabbing in the San Juans, running amuck after a buck, arms waving in the air, shouting.

Yi yi yi.

But I get pretty excited too. With deer season straight ahead, as you can imagine, it’s a bit hard for me to focus on Actual Work — especially, with snow showers in the forecast.

Alas, I have to, so I will let what I’ve written already and in the past provide the rest of the warm-up for the hunt.

Brian “Ought-Six” Johnson and hunting partner and brother Drew “Sticks” Johnson teamed up to take down this symmetrical muley five-point Douglas County, Wash. Brian bagged it with just 15 minutes of shooting light left in season, with his Winchester 30-06. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In case you missed my previous blog, here is what WDFW district wildlife biologists think about this season’s prospects for Eastern Washington mule deer and whitetail hunters:

Reasons For Hope Inside 2017 Buck Hunting Forecast For The 509

For blacktail hunters, see their PDFs for:

Whatcom, Skagit and portions of San Juan Counties
Snohomish, Island and portions of San Juan Counties
King County
Pierce and Thurston Counties
Clallam and western Jefferson Counties

Kitsap, Mason and eastern Jefferson Counties
Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties
Lewis, Wahkiakum and Cowlitz Countie
s
Clark and Skamania Counties

While Washington’s fire season has pretty much wrapped up, there are a few road and area closures to be aware of in northwest Okanogan County and north-central Kittitas County. For other locations, see Inciweb.

OKANOGAN DEER HUNTERS GATHER AROUND THE EVENING FIRE. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Here’s a link to the National Weather Service’s Seattle and Spokane offices and their pinpoint forecasts for their respective regions of the state.

Though it’s a few days out yet, broadly speaking Saturday looks mostly sunny with temps in the 30s to mid-50s in Eastern Washington, with a chance of rain or snow, depending on elevation, in Western Washington.

And should you need any more inspiration, I offer a few of my past ramblings from this time of year:

The Hunting Beard

I’m working on my annual hunting beard, but I’m not sure this fall’s edition will make it the week and a half until Washington’s deer season opener.

Too many white hairs, especially around my chinny chin chin.

Also up around my ears and above my upper lip …

Sense And Scent-sibility

“The bane of a logical wife.”

That was Amy’s suggested headline for this blog entry on the eve of the eve of me leaving for deer camp.

As we lay in bed after getting the boys down last night, she wasn’t buying into my precautions with scents …

October Reimagined: Scenes From Deer Camp, Via Prisma

I’ve hunted Okanogan mule deer since college, and I’ve always taken photos while afield.

Back in the day, it was with a Nikon N50 and slide film, then a D7000 and crazy lenses before a series of pocket digital cameras, and for the past few years my smartphone.

I truly miss shooting slides, but I also love being able to edit images right there on the phone — what my young sons call “messing up pictures” …

Posthunt Interview With An Okanogan County ‘Deer Camp Coach’

Scene: It’s the day after the end of Washington’s muley rifle season. All members of Deer Camp von Walgamott, located somewhere in the mountains of western Okanogan County, have returned home, but a pack of hungry reporters have caught up to Coach Walgamott as he puts his hunting gear away.

Reporter 1: Coach, can you tell us what happened over there these past two weekends at deer camp?

Coach: Well, I tell you what, we fielded what we thought was a good team of deer hunters — some veterans, some recent buck killers, a newby or two to the area for beginner’s luck …

To Deer Camp And Back, In A Saturn: Parts I, II and III

I’ve gone to deer camp in many different General Motors products, but never one so out of place as a four-door Saturn.

The gas mileage was pretty damned good, lemme tell you, but it just doesn’t match the manliness of pulling into Okanogan County in a black-smoke-belching Chevy Silverado HD diesel towing a boxcar-sized trailer …

THE AUDACITY OF A DEER HUNTER, STUFFING A MULEY IN HIS MOTHER IN LAW’S SATURN. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

Enjoy, and best of luck this season!

The Bioturbations Of Sand Shrimp: Not Just Bait, Important For Bays Too

Word of the day: bioturbating.

That’s what sand aka ghost shrimp and blue mud shrimp are doing in their little burrows in estuaries up and down the Northwest Coast 24/7/365.

Bioturbating the holy hell out of all that mud and silt and decaying plant matter and whatnot that collects on the tideflats, making it that much richer.

