Tag Archives: blue mountains

2018 Washington Deer Hunting Prospects: A Better Hunt This Fall?

Following Washington’s worst deer season in 20 years, there are signs the harvest may rebound.

By Andy Walgamott

On the bright side, Washington deer hunters have nowhere to look but up after 2017, one of the worst falls in 20-plus years.

That might be the most positive way to look at this season’s prospects across the Evergreen State, where bowhunters took the field earlier this month, muzzleloaders at the end of September and riflemen give it a go starting the second Saturday of October.

A BIG HARVEST IN 2015 AS WELL AS DROUGHT, WINTERKILL AND THE SECOND LOWEST NUMBER OF HUNTERS AFIELD LED TO AN ABYSMAL HARVEST IN 2017 FOR WASHINGTON SPORTSMEN. DESPITE IT ALL, HUNTERS LIKE CHUCK HARTMAN WERE ABLE TO TAG OUT AND CAN LOOK FORWARD TO A POTENTIAL REBOUND THIS FALL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

There actually are some good signs out there – solid postseason buck escapement numbers in places, an easy winter that should mean more available deer in previously hard-hit units, and a liberalized bag limit in a key area for certain weapons types.

But it will be interesting to see if the hangover from 2017, when only 23.6 percent of general season hunters tagged out – the second lowest this millennium – has worn off.

Indeed, following 2015’s decade-high overall harvest of 37,963 deer, nearly 11,500 fewer whitetails, muleys and blacktails were killed during 2017’s general and special seasons, the fewest in more than 20 years.

Part of that was probably due to a near-new low number of hunters last year – 106,977, down 46,000 from the last year of the 20th Century – but also lingering aftereffects of 2015’s harvest as well as drought and harsher recent winters that depressed deer production and numbers.

Still, crying in our beer ain’t gonna fill a tag, so here’s what biologists around Washington are forecasting for this season:

A SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON MULE DEER BUCK PUTS DISTANCE BETWEEN ITSELF AND PHOTOGRAPHER-HUNTER CHAD ZOLLER LAST FALL. POSTSEASON COUNTS FOUND GOOD NUMBERS OF BUCKS IN COLUMBIA BASIN UNITS, BUT LOWER FIGURES IN CHELAN AND OKANOGAN COUNTIES. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

NORTHEAST

In terms of sheer numbers, with all its whitetails and good habitat, harvest in the upper righthand corner of the state will always be hard to beat. And for this year, bowmen and muzzleloaders will again be able to take any whitetail, which hopefully produces an uptick in the take.

“My goal is to keep steadier harvest regulations,” says district biologist Annemarie Princee.

Following the windfall of the end of the four-point whitetail minimum in two key game management units in 2015 and bucks-only rules for the aforementioned weapons types the past two seasons, harvest declined by nearly 3,000 deer, or 37 percent.

But even as those two GMUs (Huckleberry, 49 Degrees North) saw sharp declines, other units – Kelly Hill, Douglas, Aladdin and Selkirk – have kept on keepin’ on, producing near-similar harvests year after year from 2013 to 2017, with generally steady days-per-kill needed to notch a tag.

OPENING DAY WAS GETTING A LITTLE LONG IN THE TOOTH IN PEND OREILLE COUNTY WHEN THIS WHITETAIL POPPED OUT IN FRONT OF KYLIE CAREY, WHO MADE GOOD ON THE SHOT. IT WAS HER FIRST TIME HUNTING. “AWESOME EXPERIENCE!” EXCLAIMS HUSBAND LEVI. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

In the region’s core, Stevens County, longterm deer counts show fawn numbers getting back to about average of the past 10 years after a new low in 2016, and that should mean more forked horns and spikes on the landscape. Buck numbers are about average, or at least were going into last season.

In their 2018 prospects document, Prince and assistant biologist Ben Turnock rank the Douglas and Huckleberry Units as best for modern firearm hunters. Those two yielded 1.38 and 2.23 deer per square mile last year, with 36.7 and 38.2 percent success rates.

They’re on the lighter side in terms of public land, but it’s a much different story with Kelly Hill, Aladdin, 49 Degrees North, Sherman and Selkirk. The bios rank the first two units higher than the others, but the third actually has a better harvest per square mile than either.

