Oregon’s and Washington’s best for big game, waterfowl and upland birds.
By Troy Rodakowski and Andy Walgamott
There are 75 counties in the 164,100 square miles of the Evergreen and Beaver States, and they range from lonesome swaths of the Sagebrush Sea to islands stippling the Salish Sea, but which are best for hunters? If ever there’s a season for rankings it would be fall, what with this month being the heart of the college football season, and so with hunting in full effect this month, we decided to try our hand at ranking the 10 best counties in both states for big game, waterfowl and upland birds. Troy Rodakowski, our Junction City-based correspondent, handled the Oregon side while I rated the Washington side. Here are our learned rankings, based on personal experience, harvest data, public access and more:
BEST FOR BIRDS (tie)
Location: The Alberta Mallard Funeral Home’s Columbia Basin franchise.
Gaminess Quotient: Whisper “Potholes” to see waterfowlers’ eyes roll back in ecstasy over waves of greenheads and duck kabobs hot off the grill.
Available Critters: If it flies, it dies here – and in droves. Perennially Washington’s top county for ducks, geese, doves and pheasant, it’s also among the best for quail, is all right for partridge, and we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the best-in-the-state snipe hunting (no, seriously!).
Why It’s So Great: Take 2,800 miles of basalt, nuke it with dozens of Missoula Floods, add water in the form of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and voilà – instant ponds, impenetrable thickets and feeding grounds galore! Having more pheasant release sites than any other county in the 509 doesn’t hurt either.
The Only Drawback: As birdy as Grant County is, it don’t got grouse. Well, except for those dancing ones you can’t shoot.
Access: Amply endowed with state and federal wildlife areas, as well as sprawling BLM ground and private lands open through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s access programs. Top spots include Winchester and Frenchman Hills Wasteways, Gloyd Seeps, Potholes Reservoir, lower Crab Creek and the infamous Stratford Firing Line.
Yahtzee!: A midwinter thaw that sucks ducks back north from southern Columbia Basin waters.
Pro Tip: Go ahead and rent a room in Moses Lake or cabin at Mar Don – sleeping in your rig to get the best blind spot can lead to frostbite, or worse, buddy warming, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Info: WDFW Ephrata (509-754-4624); The Duck Taxi (800-416-2736); Mardon Resort (509-346-2651); Grant County Tourism (509-921-5579); Ephrata.org
Location: Just this side of Amsterdam’s red light district. Gaminess Quotient: Mount Vernon’s the home of the world-famous Greenhead Tulip®!*
Available Critters: Huge flocks of mallards, pintails and
wigeons annually winter on the vast Skagit and Samish River Deltas, while blizzards of snow geese wing in from Russia with love. The county’s eastern forests also produce the second-best west-slope Cascades grouse harvest.
Why It’s So Great: Herds of hard-working Dutch farmers and a whole lot of erosion over the eons have created some of the best waterfowl habitat on the West Coast. Protected saltwater bays provide night roosts very close to productive aglands. The Only Drawback: The looks you get from snow goose looky-loos … “Mommy, why are those birds dropping from the air?”
Access: Several thousand acres scattered around the deltas are owned by WDFW. Boat ramps provide good access onto the waters of the bays – just know the tides.
Yahtzee!: Rains that flood farm fields, providing standing water for quackers to better access forage.
Pro Tip: Look into WDFW’s Private Lands Access Program – for this season, nearly three dozen farmers have enrolled their lands in the program.
Info: WDFW Mill Creek (425-775-1311)
*OK, so we made that flower up.
BEST MIXED BAG (tie)
Location: At the intersection of Elky Avenue and Birdy Boulevard. Gaminess Quotient: The county’s name is a Native American word for “well-fed people.”
Available Critters: Along with grouse and bears, elk haunt the highlands, while the Yakima Valley holds strong populations of doves, quail and pheasants and draws in migrating ducks and geese. Why It’s So Great: The South Cascades’ vast forests and large meadows provide pasturage for the state’s largest elk herd, and irrigated croplands in the valley fatten the feathered ones finely. The Only Drawback: An exotic louse has sucked the life out of the county’s deer hunting.
Access: Much of the northwestern end of the county is national forest and state lands, and a Yakima Nation hunting permit or Yakima Training Center Outdoor Recreation Card open up thousands more acres of tribal and federal ground to pursue game. Yahtzee!: Midfall blizzards that stampede wapiti out of the mountains.