A RESEARCHER STANDS ON A TIDEFLAT PINHOLED WITH THE BURROWS OF SAND SHRIMP. AS MANY AS 600 CAN EXIST IN A SQUARE METER. (OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY)

All that free labor’s great for the health of the ecosystems our salmon and other critters depend on. By one estimate, burrowing shrimp filter as much as 80 percent of the water in bays.

And here you thought sand skrimps just existed to adorn a 2/0 hook with some eggs on the side!

A DIVER-AND-BAIT SET-UP RIGGED WITH A SPIN-N-GLO AND SAND SHRIMP. (ANDY SCHNEIDER)

But it’s not so good if you’re an oyster in Nahcotta or Newport. All that mucking around kills the valuable shellfish, which are hugely important for coastal economies. The oysters can sink into veritable “quicksand,” quickly suffocate and die.

So in effect, the shrimp have become the northern pikeminnows of our rich bays, a native species that has to be controlled so other more financially and culturally desirable ones may thrive in the altered environments.

AS OYSTERS MATURE THEY MUST REMAIN ON THE SURFACE OF TIDEFLATS, BUT WHEN THEY SHARE SPACE WITH BURROWING SHRIMP, THEY CAN SUFFOCATE AND DIE BY SINKING INTO THE MUD. (USDA-ARS)

In Washington pesticides have been used to kill them off, but that’s caused a big stir in recent years. A state permit to use imidacloprid was issued in 2015 but then almost immediately withdrawn at the request of the oyster industry after public outcry.

A subsequently “reduced scope” application for a five-year permit to annually spray up to 500 acres of Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor by hand and boat instead of helicopter is now out for public comment.

I have to admit that when I learned about the spraying, it really, really bugged me.

It wasn’t so much the self-righteous indignation of Seattle chefs, more like, should we be using that stuff in the environment, let alone to kill off key actors in it?

SAND SHRIMP. (THERESA HOGUE, OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY)

On the flip side, in a Seattle Times video, you can hear the frustration voiced by a Washington State University extension agent tasked with helping oyster growers figure out a different solution.

“We beat our heads against the wall,” says Kim Patten, “and nobody has come up with any ideas. So at this point I have no idea, and I don’t think anybody else does.”

Someone might, however.

A recently posted blog by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center on these “estuarine engineers” details research into figuring out where they do well in the bay, in essence attempting to learn if it’s possible to reverse engineer things to benefit shrimp and farmers.

“If it’s an area where we would anticipate the population going down, having weak reproduction, or growing slowly—perhaps, for aquaculture, that would be a good location, because you’d minimize the interaction between the shrimp and the oysters,” Dr. Katelyn Bosley of the Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, a stone’s throw or two from Yaquina Bay, told author Al Brown.

“Or conversely, you’ll identify areas where there are fast-growing shrimp because of the high-quality, high-food environment,” she added. “Clearly, by assessing the nutritional status of the environment and knowing that shrimp live there—maybe that’s not a good place to grow juvenile oysters at certain times.”

These are the kind of solutions we should be finding.

It’s also important because burrowing shrimp, particularly blue muds, are being wiped out by an invasive isopod carried here in ship ballast that turns them into zombies that can’t breed.

Usually stopping zombies from breeding is a good thing, but it’s unclear what happens if the shrimp disappear for good — it’s possible systems will become overloaded with nutrients and experience algae blooms, posits Bosley .

With how important the shrimp are — “a key part of their environments,” writes Brown — we should be looking for ways to keep them healthy instead — and bioturbating the bays.

PLASTER CASTS OF SAND SHRIMP AND BLUE MUD SHRIMP BURROWS. THEY CAN DIG AS MUCH AS A METER BELOW THE SURFACE! (USDA-ARS)

Agency OKs Moving Atlantic Salmon Smolts Into Bainbridge Netpen

A month and a half after a commercial netpen failed elsewhere in Puget Sound, state regulators have approved a shipment of 1 million young Atlantic salmon into another floating enclosure here.

WDFW says that Cooke Aquaculture’s facilities in the Bremerton area’s Rich Passage — the site of a protest flotilla in mid-September — were inspected by the Departments of Ecology and Natural Resources and “met structural, water quality, and fish health requirements.”

FARMED ATLANTIC SALMON FROM NORWAY OFFERED FOR SALE AT THE SHORELINE COSTCO RECENTLY; IT WAS PUT BACK IN THE COLD CASE IN HOPES THE EDITOR WOULD CATCH A COHO FOR DINNER INSTEAD. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

The agency issued a transportation permit to the company late Monday.

