I don’t know about your part of Washington, but the part I’ve been roaming the last few days has been downright chilly — and I couldn’t be happier. It means hunting season is finally here.
Indeed, it snowed a couple inches at Stevens Pass and we’ve heard reports of freezing temps near Chelan. That’ll crisp up the apples, and get the bucks’ attention, signaling that it’s time to move out of the Kettles, the Pasayten and the Sawtooths for their winter ranges.
And as the deer put on their winter coats, hunters are beginning to don theirs. I chuckled when a friend emailed me this morning to say he’d quit shaving to grow out his beard for the midmonth opener to the rifle hunt. Time to start mine as well.
Deer aren’t the only game in town this month. Prospects look pretty good around Eastern Washington for upland birds, especially quail, and there will definitely be local waterfowl around too.
I’ll tell you, it just ain’t fair that there’s only one October on the calendar. We need at least two, and preferably four there’s just so much to do.
Here’s a roundup of prospects around Eastern Washington, courtesy of WDFW’s Weekender:
Pat Fowler, WDFW southeast district wildlife biologist, said quail brood numbers are looking good, and the best areas to hunt are along the major river drainages – Walla Walla, Touchet, and Tucannon rivers, plus Asotin Creek.
“Chukar and gray partridge broods observed to date appear to be good sized, so hunting may improve from last year,” Fowler said. “The best areas to hunt chukar are along the Snake River breaks from Lower Granite dam upriver to the Washington-Oregon border, and along the breaks of the Grande Ronde River. Huns can normally be found in these same areas, but concentrate efforts along the edge of agricultural fields and brushy draws.”
WDFW’s Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area Manager Juli Anderson said that although Hungarian partridge can be tough to find on the area in central Lincoln County, they’re out there.
“I strongly advise hunters to bring a dog to find the Huns,” Anderson said. “There are no quail to speak of here and very few pheasants. Hunters need to be able to identify upland birds before shooting on and around Swanson Lakes to avoid take of protected sharp-tailed and sage grouse.”
Anderson said waterfowl hunting opportunities will depend on the amount of water in the wildlife area’s potholes and in the Lake Creek drainage. “It’s very dry right now,” Anderson said. “Even our larger pothole lakes such as Florence Lake have dried up. Z-Lake off Telford Road might be the best bet for waterfowl, although it’s a mile-plus walk from the county road.”
Anderson expects mule deer hunting success in the Swanson Lakes area to be average to below average this fall.
“At the headquarters we’re seeing somewhat lower numbers of deer than we did last year,” she said.
Fowler reports Blue Mountains area mule deer and white-tailed deer populations have both declined over the last three years.
For mule deer, it’s been lower fawn survival, he said, and for white-tailed deer it’s been Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) outbreaks in localized populations.
“Mule deer populations appear to have stabilized along the breaks of the Snake River and in the lowlands,” Fowler said. “Mule deer populations in the mountains are still depressed, and hunters will find fairly low success rates in those areas. Although white-tailed deer populations have declined in some areas, the population overall is still strong and will offer excellent hunting opportunity. The foothills of the Blue Mountains and river bottoms hold the largest concentrations of white-tailed deer. Much of the foothill lands are in private ownership, so seek permission before hunting.”
WDFW Wooten Wildlife Area Manager Kari Dingman said that a new shooting range on the area, built last spring, is available for hunters to sight their rifles. The range is in the old gravel pit, about a mile south of the Last Resort campground off the Tucannon River Road. Dingman said hunters can drive to a parking area, then make a short walk to the range. The area is a “pack-it-in-pack-it-out” site, with no garbage disposal service.
The northeast district of the region is traditionally the white-tailed deer hunting capital of the state. Although the Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille county areas will still likely produce some of the best whitetail harvest, overall harvest may be lower this year than the average of the past decade, said District Wildlife Biologist Dana Base.
“The long-term population trend for white-tailed deer here continues to drift downward with the continued loss of acreage in cereal grain and alfalfa hay farm production,” Base said. “Two bad winters back to back, with excessive snow and cold, have further exacerbated this situation. Mule deer appear to have weathered these past couple winters better than the whitetails, but their populations also show the same spotty pattern as whitetail populations – some areas have stable to increasing numbers and other areas are in decline.”
