Along with fall’s flights down the flyway and deer and elk migrations out of the mountains comes another large movement: that of hunters heading for Eastern Washington.
Saturday marks the opening day for muley, whitetail and duck seasons east of the Cascades, and even now sportsmen are driving that way with packed trucks, trailers and RVs.
I’m headed that way too — and I’ll be bringing my steelhead rods and jigs and spoons to hit the Wenatchee and Methow — tomorrow, and hope to see ya’ll out there in the hills.
NEXT weekend, on the 24th, pheasants open, and prospects are good.
And then, two weekends from now, is the opening day of elk season on the dry side of the state.
Below, you’ll find a preview from biologists across Eastern Washington on what you should find afield.
Some of the region’s most popular hunting begins Oct. 17 with the opening of modern firearm general deer seasons. More than 25 percent of the state’s annual deer harvest usually occurs in this area, most during modern firearm season.
The north end of the region traditionally provides the highest harvest of whitetails – specifically in game management units 117 (49 Degrees North), 121 (Huckleberry) and 124 (Mount Spokane). WDFW northeast district wildlife biologist Dana Base of Colville notes, however, that overall deer harvest may be somewhat lower than the ten-year average this year.
“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 hard winters back to back, with excessive snow and cold, have further exacerbated this situation.”
Mule deer appear to have weathered the past two winters better than the whitetails, but their populations also show the same spotty pattern as whitetail populations, Base said. Some areas have stable to increasing numbers and other areas are in decline.
Base reminds hunters that the first of many deer harvest check stations of the season will be conducted on Hwy. 395 just north of Deer Park on Sunday, Oct. 18. The check station is voluntary, but Base strongly encourages hunters to stop, whether they’ve harvested game or not, to help the department build information about the season and condition of deer.
The recent WDFW acquisition of more acreage along the West Branch of the Little Spokane River in southern Pend Oreille County has hunters eager to explore newly public land. But WDFW Eastside Lands Supervisor Brian Trickel warns that there is no boundary surveying, mapping, fencing or signing of the 2,772 acres (roughly between Horseshoe and Fan lakes), so the risk of trespass on adjacent private property is very high.
“We urge hunters to be patient and wait for more definitive rules for the property,” Trickel said. “But if they attempt to use the property now they must be respectful of private landowners.” He emphasized that no unauthorized motor vehicles are allowed anywhere on the property.
Deer hunting in the south end of the region should be fair to good. WDFW district wildlife biologist Pat Fowler of Walla Walla says mule deer populations are stable along the breaks of the Snake River and in the lowlands. Although white-tailed deer populations have declined in some areas, the population overall is still strong and will offer excellent hunting opportunity, he said. 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 permission is necessary before hunting.
In most of the state the cougar hunting season also opens Oct. 17 to hunters using any weapon, but that hunt has been delayed until Oct. 31 in Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille counties, which are part of a pilot hunt for cougars using dogs Dec. 19 – March 31. WDFW carnivore manager Donny Martorello explains the delay here and in three other counties (Chelan, Okanogan and Klickitat) is designed to help biologists evaluate the pros and cons of using dogs in hunts to manage the state’s cougar population. “Deer hunters take cougars under different circumstances than hunters specifically pursuing cougars with the use of dogs,” Martorello said. “We need clear information on the effects of those strategies on the cougar population as we develop future hunting seasons.”
Waterfowl season also opens Oct. 17 and runs through Oct. 21, then picks up again Oct. 24 – Jan. 31 – a gap that allowed for the two-day September youth waterfowl hunting season within the federal framework for migratory bird hunting. The early part of the season could be better than usual because of early cold, wet weather moving ducks and geese into and through the region sooner than expected. The 2009 waterfowl regulations have a few changes this year, including a daily bag limit of two pintail, one canvasback, and three scaup (which doesn’t open until Nov. 7.)
Pheasant hunting opens Oct. 24 and WDFW upland game bird specialist Joey McCanna of Spokane says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that wild pheasant numbers in eastern Washington may be fairly good this season. Biologists throughout the central and southeast districts of the region have been observing good brood sizes, he said.
The best areas to hunt are usually along river and stream drainages, from Rock and Union Flat Creek and the Palouse River to the Snake, Touchet, Walla Walla, and Tucannon rivers. Agricultural areas brushy hillsides and draws are prime, but hunters must seek permission to access private land. Acreage enrolled in WDFW’s “Feel Free to Hunt” and “Register to Hunt” programs can be a good bet, and hunters need to scout out those program signs in the field.