While Governor Jay Inslee has banned permitting new netpens during investigations into why the international conglomerate’s Cypress Island operation broke up in mid-August — there are indications of aging equipment due to be replaced — state laws didn’t preclude moving the “healthy” 12- to 16-month-old fish into another enclosure, according to WDFW.

Cooke had applied in late August to transport the Atlantics from its rearing ponds in Rochester south of Olympia to Clam Bay, even as efforts to capture their 160,000 or so 8- to 10-pound adult escapees were ongoing in the San Juans.

A press release from the Governor’s Office said that Inslee is “very concerned” about the transfer, and called it “disappointing and frustrating” in light of August’s events.

He said his office had asked Cooke to withdraw the permit application “for our tribes, for our citizens, for our environment and for the industry’s long-term prospects.”

Around 305,000 of the market fish were being finished in the Cypress netpens this summer, and 140,000 were recovered inside them after the failure.

Through last week tribal fishermen have netted around 50,000, while hook-and-line anglers reported catching nearly 1,950, with another 3,000 or so caught by nontribal commercial fishermen.

This isn’t to say Atlantics don’t pale in comparison — and in more ways than one — to native Pacific salmon, but the breakout led to numerous wild claims about the fish.

A Sept. 11 initial assessment and Sept. 14 update found Cooke’s fish were “healthy” when the incident occurred, weren’t faring well in Puget Sound based on signs of anorexia, the stomachs of tribally sampled fish were “empty” and no signs of fish pathogens had been found in salmon recovered early on.

There was, however, an interesting note in that report: “Necropsy findings indicate an active inflammatory process of unknown origin originating in the gastrointestinal tract in the later September capture group.”

Neither large escapes from netpens in the 1990s nor directed stocking efforts in the 1980s resulted in breeding populations of the nonnative salmon in Puget Sound rivers.

Cooke will move the young Atlantics from the hatchery to netpen through the fall, according to WDFW, and they will be grown there until mid- to late 2019 before they are harvested.

Editor’s note: An earlier version reported the age of the Atlantics being moved from rearing ponds to Clam Bay as 2 years old, but subsequent information has come in that they will be a year to 16 months old.

 

Reasons For Hope Inside 2017 Buck Hunting Forecast For The 509

Though some Eastern Washington mule deer and whitetail herds took a hit last winter, hunters shouldn’t see much of a dropoff overall this fall.

Editor’s note: The bulk of this article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Northwest Sportsman magazine.

By Andy Walgamott

As last winter dragged on, and on, and on, and on some more, concerns rose that Eastern Washington’s mule deer and whitetails could take a pretty serious hit from the worst cold weather in two decades.

Some did – those on the eastern flanks of the Blue Mountains and in Klickitat County, where cold, snowy conditions lasted months longer than usual.

Overall, Eastern Washington deer hunters will find decent prospects this fall, with good hunting for muleys and whitetails expected in key districts, though some southerly portions of the 509 may see impacts from this past harsh, long winter. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

But herds elsewhere appear to have escaped the brunt of it, and they should produce decent to good hunting as seasons begin this month and continue with October’s rifle hunt and November’s late buck opportunities.

The point may be best illustrated by a survey from about as far north in the 509 as you can get without leaving the Evergreen State. Dana Base, the district wildlife biologist for the state’s best whitetail country, had just begun the 20 annual late-summer surveys he and fellow bio Annemarie Prince run at press time. He reported spotting 37 deer on the Aladdin route, up where Pend Oreille and Stevens Counties take on shades of northern British Columbia, the most since 2014 and above average since 2011.

“When we have bad winters, deer up there die,” Base notes.

Now, 37 deer spotted amongst a statewide population of an estimated 300,000 doesn’t mean very much, but when you consider that that’s above average for that survey route since 2011, and three times as many as in 2015, well, there just might be reason for hope this season. And really, that’s all a deer hunter needs.

Here’s a roundup of prospects from around Eastern Washington:

REPUBLIC, COLVILLE, NEWPORT

Admittedly, last year’s deer harvest was down up here, but there was no way 2016 was ever going to top 2015, when the four-point minimum for whitetail came off two breadbasket units. WDFW reports the all-weapons general-season harvest at 6,238 last year, well below the prior hunt’s 7,960, a fair portion of which was on the “windfall” of spikes, forked horns and three-points that were back in the bag in Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North Units.