As a reminder, youth and disabled riflemen can take whitetail does the first two weekends of general season. Senior hunters nobly opted out to provide more opportunity for others.

Prince is also making a special plea to youth and disabled hunters who take a doe this fall to stop by the check station so that biologists can extract their animal’s jaw bone to study body conditions and monitor for chronic wasting disease.

A 320-YARD SHOT LED TO A NOTCHED TAG FOR CRAIG WESTLIN. HE WAS HUNTING NEAR POMEROY, IN SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON, WITH GUIDE JACK PEASLEY OF DEADMAN CREEK OUTFITTERS. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

UPPER SCABLANDS, PALOUSE

Where Northeast Washington hunting lives and dies by its whitetail numbers, mule deer contribute well to the harvest in Whitman, Lincoln and Spokane Counties, spreading the risk and opportunity. Unfortunately for hunters, both species are still in recovery mode from recent years’ environmental setbacks that led to a 25 percent general-season harvest decline between 2015 and 2017.

“Though the white-tailed deer population is starting to rebound from the 2015 blue tongue outbreak and 2016-17 winter, hunters should still expect to have to put in more time to be successful,” biologist Michael Atamian and Carrie Lowe write in their game prospects. “With fawn-to-doe ratios rebounding from the droughts of 2014 and 2015, mule deer numbers should also be on the increase. Hunters should still expect to put in more time than in previous years to be successful.”

Days per kill has doubled in the Roosevelt and Cheney, and Harrington and Steptoe Units versus how long it took to tag out in 2008, rising from roughly 10 and seven to 20 and 15, respectively. It’s also risen in the Almota Unit, though not as much, but it’s now taking fewer days to bag a deer in the Mt. Spokane Unit.

The far northern Palouse is very light on public land and even farms offering access through state programs, but there are many more cooperators in the heart of the loess and along the Snake River Breaks.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON! JACK BENSON, AGE 11, FOLLOWED UP ON HIS DAD JEFF’S FINE WALLA WALLA COUNTY MUZZLELOADER BUCK WITH A GREAT FIRST BUCK DURING THE RIFLE SEASON. “HE SET THE BAR HIGH FOR HIS FUTURE HUNTS,” JEFF NOTES. WE’LL SAY! (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

BLUE MOUNTAINS

Better hunting is still a year away, according to biologists Paul Wik and Mark Vekasy. They say that 2015’s drought and the heavy winter of 2016-17 knocked back fawn numbers and led to 2017’s “poor” season and unfortunately the effects will linger into this fall with reduced numbers of legal bucks. Between 2015 and 2017 general season harvest declined 20 percent.

We “do not expect a return to average harvest until the 2019 hunting season,” they write in their game prospects. “Consequently, populations available for 2018 harvest are not expected to improve much over the poor 2017 season.”

Looking at recent years’ stats, hunter success has cratered in the wilderness Wenaha Unit, and while it’s dropped everywhere, it hasn’t been as bad in some. Rimming the edge of the mountains, Blue Creek, Dayton, Marengo, Peola and Couse have seen relatively steady harvests. While the knock on them is the general lack of public ground, there is Feel Free To Hunt and other private land that’s available, along with portions of four wind energy facilities.

But if last year is any indication, the mostly public Lick Creek and half-public Mountain View Units will still yield bucks. And the almost entirely private Prescott Unit will produce the most; look to get permission to hunt Conservation Reserve Program lands and the breaks of the Snake.

Ranking all of their units by harvest, hunter density and success, and public access, the biologists rate Mayview, Peola and Couse highest, but Lick Creek the worst.

SOUTHERN BASIN

Mule deer fawn numbers didn’t dip as low in Franklin and Adams Counties as they did higher up in the Columbia Basin, but harvest declined by nearly a quarter here.

Still, last year’s postseason buck survey found a healthy 21 per 100 does, somewhat surprising given the open nature of this country. Some of those were obviously off-limits spikes and forked horns, and it’s possible the count included deer that had migrated in from the east and north, but it’s a good sign coming into this fall.