Pro Tip: Fit right in around the campfire with longtime Yakima elk hunters by recalling how Uncle So-and-so was among the riflemen who had to be choppered out of the Nile, Bethel, etc., when the Great Snowstorm of November 1985 struck.
Info: WDFW Yakima (509-575-2740); ynwildlife.org; lewis-mcchord.army.mil/yakima
Location: The rumply, bumpy lands that Long Beach Peninsula kites fly off to to die.
Gaminess Quotient: Wusses Lewis & Clark totally blew it when they quit Dismal Nitch for Astoria.
Available Critters: Elk, bear and deer roam the timbered hills and grassy estuaries of this rain-lashed South Coast county, while Willapa Bay sucks in ducks and geese, and hosts the state’s only regularly scheduled brant season.
Why It’s So Great: Active timber harvesting creates those successional landscapes that big game do so well in, and the logging road network provides good hunting access. As for Willapa Bay, it’s only the second largest West Coast estuary and provides key winter habitatfor honkers, wigeon and other waterfowl.
The Only Drawback: So much private timberland – Rayonier, Weyerhaueser, former Longview Fibre lands – is now fee-access or closed to lease hunters only.
Access: Four large blocks of DNR land and the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge provide the bulk of free access, while Weyerhaueser and Rayonier permits will set you back $50 to $200.
Yahtzee!: Inland ice-ups that flush birds out to coastal bays.
Pro Tip: WDFW’s deputy chief and one of its captains live in and patrol this country in their spare time, so better be on your best behavior!
Info: WDFW Montesano (360-249-4628)
BEST FOR BIG GAME
Location: A-woooooooooay up in Northeast Washington.
Gaminess Quotient: There’s a reason so many wolves moved in – and it ain’t just the taste of the Dashiels’ mutton and McIrvins’ beeves.
Available Critters: Whitetail deer are the bread-and-butter crop, but elk, black bear and cougars are taken in fair numbers, and a few muleys turn up too. At the rate they’re multiplying it might not be long before Canis lupus makes this list as well.
Why It’s So Great: The county presents the perfect mix of old farming operations in the valleys backed up against working timberlands. The end of the four-point minimum for whitetails in the Huckleberry and 49 Degrees North units will only help the harvest this month.
The Only Drawback: Did we mention the wolves? Actually, so far state data isn’t showing a strong, clear signal – some deer units in the region are below prewolf-arrival harvest levels, while hunter success rates have gone up in others.
Access: Good mapping will help locate the many scattered chunks of state forest, BLM and National Park Service lands in the lowlands, while Colville National Forest, Little Pend Oreille NWR and industrial timberlands provide hunting ground higher up.
Yahtzee!: A mid-November snowfall makes for classic conditions to hunt rutty flagtails.
Pro Tip: Might want to leave your mystical-howling-wolf-under-the-stars T-shirt at the county line.
Info: WDFW Spokane (509-892-1001); Colville Chamber of Commerce (colville.com) NS
BEST FOR DEER (tie)
County: Harney, Malheur
Location: A European-country-sized chunk of Southeast Oregon with more mule deer than people.
Gaminess Quotient: The words Steens, Hart Mountain and Owyhee perk the ears of those who hunt for big mule deer.
Available Critters: Some of Oregon’s biggest bucks reside in these counties’ wildlife units, and hunters lucky enough to draw one of the coveted permits stand an excellent chance of bagging the buck of a lifetime.
Why It’s So Great: Habitat and genetics. The Steens Mountains, which includes 428,156 acres of public lands, offer diverse scenic and recreational experiences. Rich with nutrients for massive antler growth, these breathtaking highlands descend to the sageladen desert and grasslands where mule deer are meant to thrive. Massive bucks spend summers in the high country and migrate to the lower reaches of desert, grasslands and ranchproperties to winter. In addition, there are trophy-class antelope, good numbers of upland birds and northern portions also hold good numbers of elk.
Access: There are several state and federal wildlife areas, BLM and USFS lands, as well as private ranches open to the public. There are some access restrictions and permission requirements on refuges and private lands. Top spots include the aforementioned Steens Mountains, Juniper, Hart Mountain, Owyhee Mountains, Burns, Jordan Valley and the Malheur lowlands.
Pro Tip: Motels are available in Burns, Frenchglen, Steens Mt. Resort, Vale, Ontario and other small towns in between. Also, there are numerous campgrounds for trailers and tent camping. However, for some of the best opportunities, packing into the high country or hiking away from roads and setting up spike camps will be your best bet.