While Base believes there will be lingering effects from 2015’s deer-killing blue-tongue outbreak, especially in the valleys, year after year, the only part of the state that can match the annual harvest here is the Mt. Spokane Unit, which is right next door. There’s no reason to believe that won’t be true again in 2017, though you might fine-tune where you hunt.

Whether you’re an archer, muzzleloader or rifleman, the key is to put in time in the field. Many of us will tag out on the openers, but those who stick to it and do lots of glassing like Logan Braaten here increase their odds of successfully tagging out. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Northeast Washington presents a mosaic of high and midelevation federal and state forests, corporate timberlands, valley-bottom ranches and farms, and large private residences. If you have or have access to land in the Colville Valley, you should be OK, but Base is advising freelancers to maybe look elsewhere than Haller Creek, Monumental and Williams Lake Road, where the deer are still in recovery mode from disease two years ago.

“You find the right places in the national forest, you’ll find deer,” notes Base. ““There are actually whitetail up at Bunchgrass Meadows – not a lot, but more than you’d expect … There are deer up Smackout – not 20 to 40 per square mile like elsewhere here, but a huntable population. An experienced hunter will get into them.”

Get ahold of his game prospects and you may notice that the Aladdin Unit scores pretty highly. Another sleeper spot may be the backside of the Selkirk Unit, at its lower, southern end, where it’s primarily national forest land shot through with logging roads. Just be sure you’re on the Washington side of the border before pulling the trigger.

It may be a bit early yet, but don’t forget that some of the mule deer country in Base’s district has also seen big fires in recent years. The Stickpin Fire in 2015 on the Kettle Crest of the Sherman Unit was a “stand replacement” blaze. That’s not the easiest place to get into, but it may bear watching as it revegetates.

One major change of note for this year is that there will be no general season antlerless opportunities for 65-and-older archers, muzzleloaders and riflemen, as in recent years. Base says that local whitetail stakeholders actually lobbied for the restriction:

“‘Hey, we’ll take the hit, we want to promote youth hunters,’” he says they offered.

On a side note, you might bring your scattergun come the Oct. 7 topknot opener. Base says he thought the snowpack would kill off the quail, but he’s been seeing “tons of broods under 3,000 feet.”

Bottom line for Northeast Washington deer hunters this fall?

“Don’t give up, especially if you’re a buck hunter in November,” says Base. “It’s not the glory days of the early 2000s or the 1980s, but there are fewer hunters now.”

Top 2016 general season harvests: Huckleberry: 2,014, all weapons (259 five-plus-pointers, 759 four-points, 412 three-points, 184 two-points, 241 spikes, 159 antlerless); Hunter success: 38.2 percent, Douglas, modern firearms; Days per kill: 12.2, Douglas, modern firearms.

More info: District 1 Hunting Prospects

ODESSA, CHENEY, COLFAX

While deer harvest was down in the units of the upper Channelled Scablands, Palouse, Snake River breaks and fields and forests north of Spokane last year over 2015, it wasn’t as sharp of a dropoff as it was to the north. Hunters hung 4,817 whitetails and muleys in 2016, compared to 5,660 the previous season. It was more of an across-the-board dropoff, likely due to widespread blue-tongue impacts. But look for the herds to bounce back this year. 

“I suspect white-tailed deer hunters will have better success this year relative to last year, but still lower than prior to 2015,” says biologist Michael Atamian. “The population is recovering, but is not back to preoutbreak levels.”

Frank Workman of Tacoma anchored this three-point Snake River mule deer buck on Oct. 22 with a single, 150-yard uphill shot from his Ruger bolt-action, chambered in .308 Winchester. Workman is the younger brother of Northwest Sportsman columnist Dave Workman. (RICK FINCH)

Some more good news:

“This winter was a hard one, but we did not see or get reports of high numbers of mortalities like we got in the severe winters of 2007-08 and ’08/09,” says Atamian. “Mule deer appear to have weathered the winter fairly well in my district, moving south and west as the winter worsened and taking advantage of winter wheat and the south-facing slopes that opened earlier. I suspect success will be similar to last year for mule deer hunters in my district.”

As you undoubtedly know, Atamian’s beat probably has the lowest percentage of public land in the state, so most of the deer harvest comes off of private farmlands, ranches and woodlots.

On Grace Smith’s first hunt she harvested this nice four-point muley on the opener using a .243 given to her by her grandfather on her 11th birthday. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If you haven’t already secured permission to hunt those, your next best bet is to turn to WDFW’s Private Lands Hunting Access pages to scout out Feel Free To Hunt, Register To Hunt, Hunt By Written Permission and Hunt By Reservation properties.