With greater than 9 out of every 10 acres privately owned, biologist Jason Fidorra points hunters to the patches of WDFW, DNR and BLM land scattered around the district, but the Kahlotus Unit has some pretty big chunks of Feel Free To Hunt and Hunt By Written Permission properties.

Muzzleloaders should be aware that, new for 2018, antlerless mule deer can no longer be taken during the late season in the Kahlotus, part of a changing strategy for managing the herd. That hunt was shifted later in the year, though, wrapping up after Dec. 8, which could mean some nice migratory bucks in the mix.

NO WORD ON WHETHER HE WAS HUNTING ON A FELLOW STATE LEGISLATOR’S MOUNTAIN RANCH, BUT REP. BRIAN BLAKE DID GET IT DONE IN THE SAME COUNTY, OKANOGAN, WITH THIS NICE MULEY. THE ABERDEEN DEMOCRAT IS THE CHAIR OF THE IMPORTANT HOUSE AGRICULTURE & NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE, OF WHICH REP. JOEL KRETZ, REPUBLICAN OF WAUCONDA, IS ALSO A MEMBER. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

OKANOGAN COUNTY

If there’s good news from Washington’s best mule deer country, it might be that a relatively strong 19 bucks per 100 does were counted on the winter range coming out of last year’s hunt.

“And with almost half of those being greater than or equal to three-points, older age-class buck availability looks good,” report district biologists Scott Fitkin and Jeff Henlein in their prospects.

But while 19 per 100 is at the top end of the management objective, it’s well below the gaudy highs of late falls earlier this decade, and probably a sign of reduced recruitment.

“Overall, total general season harvest and success rates are anticipated to be around the 2017 numbers, somewhere above the 10-year low and below the 5-year average,” the biologists forecast.

For the record, general season hunters killed 1,966 deer here last year, including 1,201 by riflemen, numbers that were down 43 and 54 percent, respectively, from 2015, a ridiculously good year when even blundering hook-and-bullet editors could notch a tag.

At this writing, things had been hot and dry for months and months, and that may concentrate deer on north-facing slopes where moisture can stick around a bit longer, the biologists suggest. But if rains have returned since, that may green things up a bit and spread the animals back across this beautiful sprawling landscape until high-country snows drive the bruisers to the winter range, providing good opportunities for those lucky enough to have drawn special permits.

Meanwhile, glass those burns – Tripod, Needles, etc. – for bucks foraging on high-quality browse, then put a sneak on them. But be aware that the Twisp River’s Crescent Fire caused a large-scale closure that may still affect access into the Gardner and Alta Units. See fs.usda.gov/okawen and inciweb.nwcg.gov for more.

IT DOESN’T ALWAYS SNOW DURING WASHINGTON’S EARLY WILDERNESS RIFLE DEER SEASON, BUT WHEN IT DOES AND WHEN A HUNTER BAGS A BUCK, IT MAKES FOR A GREAT PHOTO. SUCH IS THE CASE WITH JON JACKMAN, WHO WEATHERED A DAYS-LONG STORM, TO HUNT SOME HIGH MEADOWS ON HIS LAST FULL DAY AT A DROP CAMP. WHEN HE TOOK A LAST GLANCE BACK TO WHERE SOME DOES HAD GONE, HE SPOTTED HIS BUCK. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

CHELAN COUNTY

The story is similar to the south of the Okanogan but also more positive in part. Buck numbers declined to 18:100 does coming out of last season in vaunted Chelan County due to 2015 and winters, but across the river in Douglas County, the herd is more stable.

“Hunters should consider the Chelan population to be in a rebuilding phase for the next few years. Survey numbers in Douglas County are encouraging, with overall buck-to-doe ratios above the objective of 15 bucks per 100 does,” report biologists David Volsen and Devon Comstock.

They say that their district’s eastern herd should be bigger and provide more opportunities this season, at least to those with permission to hunt the high, open Mansfield Plateau and its nooks and crannies for generally smaller bucks on private land. The bios report that there is some 150 square miles of farms and ranches open through the Feel Free To Hunt and Hunt By Written Permission programs.

And unlike other recent large state acquisitions, the entire 21,140 acres of the Big Bend Wildlife Area – the former Grand Coulee Ranch – is open to general season hunting. Expect it to be crowded on the first rifle weekend, but a boat and a good map opens up possibilities on the upper south shore of Rufus Woods Lake. Note that this wildlife area is also the first to specifically prohibit e-bikes.

