Elk and Elbow Room – Oregon’s Best Blackpowder Hunts

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Have you ever found yourself complaining about too many hunters in your favorite area? It’s a sentiment that would have resonated with Daniel Boone, who – legend has it – saw the smoke from his neighbor’s fire and decided it was time to head west, in search of more ‘elbow room.’

Over 114,000 people hunted elk in Oregon last year, but only 2,493 of them carried percussion or flintlock rifles in special seasons set aside for primitive weapons. Oregon’s muzzleloading seasons are set up to give hunters more opportunity and high quality hunts by limiting the numbers of hunters. And the sportsman gets to hunt the same way Daniel Boone did, with a muzzeloading rifle and a ‘possibles’ bag slung over his or her shoulder.

Game managers in Oregon use muzzleloading hunters as part of an overall strategy to control herd numbers, handle damage complaints and provide opportunity. Some hunts are for spike bulls, others are for cows. A few hunts offer extended seasons, where hunters target largely nomadic groups of elk. Other hunts are localized, of short duration.

Here is a look at some of the best opportunities for hunting blackpowder elk in our state. Read on to see which hunts offer the most animals and where you have your best shot at putting a bull or a cow in your sights next season.

Most muzzleloading seasons are held after the archery and modern rifle hunters have hunted. Some exceptions are the antlerless elk hunts designed to control crop damage complaints. 

The Union County Agricultural Hunt No. 1 runs from August 1 through October 13. Union County No. 2 runs October 14 through December 31. The Elkhorn hunt runs August 1 through September 30. 

Another August opener is the North Fork Nehalem hunt that begins August 1 and runs through September 15. This takes place in sections of the Saddle Mountain and Wilson units and is comprised of 20 percent public lands. “There are a lot of elk there,” according to Dave Nuzum, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist on the north coast. Success rates average 15 percent.

“You can contact the landowners and look for a place to hunt. The elk are nocturnal marauders and they move on and off the private land. Or you can hunt them where they bed on state land and timber company land. This is a time of year that requires a change in tactics. In hot weather, you should look for cool spots where the elk are loafing during the day.”

Historically, the hunts that are easiest to draw are the ones with the highest percentage of private ground. The Mount Harris hunt is almost a sure bet to draw, but it has only 20 percent public land. The season runs December 4 through December 19. 

An option on the coast is the NE Trask Hunt, which runs December 18 through December 31. This hunt has a high percentage of private land, so access may be difficult, but any elk is legal. Harvest runs high with a 36 percent success rate over the last few years. 

The Sitkum hunt ranks second with a 30 percent success rate (antlerless or 3-point plus). Both hunts require two or three preference points for a good chance at drawing the tag.

The High Desert hunt is an exception, with a very good chance to draw a tag with no preference points. It is made up of 80 percent public land. Success rates run 17 percent, which beats the statewide average. The key to this hunt is the time a person puts into it. High desert elk stay on the move, running a circuit of water holes. Learn their patterns, anticipate where they are going to be, then show up ahead of them.

Next in line is the Northwest Cascades hunt, which gives the hunter better than a 50 percent chance of drawing a tag with zero points. This hunt is comprised of 67 percent public land. Hunter success averages 13 percent.

The Southwest Cascades hunt is a favorite of District Biologist Tod Lum. Success rates average 12 percent in this seven-day season. Hunters in the East Cascade hunt enjoy a 12 percent harvest success, as well. 

If you want to hunt elk in January, the Klickitat Mountain hunt in the Alsea Unit is the only choice. This one typically takes about five preference points to draw, but access is good with 90 percent public land. The bag limit is one antlerless elk or one bull with three points or better per side. You get 31 days to fill the tag and there are only ten other hunters. Talk about elbow room.

The deadline for the Controlled Hunt Application is May 15. If your elk country seems crowded, think about picking up a muzzleloader to see the game the way the pioneers did – through the open sights of a single-shot, front-stuffed rifle.

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