Opening weekend of deer season was a bit different across parts of the northern tier of Eastern Washington.
Yes, plenty of hunters turned out and lots of bucks were bagged, but for the first mid-October in living memory state game checks weren’t set up to welcome sportsmen and inspect our quarry.
No WDFW staffers on hand at Winthrop’s Red Barn, the sand pit along Highway 395 in Chewelah or the weigh station further south on that US route north of Deer Park this past Saturday and Sunday.
As you’d expect, blame it on Covid-19.
It literally puts a hole in the agency’s annual collection of biological data from hunter-harvested deer and other game – teeth; age, size and body condition; tissue samples for chronic wasting disease testing.
CWD isn’t known to exist in Washington but it has turned up not far to the east around Libby, Montana, increasing concerns.
Washington game check records go back decades – 35-plus years in the case of Winthrop’s two. (Formerly, it was set up on Chewuch Road).
The stations typically operate on October’s two weekends and again in November during the late rifle hunt in Northeast Washington.
They also provide a chance for the biologists to chat with hunters – and hunters to chat with the biologists.
I’ll admit to rolling into the Red Barn and asking for a “score check” on the way home with Dad a time or two, or if we didn’t, sending an email on the drive back.
As a hunter and hook-and-bullet magazine editor, I’m doubly interested in what the numbers say so I can compare them to past years and get a rough idea of whether harvest is up, down or steady; what caliber of bucks are coming through; what hunter numbers are looking like; what factors are impacting the harvest; and what the prognosis is for the rest of the season, all so I can then report back to you.
I also don’t mind a little in-person social interaction with Scott Fitkin and Jeff Heinlen, whom I’ve used as sources for well over a decade.
But in this year of social distancing, there wasn’t any report from their game check in Washington’s mule deer capitol, nor from Annemarie Prince in the heart of the Evergreen State’s whitetail country.
They’re far from the only regions that boast good deer hunting in Washington, but it’s kind of a bummer and it makes it harder to say how things went and will go.
I know how opening weekend was for me personally – quite well, thank you – but how about the rest of us?
Certainly my email and Facebook page, along with Hunting-Washington.com and Hunting Washington State are loaded with tons of great deer taken on the first few days off rifle buck – trophies, meat-in-the-freezer deer, gals getting the job done, kids’ first, interesting racks and much more – and that provides one type of gauge of how hunting has been.
As you might expect, WDFW fish and wildlife officers put in more than a few hours this past Saturday and Sunday, and while their primary mission is to police hunters, their reports do include some info on success.
“It was terrific hunting weather,” Sgt. Dan Christensen in the Okanogan emailed me. “Lots of hunters out, overall great compliance – 90 percent are true sportsmen and darn glad we have them. They are the eyes and ears for us and we try to get to every call. My friends and family have all gotten good bucks, so I know anecdotally the hunting is good.”
That said, he reported that multiple violations occurred as well.
“Lots of deer seized, hunt while trespass was big, as it is always. Lots of dead two-points – many self report and as the week progresses we are getting the found-a-dead-two-point calls,” Christensen added.
While any whitetail buck can be taken in his county, legal mule deer bucks have had to have at least three points on one side since the late 1990s.
Trespassing calls gall Christensen in particular.
“Eighty percent of Okanogan County is public lands. There is no reason to hunt while trespassing,” he said.
Open lands include massive swaths of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, myriad WDFW wildlife areas and DNR state forests.
Christensen said typical trespassers are older hunters who feel their hunting license is somehow permission to cross onto private land.
In fact it is not.
To the east, Sgt. Tony Leonetti told WDFW spokeswoman Staci Lehman that hunting in Ferry County was better than it was in neighboring Stevens and Pend Oreille Counties, according to his officers.
That might have been due to what appeared to Leonetti to be above-normal participation in the hills surrounding Republic and Curlew. He also checked more muleys than whitetails, Lehman reported.
One of Leonetti’s officers inspected four deer but also dealt with numerous violations, “including one fail to tag, one fail to notch, two loaded guns in moving vehicles, one hunting from a moving vehicle, as well as some trespassing complaints. He also provided seven verbal warnings and observed that participation seemed lower than normal but violations were slightly higher per numbers contacted. The other officer only checked one deer and had no hunting-related violations he reported over the weekend.”
The report from Pend Oreille County specifically was low hunter numbers and while that may have been due to the local officer working smaller roads, they made 29 hunter contacts without checking a single deer, though local scuttle was that a few had been taken.
Some nonenforcement WDFW staffers passed along their observations to me, including Sue Van Leuven, manager of the Klickitat Wildlife Area in Southcentral Washington.
“Not a lot of deer harvested on the Klickitat. I only know of two or three. I talked with 55 hunters on Saturday and 21 on Sunday. Saw four families with small children camping with hunters who usually come by themselves. Everybody is just glad to be outside,” she reported.
At the north end of Central Washington, Heinlen forwarded me what he also sent to the Omak Chronicle for their opener report:
“Driving around there seems to be more hunters in the county than last year. Plus, statewide license sales were above last years at the start of the season. I think people just needed to get out. The early snow and later dates of the modern firearm general deer season should also be an advantage to hunter success. I hope it’s a successful season and remember to be safe out there.”
Indeed, modern firearms deer hunting is still on, running through Oct. 27 for muleys, Oct. 27 or 30 for whitetails, depending on the unit, and Nov. 1 for blacktails. November also sees some late hunts. Here’s a link to units and species.
If you haven’t checked the weather forecast, things are supposed to get very interesting in the coming days, with a Winter Storm Watch now posted for the Cascades and the north half of Eastern Washington.
I’d love to head back over and help Dad put his tag on a buck, then take it down to the check station, but neither are in the cards this year.
And that’s too bad.
Editor’s note: Have a success picture from the opener or this season and would like to see it featured here or in our magazine? Send it to us, you may win our monthly photo contest! Email firstname.lastname@example.org with as many details as you care to share!