Volsen and Comstock estimated that in 2017 12,680 deer occurred in Douglas County, but the herd in Chelan County south of the big fjord declined from the 15,000 to 18,000 range to 11,000 as of two years ago. The good news is the bleeding has stopped in the latter county.

“Winter conditions in 2017-18 were more normal. Decreased overwinter mortality should allow the population to start recovering from declines,” they wrote.

In the short term they expect a “flatter” harvest of big bucks and that hunters will have to “work a little harder” to find legal animals this fall. But with a stable population, good to improving habitat and the ability of deer to repopulate fairly rapidly, the long-term outlook is good.

The district’s best unit, Entiat, was only singed by the Cougar Creek Fire, but the Chiwawa Unit had big closure areas at press time due to it. Watch the above websites for updates.

AFTER KYLIE RICE AND HER DAD RYNE SPOTTED THIS EASTERN WASHINGTON BUCK DURING THE LATE MUZZLELOADER HUNT, THEY STALKED TO WITHIN 92 YARDS, THEN RYNE TOOK THE SHOT. BUT THAT WASN’T THE END OF THE 9-YEAR-OLD’S EDUCATION – KYLIE FOLLOWED A 60-YARD BLOOD TRAIL TO THE DEER. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

WESTERN COLUMBIA BASIN

Not unlike Douglas County to the north, Grant and Adams Counties’ best units, Beezley and Ritzville, are mostly private, but last fall’s posthunt survey found buck:doe ratios above what you might expect out of this sort of country: 16- and 21:100. Both were up over the previous autumn, and fawn ratios were also “favorable” last year, with 71- and 73:100, respectively – well up from 2015’s “all-time lows.”

“Given the modest escapement of bucks in 2017 and likely good recruitment of fawns, hunters should expect an average year for mule deer hunting throughout the district,” report biologists Sean Dougherty and Ella Rowan.

Between three private-lands access programs, there are 200,000-plus acres hunters can get onto through reservations, written permission or just walking on. And despite no hunting unit having more than 15 percent public lands, outside of the permit-only Desert GMU, there’s a wide variety of federally or state-owned ground to look into.

WASHINGTON’S TEANAWAY’S STILL GOT IT FOR BIG BUCKS, IF BART OLSON’S BRUISER IS ANY INDICATION. HE BAGGED THIS MULEY DURING A RAINY DAY NEAR THE END OF THE OCTOBER HUNT. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

YAKIMA, KITTITAS COUNTIES

If you’re looking for a place to hunt with good road access, plenty of public land and loooooooow pressure, these two South-central Washington counties just might be for you. That’s also assuming you have little interest in notching a tag.

Indeed, there may be no grimmer district hunting forecast than the one issued by biologist Jeff Bernatowicz: “Wolves ate ’em all.”

Just kidding. He actually writes that last year’s harvest was the worst on record, the success rate was just 5 percent – two mountainous units produced just seven deer between them for 800 riflemen – and the age-class of bucks that should be on the landscape now is “missing.”

“No rebound is expected for 2018,” Bernie reports.

It’s actually pretty sad because this herd has been really struggling since the early 2000s. Recently things appeared to be slowly improving, thanks to three years of good fawn recruitment that helped spike the harvest to 1,019 deer in 2015, but that production fell off a cliff due to the aforementioned drought and winterkill, and last year only saw 499 taken.

NEW RESEARCH BY STATE WILDLIFE MANAGERS IS PROVIDING CLUES ABOUT WHERE TO LOOK FOR WESTSIDE BLACKTAIL BUCKS, LIKE THIS COWEEMAN UNIT THREE-POINT TAKEN BY BRANDON WILLIAMS DURING LAST YEAR’S LATE RIFLE HUNT. “IF A HUNTER SEES SIGNS OF DEER IN AN AREA, BUT NO DEER, THEY NEED TO BE PATIENT OR CHANGE THEIR APPROACH,” THEY COUNSEL. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

KLICKITAT

The harsh, lingering winter of 2016-17 and an adenovirus outbreak added up to “very low” success rates last fall on Washington’s side of the eastern Columbia Gorge, with lowest-in-a-decade-at-least harvests in the West and East Klickitat and Grayback Units.