WDFW district wildlife biologist Rich Finger of Moses Lake expects quail hunting to be fair to good this year in the Columbia Basin.
“Winter conditions were harsh for quail but did not likely cause large scale mortality,” Finger said. “Spring conditions were fair with cool weather and localized rains in June that may have reduced productivity to some degree. Riparian areas will offer the best hunting and hunters can increase their chances by securing access to private lands where pressure can be considerably lower. If pressure is high, some coveys can be found settling into shrub cover a considerable distance from heavily hunted areas”
Finger says gray partridge occur in low densities in the Basin but are rarely targeted by hunters, taken incidentally while hunting other upland game birds.
“Most partridge will occur on private farm fields – particularly in the dryland wheat portions of Adams County and, to a lesser degree, Grant County,” Finger said. “Gray partridge are a resilient bird and thus likely fared well through the winter.”
Most chukar partridge hunting in the district occurs in Moses Coulee and Coulee Corridor areas, Finger reported.
“Chukar are a challenging game bird to pursue,” Finger said. “Hunters can expect to chase their mocking calls across fractured basalt only to watch them flush out of range and glide out of sight. Most chukar probably survived the winter in fair condition. However, chukar numbers appeared to be low last fall and thus the adult breeding population may have been small despite the moderate winter conditions. Expect another tough season for an already difficult quarry.”
Farther north in the region, WDFW district wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin of Winthrop says California quail numbers appear to be up compared to last year due to favorable spring weather conditions improving nesting success. Quail hunting prospects are anticipated to be better than last year. Favorable spring weather conditions also likely improved nesting success for gray and chukar partridge within the district this year, Fitkin said, and hunting for those species could be somewhat better, too.
“Prospects for mule deer in the district continue to be down, due to an average 70 percent over-winter fawn mortality during each of the three winters prior to last winter,” Fitkin said. “Even though last winter was not as bad, fawn numbers did not improve as anticipated with spring surveys showing 31 fawns per 100 does in the Methow and 42 fawns per 100 does in the Okanogan. We attribute this to poor forage conditions on the winter range.”
Fitkin noted that white-tailed deer are less abundant than mule deer throughout the district, but are found in most all valley bottoms where they fared better over the last four winters.
Prospects should be somewhat better for those hunters targeting whitetails, he noted, but since most are on private lands hunters must seek permission for access in advance of the season. Fitkin also noted that recent cooler, moister weather may improve deer hunting prospects for muzzleloaders already in the field.
New this year in the Columbia Basin is inclusion of Game Management Unit (GMU) 272 (Beezley) in the early muzzleloader mule deer season now open through Oct. 4. District biologist Finger reports most deer harvest in the Basin overall occurs in that unit and 284 (Ritzville), which has been part of the early muzzleloader season for both whitetails and mule deer. Both units are also open for modern firearm deer hunting.
Finger noted that when hunters review the latest harvest reports (available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/harvest ), they will see success declined in GMU 272 from 28 percent in 2007 to 24 percent in 2008. But that was caused by a 12 percent increase in the number of hunters, he explained, rather than declines in local deer herds. He noted the number of hunters in GMU 284 similarly increased by 11 percent, but hunter success remained relatively constant at 34 percent. Post-hunt surveys last year yielded buck-to-doe ratios of 21 per 100 in GMU 272 and 24 per 100 in GMU 284, suggesting moderate buck escapement rates during the 2008 season despite increased hunting pressure.
Finger reminds deer hunters that GMU 284 is mostly private property and that access permission must be secured prior to hunting. GMU 272 includes 53,000 acres of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area Complex, most of which is open to hunting. He expects deer harvest in GMU 278 (Wahluke) – which is open now for early muzzleloader whitetail hunting and will be open for modern firearm hunting Oct. 17 – to be low again this year. Since 2001, total harvest in GMU 278 has averaged just 35 deer with hunter success running about 17 percent. GMU 278 does provide about 36,000 acres of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area Complex, most of which is open to hunting.
“Overall, deer hunters in all groups should fare quite well during the 2009 season in the Basin,” Finger said. “Last year’s post-hunt fawn-to-doe ratios indicate herd productivity was moderate in all surveyed units and buck-to-doe ratios have steadily increased the past few years. Despite last winter’s formidable conditions, we did not observe above normal winter mortality and populations are believed to have remained stable or increased slightly.”