Later in the season, hunters may also choose to seek out game-farm rooster pheasants at release sites; see http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/water/ewapheas.htm for details.
WDFW enforcement officers report that chukar partridge hunting, which has been under way since Oct. 3, has been fairly productive for most hunters along the Snake River breaks. Most checked had several birds bagged.
Modern firearm elk season runs Oct. 31 through Nov. 8 in several units throughout the region. The southeast district is traditionally the best, with the greatest numbers in the Blue Mountains, but only spike bulls can be harvested.
“Calf survival has improved in recent years,” WDFW biologist Fowler said, “but is still 15 percent below optimum levels, which does have a negative impact on the number of spike bulls available for harvest. The Wenaha sub-herd (GMU-169) still remains below historic population levels, which hurts overall hunting opportunity in the Blue Mountains, but hunters can expect propsects to be similar to previous years.”
Fowler said hunters lucky enough to draw one of the 80 “any bull” special permits will find excellent hunting opportunity this year. Most of those special hunts begin Oct. 26, but a few new permits were already used last month.
Central district units 124-142 are open for any elk, bull or cow, but private land access must be secured for most hunting. WDFW district wildlife biologists Howard Ferguson and Mike Atamian of Spokane recently helicopter-surveyed elk in and around Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in the Cheney (130) unit and counted a total of 260, 35 bulls, 146 cows, and 79 calves. Relative to previous years of the same aerial survey, that total was down, but they also saw a herd of about 100 elk just outside the survey area. Including those animals would bring the count above the yearly average of 316. Biologists are currently attempting a ground count and composition of the herd.
Ferguson reminds hunters the refuge is not open to elk hunting this year, but might be by next fall. For now, private property access permission must be obtained.
WDFW biologist Base says elk are fewer and further between in the northeast district, but the population at least does not appear to have been as heavily impacted by the last two winters as white-tailed deer. “Finding elk is the biggest challenge here,” he said. “There’s so much closed canopy forest where they can effectively hide and ‘sit out’ the season.”
Base asks that hunters be extremely careful about identifying game before shooting, especially in the northeast district where there are many “look alikes,” including threatened and endangered species.
“Mountain caribou which can be confused with elk and moose, lynx with bobcat, grizzly bear with black bear, and gray wolf with coyote,” Base said. “Once a bullet or arrow is launched, there is no calling it back.”
Waterfowl season runs Oct. 17-21, then picks up again Oct. 24 – Jan. 31 – a gap that allows for the two-day September youth waterfowl hunting season within the federal framework for migratory bird hunting.
WDFW waterfowl specialist Mikal Moore of Moses Lake reports ducks are moving into the Columbia Basin in ever-increasing numbers, thanks to unseasonably cold temperatures bringing ducks out of their molting and staging areas a little early.
“Cold temperatures mean higher energy demands for ducks,” Moore said. “When scouting for your opening day spot, check the water for abundant floating seeds – a good calling card for hungry ducks. Some areas with excellent natural seed production include shallow water areas on the Gloyd Seeps Wildlife Area, North Potholes Wildlife Area, and the Frenchman and Winchester Restricted Access Areas.”
Moore noted duck hunters partial to the Winchester Wasteway will find a little more open canopy, thanks to the vegetation management efforts of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area staff. A combination of fall aerial herbicide application and spring burning on invasive Phragmites has resulted in more open water and a healthy smartweed response, she said.
“Taverner’s cackling geese and lesser Canada geese are already staging in the Stratford area north of Soap Lake by the thousands,” Moore said. “Their numbers will build as high as 30,000 by the end of October. These geese will focus their feeding efforts on harvested wheat fields in the area before moving south through the Columbia Basin.”
Moore reminds waterfowlers the 2009 regulations have a few changes this year, including a daily bag limit of two pintail, one canvasback, and three scaup (which doesn’t open until Nov. 7.)
WDFW Columbia Basin district wildlife biologist Rich Finger said the outlook for the opening weekend for ducks is good. “Given the recent relatively cold conditions, waterfowl hunters can expect large numbers of early season migrants now such as green-winged teal, American wigeon , and northern pintails ,” he said. “November will bring large numbers of mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, teal, scaup, redheads , and canvasbacks . December typically provides the peak of mallards, ringnecks, and canvasbacks, while other dabbling and diving species continue their journey south.”
Also opening Oct. 17 is modern firearm general deer season in many game management units (GMUs) throughout the region.