Info: ODFW Hines (541-573-6582); BLM Burns (541573-4400); Department of Forestry (541-947-3311)
Location: Pages 1-20 of the Oregon hunting record book’s blacktail section.
Gaminess quotient: If you want a trophy-class buck, head due south. Available Critters: Big bucks are not uncommon here, and some have been documented to migrate over 100 miles during the fall. Migration from higher elevations near 6,000 feet begins in September and lasts through November in the Rogue and Siskiyou National Forests.
Why It’s So Great: Habitat near Medford is excellent and grows some of the biggest blacktails known to man and is famous for doing so. The land has an abundance of pine, madrona and oak savannah habitat in which deer thrive. Additionally, the national forests and large amount of BLM holdings throughout the region are easily accessible. In addition, there are good amounts of elk, turkey, bear and other upland birds for the taking. Recent fires have also enhanced habitat for game and these locations will be prime for several years to come.
Access: With all the open public and private land, accessing good hunting is just a short drive or hike away from the nearest trailhead or campground. The Siskiyou-Rogue National Forest consists of 628,443 acres, much of which is located in Jackson County. Additionally, the 1,760 acres of Denman Wildlife Area near Eagle Point offers some great hunting opportunities for waterfowl and upland enthusiasts. There are several choices of hotels in Medford and small neighboring towns and lots of campgrounds.
Pro Tip: To find a trophy-class buck, a backpack hunt or setting up a spike camp is recommended. Also, make sure to always have a fall bear and cougar tag when you’re hunting here.
Info: ODFW Central Point (541-426-3279); BLM Medford (541-618-220); Jackson County Parks (541-774-8183)
BEST FOR BIRDS
Location: Where the Columbia meets the Blues.
Gaminess Quotient: Very similar to Washington’s superbirdy Grant County, except with grouse! Top that!
Available Critters: Birds of a feather flock together – pheasant, quail and chukar thrive on Conservation Reserve Program lands and the rolling grain fields, and if that’s not enough, the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge is crawling with waterfowl in fall and winter.
Why It’s So Great: Habitat is excellent here. The land has been enhanced with CRP setasides, and it grows a multitude of cereal, grass and forage crops. The wooded heights in the Umatilla National Forest provide some of the best grouse hunting that Oregon has to offer, while lower down, this part of the Columbia Basin is famous for its waterfowling and the Umatilla NWR provides hunters with top quality hunts. There are also excellent opportunities for mule deer, whitetail and elk in the national forest.
Access: With a multitude of BLM, USFS and private CRP ranches, this section of Oregon is a prime ticket for any upland hunter looking to score on a multitude of species. Hotels are available in Boardman, Heppner and Umatilla. There are also several campgrounds throughout the Umatilla National Forest and Morrow County Parks.
Pro Tip: Some of the best hunting locations are found on the CRP acreage throughout the county. Calling landowners and asking for permission to hunt is your best bet. There can also be decent opportunities for quail and pheasant in and near the Umatilla NWR and its 23,555 acres.
Info: ODFW Heppner (541-676-5230); BLM Prineville (541-416-6700); Morrow County Parks (541-989-8214) for reservations; Umatilla NWR (509-546-8500); Field n Marsh Outfitter & Kennels (541-490-1300)
BEST FOR ELK
Location: Clinging onto the northeast corner of Oregon at the edge of the Grande Ronde’s and Hells Canyons.
Gaminess Quotient: Where Oregon elkaholics go to get their fix. Available Critters: Big bulls roam the high reaches of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Eagle Cap Wilderness and the Snake River Divide. Oftentimes, it takes several years to draw a desired permit. However, there are several archery and rifle permits up for grabs over the counter for hunters to take advantage of. Sled Springs, Imnaha, Pine Creek, Minam and Snake River are top choices.
Why It’s So Great: Massive swaths of public land and the steep country of Hells Canyon provide sanctuary to not just large bull elk, but mule deer, whitetails, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Access: Seemingly endless amounts of USFS and BLM land provide hunters with a plethora of options. In addition, there are several travel management areas throughout Wallowa County that restrict the use of motorized vehicles, but allow sportsmen on.
Pro Tip: You do not have to get far off the road or away from a trailhead to find success here. However, backcountry trips on foot or by horse will produce the best results for trophy Rocky Mountain elk, deer, bear and cougar. There are also good numbers of turkey, grouse and mountain quail to be had. Hunters may also encounter wolves in these remote locations and should be aware that packs are expanding their territory here.
Info: ODFW Enterprise (541-426-3279); BLM Vale (541473-3144); Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce (541-426-4622) NS