Opening weekend of waterfowl hunting in the Columbia Basin should offer good numbers of mallards, teal, wigeon , and gadwall , Finger reported, even though overall duck production in the district was down about 25 percent this year.
“That will primarily affect early season hunting,” he said, “since the peak number of migrant waterfowl is usually in December. Regardless, there will be local birds available on the opener, including some wood ducks concentrating in stands of flooded Russian olive trees in the wasteways.”
Finger said hunters using the Winchester Regulated Access Area should be cautious about pintails , which can be abundant there early in the season. Only two of the seven duck daily bag limit can be pintails. Rules for using WDFW’s Regulated Access Areas can be found on page 28 of the 2009-2010 Migratory Waterfowl hunting pamphlet.
Jeff Bernatowicz, WDFW district wildlife biologist from Yakima, reports quail populations are looking better for the first time in half-a-dozen years.
“Nesting was late but as summer progressed we saw more and larger quail broods,” he said. “I think hunters can expect better numbers than last year anyway.”
Gray or Hungarian partridge numbers in the district should also be better, but still not many birds, Bernatowicz says.
“Chukar populations have also been low the last few years, probably due to an extended drought,” he said. “But decent rain fell during May and June this year and good production was seen in some areas. Populations should be up, but probably below average long-term.”
Mike Livingston, WDFW district wildlife biologist from Pasco, reports few partridge, but probably a better year for quail hunting in the southeast end of the region.
“Spring precipitation was favorable with lots of nesting and brood rearing cover,” Livingston said. “We’ve had plenty of insects and seed producing plants for chicks. Field observations indicate lots of broods of various ages are present.”
Livingston says the best quail habitat in district is in north Franklin County on and surrounding WDFW’s Windmill Ranch Wildlife Area and the register-to-hunt Bailie Memorial Youth Ranch. Other areas include the Hanford Reach National Monument’s Ringold Unit, Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge along the Columbia, and the Army Corps of Engineers Big Flat and Lost Island Habitat Management Units along the Snake River.
“Anywhere along the rivers where riparian and herbaceous vegetation intersect will provide quail habitat,” Livingston said. “An ideal setting is where Russian olives or willows are adjacent to black greasewood or sagebrush.”
Local waterfowl production appears to be low this year in the south Basin, Livingston noted, with both breeding pair counts and brood counts below the five-year average for the district.
“There should be plenty of ducks for opening weekend, but success will likely taper off as the ducks get ‘educated,’” Livingston said. “Then we’ll have to wait for the migrants to arrive in the mid- to late-season.”
Good waterfowl hunting is available on small ponds and lakes on WDFW’s Windmill Ranch Wildlife Area, Bailie Memorial Youth Ranch and elsewhere in north Franklin County. The Army Corp of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provide hunting areas along the Snake and Columbia Rivers for both bank and boat hunters.
Waterfowl production in the northwest end of the region increased over a poor year in 2008, Bernatowicz reported.
“Most of the harvest in this district is on migrant birds later in the year,” he said. “Local grain production is up, and if favorable weather conditions occur, there should be enough food to hold migrants in the area.”
Bernatowicz notes there might be a slight increase in deer numbers this year in the Yakima district.
“Fawn production has been pretty good, but the hair-slip syndrome seems to be a nagging problem,” he said. “We’ve seen a deer population decline by 30 to 50 percent since about 2003, first documented in Game Management Units 328 – 346, then spreading south through GMUs 352 – 368.”
Livingston reports deer population estimates in the southeast district are below the five-year average for the area, and this year’s hunting may not be as good as last season.
“Our highest concentrations of deer, which are mostly mule deer with just a few whitetails, are in GMU 381 Kahlotus in Franklin County,” he said. “We get a large percentage migrating in from northern units later in October and November. Hunter success rates here average about 33 percent for modern firearm, but that tends to be high due to restricted access and lack of cover for deer.”
Livingston notes most of the district is private, open country farmland. There are some WDFW “Feel Free To Hunt” and “Hunt By Written Permission” acres where hunters can gain access to deer, but he advises pre-season scouting.