Most overall deer harvest in the Columbia Basin occurs in the Beezley (272) and Ritzville (284) units. WDFW wildlife biologist Brock Hoenes just conducted a “test” pre-season deer survey in GMU 272 and observed 129 deer along a route where 342 deer were observed during post-season surveys in November last year. Although observations represent a very small sample size, the resulting buck-doe-fawn ratios were 21:100:61 – almost identical to the post-season ratio of 21:100:69 obtained last year.
Finger reminds deer hunters that GMU 284 is dominated by private property and access permission must be secured. GMU 272 includes 53,000 acres of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area Complex, most of which is open to hunting.
“Deer hunters should fare quite well overall 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.”
All deer hunting in GMU 290 (Desert) – Oct. 31- Nov. 8 and later in November – is through special permits by drawing. With post-hunt ratios of 50 bucks per 100 does,
Finger expects high success rates to continue this year. Public land hunting is widely available in the unit with 41 percent in the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, including riparian areas associated primarily with the Winchester and Frenchmen Wasteways, rolling, sandy dunes, and varying densities of shrub cover.
WDFW district wildlife biologist Dave Volsen of Wenatchee says deer hunting prospects in Chelan and Douglas counties are good this year. Mild winters have allowed for good deer survival with fawn numbers strong in Chelan County, he says, although they’re lower in Douglas County due to drought conditions. Post-season surveys indicate good buck escapement in Chelan County, but less so in Douglas, where open habitat allows for high harvest.
“Road densities are high in Douglas County, and that ensures access to almost all areas, resulting in high harvest and ultimately few older-aged bucks post- season.” Volsen said. “Hunters throughout this two-county district often see more of their fellow hunters than game animals. While Chelan County has a large amount of habitat, road densities are relatively low, thereby concentrating hunters in these areas. I encourage hunters to find habitat less traveled, with limited vehicle access, or, with permission, access onto private land where hunting pressure and disturbance is lower.”
Hunters are reminded the Chelan Ranger District of the Wenatchee National Forest is implementing annual fall road closures to provide for buck escapement. Closed as of Oct. 15 are Oss Peak Road # 8200 – 117, gated at both ends, and Mitchell Creek Road #8215, 8200-112, although ATV’s and motorcycles are still allowed. For more information, contact the Chelan Ranger District at 509-628-4900.
In the north end of the region, mule deer hunting prospects continue to be down, although recent cold, wet weather could improve prospects. WDFW Okanogan district wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin says that’s due to an average 70 percent over-winter fawn mortality during the 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08 winters.
“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,” Fitkin said. “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 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.
In most of the state, the cougar hunting season also opens Oct. 17 to hunters using any weapon, but that hunt will not start until Oct. 31 in Chelan and Okanogan counties, which are part of a pilot hunt for cougars using dogs in a later season (Dec. 19 – March 31). WDFW carnivore manager Donny Martorello explains the delay there and in four other counties (Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Klickitat) is designed to help biologists evaluate the pros and cons of using dogs in hunts to manage the state’s cougar population. “Deer hunters take cougars under different circumstances than hunters specifically pursuing cougars with the use of dogs,” Martorello said. “We need clear information on the effects of those strategies on the cougar population as we develop future hunting seasons.”
Pheasant hunting opens Oct. 24 and WDFW upland game bird specialist Joey McCanna of Spokane says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that wild pheasant numbers on the east side of the state may be fairly good this season.
WDFW biologist Finger notes that even though winter conditions were harsh and spring conditions were cool in the Basin, there has been no large-scale pheasant mortality. “Most hunters who invest considerable effort and cover a lot of ground will cross paths with a few wild birds,” he said.
Later in the season, hunters may also choose to seek out game-farm-raised rooster pheasants at release sites; see http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/water/ewapheas.htm for details. Non-toxic shot is now required at all pheasant release sites in the Columbia Basin.
Modern firearm elk hunting opens Oct. 31 in several units throughout the region, but few have great numbers of elk, harvest is traditionally low, and the overall hunter success rate is roughly 2 percent lower than the statewide average.
The Mission unit (251) traditionally has the highest elk harvest, WDFW biologist Volsen notes, with 42 being taken last year. Hunters should take note that GMU 251 has changed to a “true spike” restriction in 2009 to aid bull recruitment in the Colockum herd.
Hunters planning to hunt – or scout a hunt – in northwest Yakima County should be aware that access to State Highway 410 has been closed since Oct. 11, when a massive landslide pushed a quarter-mile section of the highway into the Naches River. The Washington State Patrol closed a 47-mile section of SR 410 between Lake Tipsoo in Mount Rainier National Park to the junction with U.S. Highway 12, five miles west of Naches. The Bethel Ridge Road is currently restricted to evacuees. See the Washington Department of Transportation website at http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ for updated information.