But biologist Stephanie Bergh believes that things will begin to turn around this fall, and, even better, fawn survival coming out of last winter was back to historic levels for these units.

As a reminder, the Simcoe Wildlife Area is permit only. And new this year, Stevenson Land Company has closed two areas, Snowden and Gilmer, to the general public.

But another 65,000 acres of Western Pacific Timber lands west of Highway 97 is open for walk-in hunting, as are Hancock lands, for the time being.

HUNTING THE SAME NORTH CASCADES HILLS AS HIS FATHER GREW UP HUNTING WITH HIS GRANDFATHER, DIEGO DEL NAGRO MADE THE FAMILY PROUD WITH THIS OPENING-MORNING BLACKTAIL, SHOT AT 150 YARDS WITH THE 10-YEAR-OLD’S NEW .243. (BROWNING PHOTO CONTEST)

WESTSIDE

Last year’s harvest dropoff wasn’t just limited to Eastern Washington units – it was statewide, with all districts declining. Pacific and Grays Harbor County biologists Anthony Novack and Scott Harris report nearly 600 fewer deer were harvested in 2017 than 2016, which they termed “surprising and without an obvious biological cause.”

Part of that could be due to the aforementioned low hunter turnout, but a table the bios produced doesn’t show that much of a decline in South Coast numbers between the years. (More troubling is the long-term drop here, from 7,000 in 2008 to 4,500 in 2017, probably indicative of hunters aging out and the rise of access-fee policies).

For those who venture out for blacktail here or elsewhere on the Westside, they offer this advice based on deer collared in the Capitol State Forest:

“None of the deer monitored in WDFW’s study used an area larger than 0.38 square miles (243 acres). The average home range size was 0.14 square miles (86 acres). Some deer used an area no bigger than 45 acres in size during an entire year. If a hunter sees signs of deer in an area, but no deer, they need to be patient or change their approach.”

For more on WDFW’s deer studies, see the October issue’s South Sound column.

In Wahkiakum, Cowlitz and Lewis Counties, biologists Eric Holman and Nicholle Stephens expect hunting to be “good” this season, thanks to a mild winter.

Target regenerating clearcuts near taller second- and third-growth on state and private timberlands. Don’t have a trespass pass? WDFW’s Hunting page (wdfw.wa.gov/hunting) now has two different maps to help you find public land here and across the state.

But know that some huntable parcels may not be so readily visible, requiring extra work to sniff them out. For instance, some community forests on various Puget Sound islands are open under varying rules. Westside biologists’ online hunting prospects provide some details. 

Without Boggan’s, ‘Fishing The Ronde Will Never Be Quite The Same’

I’ll be rooting around my parent’s basement on Thanksgiving Day, searching for an old yellow notepad that’s gathered nearly 20 years of dust.

The words scrawled across those 70 or 80 pages go with a few dozen slide photographs I dug out of the back corner of my cramped attic yesterday afternoon and put on the light box.

I hadn’t meant to resurrect them all for another year and a half, for a magazine feature I’ve mulled, but then I learned that Boggan’s Oasis burned down Saturday night and I needed to remember right then.

ALL THAT REMAINS OF BOGGAN’S OASIS, THOUGH THE MEMORY OF THE ICONIC RESTAURANT ALONG HIGHWAY 129 HALFWAY BETWEEN ASOTIN, WASHINGTON, AND ENTERPRISE, OREGON, WILL LIVE ON IN THE HEARTS OF LOCAL RESIDENTS, STEELHEADERS, HUNTERS AND OTHERS WHO’VE STOPPED IN FOR A MILKSHAKE, A BOX LUNCH OR DINNER. (JENNIFER BRISTOL)

All that’s left of the restaurant is twisted metal, fallen cinder blocks and a hollow place in the hearts of everyone who knows this country.

Let me tell you about my connection to it.

I spent two weeks in a cabin and trailer above Boggan’s in March 1999, taking the aforementioned notes and images while fishing for steelhead above and below the iconic restaurant along Washington’s Grande Ronde.