Also scope out the agency’s Go Hunt map for scattered WDFW, Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service parcels in areas like Swanson Lakes, Lake Creek, Crab Creek, headwaters of Sprague Lake and fringing Mt. Spokane and Lake Roosevelt and the Spokane Arm’s south shore. On the peak and to the south around Mica Peak are Inland Empire Paper lands (iepco.com) that may or may not require purchasing a pass to access.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Mt. Spokane: 2,176, all weapons (295 five-plus-pointers, 581 four-points, 376 three-points, 201 two-points, 303 spikes, 420 antlerless); Hunter success: 39.8 percent, Roosevelt, archery; Days per kill: 9.2, Almota, modern firearm.

More info: District 2 Hunting Prospects

DAYTON, POMEROY, ASOTIN

Unlike elsewhere in Eastern Washington, Blue Mountains units did not see as sharp a dropoff between 2015’s and 2016’s harvests. Hunters bagged 2,758 during general seasons two years ago and just one hundred fewer last fall. Riflemen killed just seven fewer last October, 2,118, over the previous one.

That points to a pretty stable population of muleys and whitetails, but this year will probably see a bit of a turbulence.

Unlike elsewhere on the Eastside, Blue Mountains units didn’t see the sharp drop in harvest between 2015 and 2016, and things are looking good for whitetails and mule deer this year. Madelynn Olson bagged this four-by-five on private land near Waitsburg with a 200-yard shot last fall. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

“The winter definitely took its toll, especially in the Grande Ronde River drainage and other parts on the east side of the district,” says assistant wildlife biologist Mark Vekasy. “In general, deer went into winter in good condition, and that kept the situation from being truly catastrophic. We expect to see harvest declines on the east side of the district in GMUs 169 (Wenaha), 172 (Mountain View), 175 (Lick Creek) and possibly parts of 181 (Couse). Over the rest of the district, we had enough periods of snow melt-off in the foothills, and only short periods thick snow crust elsewhere, that deer generally were able to reach forage, and seemed to come out of the winter in good condition.”

Wind and rain made for tough conditions during his muzzleloader hunt near Walla Walla, but Randy Hart hunt in there and on put the smackdown on this three-pointer. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

So, unless you’ve already scouted out a buck, you might adjust away from the core and eastern side of the Southeast Washington range. That’s too bad, because Vekasy says the Tucannon and Wenaha Units had been showing signs of improved harvest. However in Lick Creek, he says hunter numbers have nearly doubled since 2001, but harvest stats are going the opposite way.

“We are likely harvesting a high proportion of the legal deer in the unit,” Vekasy reports. “There is no antlerless opportunity in the unit, except for the Youth Blue Mts Foothills East tags, so there’s not much we can do to limit harvest in this unit. The Asotin Creek Wildlife Area has had some recent land additions, and with weed treatments and other habitat work, we hope to see some response from the mule deer herd.”

A break in a week of bad weather wracking the Blues last October spurred this mule deer to get up and walk into Gary Lundquist’s sights. If you look close you’ll see a bit of a droptine off his buck’s right antler. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

On the northwest side of the Blues, the Dayton Unit’s hunter success has held above 23 percent the past two years, and he expects good hunting.

“Most of the increase in success and harvest per unit effort in this game management unit has been due to the white-tailed deer harvest, presumably indicating healthy whitetail populations. Mule deer harvest in GMU 162 has been variable with no definitive trends, but deer went into winter in good condition, and winter range conditions in that GMU were not too severe, so we’re looking for a slight uptick in harvest this year,” Vekasy says.

In the foothills units immediately ringing the Blues, he expects the consistent 30 percent success rate in Blue Creek to continue, thanks to a “stable to gradually increasing whitetail population” and stable muley herd. He notes that the harvest has held steady even as hunter numbers have climbed by several hundred.

A Blue Mountains foothills whitetail buck spots a hunter. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

The Marengo Unit in the middle Tucannon has seen a bit of a decline, possibly because of extra antlerless permits two years ago as well as bluetongue, but Vekasy says that with deer having gone into last winter in good condition, he expects harvest to tick back up.

He’s also forecasting a steady-as-she-flows harvest in the remote Grande Ronde Unit, which is tucked on the southern side of the river, with good amounts of state and federal land.