WDFW district wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz says hunters will have to find alternate routes to access portions of Game Management Units (GMU) 342 (Umtanum), 346 (Little Naches), 352 (Nile), 356 (Bumping), and 360 (Bethel). Those traveling from the east will be most affected, he said.
Modern firearm deer season opens Oct. 17 and Bernatowicz says 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.”
WDFW district wildlife biologist Mike Livingston of Pasco reports deer population estimates in the southeast 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.
Waterfowl hunting also opens Oct. 17 and recent cold, wet weather may be pushing migrant ducks and geese into the South Columbia Basin sooner than usual.
That’s good, Livingston says, because local duck production seems to have been low this year. He notes there are lots of places to hunt ducks and geese in the district, like small ponds and lakes on WDFW’s Windmill Ranch Widlife Area and Bailie Memorial Youth Ranch and else where in north Franklin County. The Corp of Engineers and USFWS provide hunting areas along the Snake and Columbia Rivers for both bank and boat hunters.
Pheasant hunting opens Oct. 24 and WDFW upland game bird specialist Joey McCanna of Spokane says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that wild pheasant numbers on the east side of the state may be fairly good this season.
Livingston agrees, noting spring conditions were favorable with lots of nesting and brood rearing cover. “Insects including grasshoppers were abundant and it looks like pheasant broods are around where habitat remains,” he said. “It may take a couple more years of favorable weather to boost populations significantly, but overall, it should be a better pheasant hunting year than last.”
The best pheasant habitat in the 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 habitat areas include the Hanford Reach National Monument’s Ringold Unit, Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge along the Columbia, and the Corps of Engineers Big Flat and Lost Island Habitat Management Units along the Snake River.
Bernatowicz reports bird production in Yakima and Kittitas counties is typically better with higher than average moisture and temperatures. “This spring started out cool and dry, although average moisture in May and June seemed to greatly improve production over 2008,” he said. “The problem is that most populations appeared to be pretty low going into the 2009 nesting season. Bird numbers are improving, but it will probably take a few years to return to above average.”
Bernatowicz noted the Yakama Nation conducts standardized pheasant surveys each summer, and this year’s indicated good production.
Later in the season, hunters may also choose to seek out game-farm-raised rooster pheasants at release sites; see http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/game/water/ewapheas.htm for details. Bernatowicz notes the Millerguard release site west of Ellensburg has been moved because target shooters caused unsafe conditions. Hunters can get directions to a new site on WDFW property near Whiskey Dick Mountain from the Yakima regional office at 509-575-2740.
Modern firearm elk season opens Oct. 31 and Bernatowicz reminds hunters that GMUs 328 (Naneum), 329 (Quilomene), 334 (Ellensburg), and 335 (Teanaway) have been changed to a “true spike bull” regulation.
A true spike bull is one with both antlers without branching originating more than four inches above where the antlers attack to the skull.
“The change was made because most of the yearling bulls were being harvested during the general elk season,” he said. “The low recruitment has left the Colockum herd well below bull escapement objectives.”
Bernatowicz also notes an error in the hunting rules pamphlet – GMU 330 (West Bar) is not open to general season elk hunting.
As for prospects, Bernatowicz expects bull harvest to be down. “Our elk calf ratio data collected in February and March was consistently low across the range,” he said. “In the Colockum herd, with a total of 4,000 elk, we have 20 calves per 100 cows and just five bulls per 100 cows. In the Yakima herd, with a total of 9,200 elk, we have 30 calves per 100 cows and 17 bulls per 100 cows. Since calves surveyed in March are spike bulls in the fall, chances of taking one this season are down.”
WDFW biologist Livingston says elk hunting in the southeast district is limited to lands surrounding the west and south boundaries of the Hanford Reach National Monument (GMU 372).
“Hunts are geared toward addressing crop damage on surrounding wheat farms, vineyards and orchards,” he said. “Access is extremely limited to either a couple pieces of state land north of Prosser and Benton City and private land through special permit drawings. The best way to secure access is to apply for a special permit through the Landowner Hunt Program. If selected, permit holders are guaranteed a one day guided hunt. Most permits are limited to antlerless opportunity for youth hunters, but a few elk permits are issued each year. Surveys in January 2009 yielded a total herd estimate of 639 elk with 49 bulls and 15 calves per 100 cows. The high bull ratio is typical for this herd since they can seek refuge on the federal Hanford lands during hunting season. The calf count was below average and was likely a result of the stress the cows experienced from a wildfire that burned in August 2007.”