I remember the kindness and wonderful meals served up by the owners, Bill and Farrel Vail, who today aren’t sure if they will rebuild or not.

“I’m 84, and my lovely wife, she’s 82,” Bill told the Spokesman-Review. “It will work out. Everything’s in God’s hands. It will work out.”

They’d been up later than usual Saturday night to watch Gonzaga beat Utah State when they heard some noises and realized the restaurant was ablaze.

With no fire stations able to respond and the fire’s heat having destroyed a water pump that otherwise might have helped hose things down a bit, there was nothing for the Vails to do but watch the business they’ve owned since 1983 burn.

If there’s solace, I’m told by a local resident that the shuttle service and cabins are still available; check at the double wide or call (509) 256-3418.

But the restaurant is “a complete loss.

I remember back in ’99, after the day’s steelheading was done, eating dinner there and tracking the Zags as they made their first deep run in the Final Four.

IMAGES FROM A MARCH 1999 STEELHEADING STAY ON THE GRANDE RONDE RIVER OUT OF BOGGAN’S. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

I know I took a lot of notes as the plug rods bounced on those floats down from Cougar Creek, but I hope to find in the pages of that yellow pad in my folks’ basement more memories from the wonderful evening sessions spent with fellow fishermen and others inside the cozy restaurant.

It was an important way station for those headed north or south by road, or east or west on the river.

Whether you were going to end your day at the takeout below Boggan’s or start there on the float downstream to Schumacher, whether you were coming from Enterprise headed for Asotin or vice versa, in a land where services are few and far between, Boggan’s was where you stopped for breakfast, lunch, dinner, local information or just to let the brakes cool at the base of the Rattlesnake and Buford Grades while you enjoyed one of their famed milkshakes.

“That place truly was an oasis in an otherwise isolated part of the world,” noted Chris Donley, a steelheader as well as WDFW’s regional fishing manager. “I’m going to miss the pay phone to check in at home and some great all-you-can-eat meals served up with love from Farrel. More importantly, this was Bill and Farrel’s home. I worry for them that they have a place to go during the holidays and beyond. I will miss the place and all its worn-out quirks. Fishing the Ronde will never quite be the same.”

I remember stopping at the restaurant in the mid-90s during a winter circumnavigation of the Blues and Greg using that payphone to make a call home to his folks.

Several years later, during that 1999 trip, my mom called the restaurant and left a message to tell me that F&H News wanted me to come in for a job interview at their Seattle office. I put the magazine off a week so I could fish some more, but did eventually hire on there.

As editor of the Washington edition, me or Randall Peters would call Bill for a report on the steelheading, which was typically all right if not good, even if the boys at the tackle shop in Clarkston thought otherwise than the savvy businessman on the Ronde.

The history of Boggan’s traces back to the post-World War II era, and is named for its original proprietor. Even as the nearby farming towns of Mountain View, Anatone, Paradise and Flora faded into history, Boggan’s was a coal that continued to burn in one of Washington’s most remote corners.

During the Vails’ ownership, smallmouth and steelhead runs increased markedly, and if you’d asked me after my 1999 trip, I would have told you it would have been impossible for the fishing to have been any better than it was that March.

A nine-fish day, a seven-fish day. Yes, I was in the hands of someone on their way to expert status, but I hit three on my own one day from the bank and felt pretty good about that, even if it was just below Cottonwood Creek.

That winter-spring season was actually only so-so for summer-runs, at least when measured against the years that proceeded it, one of which saw more than 325,000 fish over Lower Granite Dam and a Ronde harvest in excess of 13,000.

But the fishing wasn’t very good at all this past winter, one of the harshest to hit this country in several decades.

The river froze, then blew out. Participation in Boggan’s annual derby was half of usual, and only 29 steelhead were weighed in.

“No fish turned in at all after March 7,” they told me. “This year we are trying to forget.”

Those words, written in April as the Ronde tried to green up for the last week of season, were hopeful, but would be followed by a poor return this year.

And now the fire.

Looking through old slides and reading notes from days gone by won’t bring back the Boggan’s I knew, or anyone else did, but I hope to get back there this Thursday, as my family and I sit down to give thanks for what we have, and have had.

TO BE FINISHED PROPERLY …

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

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.”