As you fan away from the Blues, deer harvest climbs while public ground fizzles out. A surge in permits in Prescott and Mayview in 2015 may have led to pruned-back success rates last year a bit, but Vekasy still expects 36 and 30 percent of hunters to score again this fall. Peola will probably hold steady at 42 percent. Those three units are his top choices for continued good hunting, but he advises getting on the Go Hunt site and checking out private land access. He reports losing some properties in Prescott that are being pulled from the Conservation Reserve Program, a trend that could intensify next year.

Jenny Cunningham, Bruce Ward and Sydney Cunningham enjoyed a good deer season on public land in Southeast Washington. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If you’re looking to get away from the crowds in Lick Creek, you might head for the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness.

“GMU 169 has low deer densities annually, but we did see a surprising number of mule deer in the high country during elk surveys, so I’m not sure it will be that much different than usual; low densities but some good quality in the backcountry,” he says.

Consider it scouting for a few more years from now, when the Grizzly Bear Complex wildfire really starts regenerating.

“Forage conditions were difficult to assess this year during aerial surveys, and I haven’t been out on the ground yet to check the large burns in the wilderness. The burns were already looking good last year, and we expect habitat conditions will only continue to improve, as long as we get adequate moisture, and hope to see a response from the mule deer herds in the wilderness,” Vekasy says.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Prescott: 553, all weapons (95 five-plus-pointers, 222 four-points, 173 three-points, 66 antlerless); Hunter success: 51.2 percent, Mayview, muzzleloader; Days per kill: 6.9, Peola, modern firearms.

More info: District 3 Hunting Prospects

MAZAMA, TONASKET, PATEROS

Stop me if you’ve read this already, but the horrible wildfire and drought conditions that led to a stellar season two years ago were never going to return for an encore – and thank god for that – and indeed may have been a once-in-a-generation harvest under the current three-point muley min. Last fall saw a harvest of 2,717 deer in the Okanogan, down from 3,603 the previous season.

“Although a decrease from the banner harvest in 2015, this total is still right at the five-year average and about 14 percent above the 10-year average,” notes district bio Scott Fitkin in his game prospects.

“It’s all about patience and timing,” says Chuck Hartman, who followed up a whopper 2014 Okanogan mule deer with this dark-horned beaut. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

What’s more, he expects things to hold steady in 2017.

“Heavier than average fawn mortality (67 percent versus the long-term average of 53 percent) during the 2015-16 winter could potentially mean a dip in 2½-year-old buck availability,” Fitkin reports. “However, this was offset by an uptick in post-season buck escapement, as evidenced by an observed sex ratio of 20 bucks per 100 does as compared to 16 per 100 the previous year. Total harvest and success rates overall are anticipated to be near the 2016 numbers and around the 10-year average.”

The backcountry of Okanogan and Chelan Counties is known for producing bruiser bucks, thanks in part to regenerating burns but also vast escape cover. Dan Gitchell downed this muley on the edge of the Pasayten Wilderness on last year’s fifth day. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

He says the population of the state’s largest mule deer herd as well as the Okanogan’s whitetails are doing fine because of great summer range, regular fall green-up and only moderate winters up here.

While the middle ground scorched by massive conflagrations of recent years may still be a few years away from producing the points and pounds of the legendary Tripod Buck, don’t overlook hunting the backcountry burn scars of the Thirty-mile, Farewell and Needles Fires up the Chewuch River, Eightmile Creek and Lost River, the biologist advises.

You can say that again and again! Chad Smith, center says that he and friends Kyle McCullough and Kiel Hutchinson enjoyed “a great opening weekend in Okanogan County.” Two of their muleys were shot on Saturday, one the following morning, and all were on public land. “Great weekend I’ll never forget,” Smith adds. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Those pastures, if you will, as well as those on the divide between the Chewuch and Okanogan drainages, are good bets. Otherwise, bucks tend to be a bit scattered in the early bow and general rifle seasons, not moving towards the lowlands till late in October or even November.

Rob Clarey reports his buddy Brent Antonius is now hooked on hunting, thanks to finding success on just his third day afield. Clarey, who also bagged a four-point, accompanied Antonius on a hunter ed deferral. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In a bit of a contrast to elsewhere in the state, the public-land units compete pretty well, including Chewuch, Pearrygin, Sinlhakein and Chiliwist. Tops of all is Okanogan East, which does include a large percentage of ranches and hay farms but also a lot of national forest, BLM and some state ground. It’s also home to a 50-50 split between muleys and flagtails. In that unit, as well as across the river in the Pogue and Chiliwist, Fitkin says WDFW is managing towards a stable to slightly declining deer herd to keep it in line with available winter browse.

