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Stalking elk requires planning and patience
Now that your deer has been hung, butchered and wrapped, it is time to once again grab your big game rifle and head for the mountains. The quarry this time will be much larger and sport headgear that is enough to cause a coronary on most hunters. Beginning with the last weekend on October, the state kicks off it modern firearm general elk seasons.
The state is home to two different sub-species of elk. Each has it unique characteristics, but each shares the same physical attributes that stir in the dreams of elk hunters statewide.
The first species is the Rocky Mountain elk. It is the one commonly portrayed in pictures and is found throughout the west. Due to efforts by conservation and hunting organizations, the Rocky Mountain elk now inhabits parts of the country where the Eastern elk used to roam. States like Kentucky and Wisconsin will soon be holding their first modern elk season. The Rocky Mountain is the smaller of the two, roughly weighing between 700-900 pounds. What it lacks for in body size it makes up for in antler size. The Rocky Mountain elk can range from a spike bull all the way up to a massive herd bull carrying an 8 x 8 rack. These elk travel in herds numbering up to 30 animals. The herd consists of a lead bull and his harem of cows. Along the fringes of the herd will be younger satellite bulls. The lead bull will guard his harem against any and all challengers. During the early autumn days, the echoes of elk will echo through the mountain valleys. The elk live in the alpine meadows until the snows drive them to winter-feeding grounds. It is the weather that will determine how much climbing your hunt will involve.
The states Rocky Mountain elk population is divided into distinct regions of the state. In the far northeast portion of the state lives the Selkirk herd. This is not a large group of elk and herds tend to have smaller numbers. The abundance of escape cover makes for a low hunter success. Areas in Pend Oreille and Steven Counties would be the best areas to try. In the southeast lives the Blue Mountain herd. While larger than the Selkirk herd, this group is still not considered a large group. The hunter success rate hovers around 5%, due to low calf survival rate. GMUs near the Tri-Cities would be a good starting point. The south-central part of the state is where a majority of the elk live. This area is home to the Colokum and Yakima herds. The Colokum herd is down again this year due to poor calf mortality so hunter success will be low again this year. Best areas to search would be north of Ellensburg. The Yakima herd is estimated at 12,000 animals and the state increased the number of branch antlered and anterless permits this year. There are a number of good areas to start an elk hunt this year. Use I-90 as a north boundary with I-82 an east boundary. Best bets for opening morning would be Manastash, Little Naches, Bethel Ridge and the Oak Creek Wildlife Area just west of Yakima. Here in the north sound elk hunting opportunities are near non-existent. There is limited hunting around King County, but little elsewhere. Locally the Nooksack herd is still below management goals so there will be no elk hunting in the Nooksack or Sauk units again this year.
Spot and stalk, still and stand hunting are the most popular methods of elk hunting. If the snows are deep enough, you can concentrate your search to creek bottoms, draws and agricultural fields. If it continues to remain warm and dry, then you will need to get into the meadows and black timber. Finding a wallow is a good idea if the weather is warm. Shots at these elk can be up to 300 yards or more. These are not your average deer and will require a little more power than you favorite deer rifle can manage. Elk have been and will continue to be taken with a .243 Winchester and .30-30 WCF, but it is recommended you use something with more knockdown power. A .30-06 Springfield, 300 Winchester, 7mm Remington or 338 Winchester magnums would be a better choice. Shoot whatever you feel most comfortable with.
The second subspecies is the Roosevelt elk. The Roosevelt will not have the long branched antlers of the Rocky Mountain. The Roosevelts antlers will be shorter and thicker with a 4x4 bull being about average. The Roosevelt elk will be larger than its cousin, with an average bull weighing in at 900-1200 pounds. Since it lives on the temperate coast, the Roosevelt does little migrating. It inhabits the steep, thick rainforests of the peninsula and the southwest portion of the state. Like black-tail deer hunting, shots will be quick, and at a much shorter range. Still-hunting is a common method of hunting, but many prefer to find a trail or clearcut and take a stand. The underbrush is thick and usually wet making stalking very difficult. Many hunters use open sighted guns, since ranges are close by elk standards. Favorite calibers include the .35 Whelen, 350 Remington mag., and 340 Weatherby.
Last winter was very mild for the southwest portion of the state, thus the elk herd came through in good shape. There are some areas in the state where it is legal to take a cow with no special permit. Much of the land in this area is private so some pre-season scouting will be essential. Hunting looks good over on the peninsula this year. Some zones were open to archery and muzzleloaders for the first time this year. The best area to hunt in the coastal region is the Wilapa Hills area. The herds here have been expanding their range every year. One of the reasons for this is many of the roads are closed. This makes for a more enjoyable hunting experience, but be prepared to walk considerable distances. Herds are also expanding in the Skookumchuck and Minot Peak units. The herds are starting to cause damage to area farms so contacting local landowners may put you on to some prime hunting.
Washington will never be compared with the mountains of Montana, Idaho and Colorado when it comes to elk hunting, but one cannot complain with being able to hunt these magnificent animals within an easy days drive from home. The state does have outfitters than can greatly increase your chances at tagging a bull, but most residents prefer to go it alone. Before you embark on an elk hunt, read the regulations carefully. You have to have either an eastern or western elk tag. Then after choosing which side the state you will hunt, each GMU has its own season, bag limit and antler restriction. You will also find in the regulations many of the roads that will be closed.
All of us elk hunters apologize to our loved ones if we seem preoccupied. Many of us will be losing sleep these next few days as visions of elk walking within range fill our heads. We will be checking gear, sighting in rifles and salivating over the thoughts of thick elk steaks on the grill as we ready for our annual trek to the hills. Throw in a prayer for early snow too.