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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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