If there’s a wild card for this season, it was the extended hot, dry conditions of summer. From the vantage point of early August, it’s hard to predict October, but there’s a whiff of 2015 in the air, and not just smoke from the Diamond Creek Fire in the Pasayten Wilderness.

As snow fell on Washington’s opening deer, Jeff Boulet notched his tag with this Winthrop three-point. (JEFF BOULET)

“If this weather pattern continues, expect the high country to be drier than usual,” says Fitkin. “If so, then deer might start moving toward winter range early – tail end of the general season – similar to what hunters saw in 2015.”

Yep, boss, I’ll again be gone through that second Tuesday, Oct. 24.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Okanogan East: 739, all weapons (128 five-plus-pointers, 254 four-points, 196 three-points, 42 two-points, 47 spikes, 72 antlerless); Hunter success: 29.2 percent, Chiliwist, muzzleloader (low sample size); Days per kill: 15, Pogue, muzzleloader (low sample size)

More info: District 6 Hunting Prospects

CHELAN, PLAIN, WATERVILLE

Whether it’s payment coming due after a string of good seasons or something else, you may not have as easy of a time finding a legal buck on the Chelan County side of WDFW’s District 7, but the Douglas County quarter should continue its productive pace, thanks to a stable population.

The agency reports last year’s general season harvest was 1,691 (1,148 for modern firearms hunters) in the North-central Washington neighbors, down from 2,275 (1,631).

Brian “Ought-Six” Johnson and hunting partner and brother Drew “Sticks” Johnson teamed up to take down this symmetrical muley five-point Douglas County, Wash. Brian bagged it with just 15 minutes of shooting light left in season, with his Winchester 30-06. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

If there’s good news, it’s that the coveted upper Entiat Valley is once again open after being closed by the Forest Service’s district ranger for the past two High Buck Hunts due to fires and burn-scar safety concerns. The bad news, however, is that you’ll need to bring your levitating boots to get around downed timber on trails.

Biologist Dave Volsen says that last fall’s postseason surveys south of Highway 2 in Douglas County found 20 bucks for every 100 does, including some dandies. That part of the Waterville Plateau contains more public land than you might imagine, though a lot of it is wide open or steep and rocky talus, making hunting more difficult.

“Once we moved into the portions of the county with high road densities, open habitat, and increased access, the majority of the bucks observed following hunting season were spikes and two-point bucks,” he notes.

Volsen reports high fawn production last year, and good foraging conditions probably helped most make it through the heaviest winter here in about seven years. That’s good news for 2018’s 21/2-year-old bucks, assuming this coming cold season isn’t a doozy.

Odd years are for pink salmon, and evens are for Bill Waite and Brock Boyer to bag nice Chelan County muleys, we guess! They appeared in our 2014 yearbook with two studs. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

Over in Chelan County, spring surveys south of the fjord found fewer deer this year than last, 11,000 versus 15,000. Why that was is hard to say, and while last winter didn’t come close to the bad winter of 1996-97, which drove implementation of the three-point minimum, it was “more significant” than any in the past half decade, says Volsen.

“This past winter, snow depths were higher, they extended farther downward onto winter range, and their duration into spring much longer. As a result, there was a decrease in the mule deer population in Chelan County,” he reports.

It comes after a good string of years.

“That fact, in combination with the fact that we harvested a larger portion of the older aged class bucks accumulating in the population, means that we will have to work a little harder to find bucks this year in Chelan County,” says Volsen. “We cut back on antlerless opportunity this fall to allow the population to rebound faster, minimizing any additional decrease in the productive part of the population.  We also reduced this year’s late-season buck permits, not for the purpose of recovery, but because these are quality hunts, and if hunters are going to use their points on a permit, it gives those hunters drawn the potential for increased success.”

Featuring a largely migratory herd, the public-land-rich county’s top units are actually in the front country, the well-roaded Entiat, followed by Swakane and Mission. The more forested Chiwawa Unit kicks out fewer bucks, but a higher percentage are five points or better.

Chad White’s harvested his share of Westside blacktails, but in 2016 he tried his hand hunting muleys — “I am hooked,” he reported after anchoring this nice buck. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In Douglas County, Big Bend has a fair amount of state land and produces the most bucks, but the knock on it and most units here is the overwhelming amount of private land and roads around many sections. Still, there are a fair number of access options to consider on Go Hunt.

Top 2016 general season harvests: Entiat: 296, all weapons (29 five-plus-pointers, 88 four-points, 108 three-points, 71   antlerless); Hunter success: 57.2 percent, Moses Coulee, muzzleloader; Days per kill: 4.9, Moses Coulee, muzzleloader

More info: District 7 Hunting Prospects

TROUT LAKE, GOLDENDALE, BICKLETON

Few places in Washington saw the winter that the eastern flanks of the Southern Cascades did, and that along with a confirmed adenovirus outbreak this summer will have ramifications this season and in coming ones.

“Success may be lower this year mainly due to our severe, prolonged winter on both sides of the Cascades,” predicts biologist Stefanie Bergh. “Klickitat County saw snow on the ground December through March, which is unheard of and very hard on all wildlife species, including deer. We had more calls than normal about winterkill, so success in the next couple of hunting seasons could be lower.”

Buzz Ramsey scored the Northwest trifecta in 2016, killing muleys in Oregon, Idaho (ask him about his little adventure in the canyon in the dark) and Washington, with this healthy specimen that yielded 130 pounds of meat to pack out. (BUZZ RAMSEY)

That’s unfortunate, because the three units here are something of sleepers. In 2015, West Klickitat, Grayback and East Klickitat yielded 1,214 deer (798 for riflemen), though last year saw fewer tags notched (828 and 612, respectively).

West Klickitat has the most public or publicly accessible ground, but the Klickitat Wildlife Area in western Grayback is popular too. Bergh warns that this fall will see some logging in its largest unit, Soda Springs. How that will affect access or deer movement remains to be seen. 

Also be aware that the new Simcoe Mountain Unit, which was open for all hunters last year, is now a draw-only opportunity.

Top 2016 general season harvests (east of Cascade Crest): East Klickitat, all weapons (30 five-plus-pointers, 101 four-points, 184 three-points, 24 antlerless); Hunter success: 33.6 percent, East Klickitat, archery; Days per kill: 12.7, East Klickitat, modern firearm

More info: District 9 Hunting Prospects

THE REST OF EASTERN WASHINGTON

Benton, Franklin counties, per WDFW Biologist Jason Fidorra’s District 4 Hunting Prospects: “In northern Benton County (GMU 372), spend some time scouting for deer in the Thornton and Rattlesnake units of the Sunnyside/Snake River Wildlife Area. Deer Area 3372 -Sunnyside (Benton and  Yakima counties) was created in 2016 to provide additional general season opportunities along the Yakima River from Prosser to Union Gap, including an early muzzleloader season and late archery and late muzzleloader seasons. In southern Benton County (GMU 373), there are small groups of deer available to hunters on land in the Horse Heaven Hills, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, scattered tracts of DNR, and private property in our access programs. The USFWS’s Umatilla NWR Deer Areas 3071 (Whitcomb) and 3072 (Paterson) units provide 80 special permits required to harvest deer on the NWR, including two archery periods in October and three muzzleloader hunts from November into December. Youth, buck, and antlerless permits are available on both units. Please consult the current hunting regulations for more details.”

Adams, Grant, Counties, per WDFW Biologist Rich Finger’s District 5 Hunting Prospects: “Most deer harvest occurs in GMUs 272 (Beezley) and 284 (Ritzville), where 10-year average post-hunt buck:doe ratios from ground surveys are 13:100 and 15:100, respectively. Fawn: doe ratios rebounded in 2016 after all-time lows in 2015. The rebound is likely in response to favorable weather conditions that helped increase fawn survival and will help to increase hunting opportunities over the next couple of years.”

Kittitas, Yakima Counties, per WDFW biologist Jeff Bernatowicz’s District 8 Hunting Prospects: “Deer harvest in District 8 has been down from historic highs for a number of years. The average hunter success the last five years has been eight Percent compared to a statewide average of 28 percent. Following a sharp decline from 2004-2006, the harvest has been relatively static. There was an increase in harvest in 2015 following three mild winters with good fawn recruitment. Unfortunately, the hot, dry summer of 2015 was followed by a two relatively hard winters, which has decreased the herd. Much of the harvest is likely 2-3 year-old bucks. Fawns lost the winter of 2015-16 would comprise a large portion of the 2017 harvest. Harvest will likely decline in 2017 through 2018.”