Cascade Elk Hunt – One Hunter’s Education

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

One thing I find when I talk to hunters from around the country is that they are jealous of Oregonians. In many states, whitetail deer are the only big game to hunt. We have 11 big game species and none engender more downright envy among our less-fortunate countrymen than Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt elk.

The success of the elk in the West is a tribute to far-sighted sportsmen, who in the early 1900s, pushed for legislation to protect them from over-hunting. Foremost was President Theodore Roosevelt, who was instrumental in setting aside crucial habitat so that future generations would be able to see, and hunt elk in the wild.

An Elk Hunter's Odyssey

I was returning home from a southwest Oregon blacktail hunt in 2003 with one of my longtime hunting partners when he asked me about the upcoming Cascade general season elk hunt. "I want to hunt elk this fall," he said, "but I don't know where to start." 

Small wonder. The Cascade Bull Elk hunt takes in a lot of real estate from the Columbia River all the way to the California border. We talked about his options and I even tried to discourage him from tackling that big country alone. But James Flaherty was determined. "I won't get an elk if I stay home," he said. Hard to argue with that.

On the final day of the season, he hunted alone in a roadless area near the Pacific Crest Trail. Marginal elk numbers and poor access kept other hunters away. He ghosted the edges of the high, boggy meadows and slipped through the timber to the head of a dry canyon, shed his pack and leaned back against a tree. He decided he'd try a bugle and see if anything responded. His first call was answered by a lone five-point bull that came running right in. The elk stopped broadside and James dropped him with one shot.

With that kind of success, James hunted there again in the 2004 season. There's not a lot of elk in his particular area as evidenced by a scarcity of sign on the ground, but there are a few.

Again, it was the last day of the season, when he made the play that paid off with a bull. On a ridge above a timbered valley, he stopped and bugled, sparking a reply from a loner bull below him. The bull attempted to climb the ridge, but couldn't find a way up. James circled downhill around a steep shale slide and set up an ambush. When the five-by-five bull paused to rake a tree with his antlers, James dropped it with one shot.

Elk seldom come easy. James, who had only hunted for big game since 1998 would be the first to admit it. One last-day bull, might be attributed to luck. The second year, it might be called a fluke, but if a person could pull off a last-day bull three years in a row, he really might be on to something. I waited for James to call and tell me about it. The phone rang late, the last evening of the Cascade elk season.

James had finished his season with a six-point bull he took from a small herd. His first shot was too far back and the animal had slipped over a hill. As he followed the blood trail, he heard a shot and was dismayed to see another hunter walking up to the downed animal. When James walked up on the other hunter, their eyes met and they realized they knew each other from church. James had fired the first shot and his friend had finished it. Way back in the forest, miles from the nearest road, almost three hours drive from home, they agreed to share the bull and the work bringing it out of the timber.

James couldn't help but smile as he packed the six-point's antlers out on the last relay to the rig. In three years, he'd tagged three bull elk in some of the most difficult, unforgiving country in the state.

To an elk hunter, the pinnacle of success is bagging a bull that has passed his genetics along to successive generations. A six-or seven-point bull is one of the most difficult of trophies, whose majesty is measured in the size of its antlers: along the main beam and along the lengths of the tines. 

Among the states that are home to elk, Oregon ranks in the top five. And there are more elk in our state today than at any time in the past 100 years. But statewide hunter success averages about 15 percent. The total archery and rifle harvest in the Cascades falls well below the 15 percent standard with a success rate of 8 percent.

The Indigo and Evans Creek units seem to produce the most results with an average 11 percent harvest, followed by the Dixon at 9 percent and the Santiam, McKenzie and Rogue units with 8 percent average harvests.

The Cascades, with its general season tags and any-bull harvest, draws hunters from all over the state. The Santiam, McKenzie and Rogue units, situated close to the population centers of Portland, Salem, Eugene and Medford see the most pressure, while other sections see fewer hunters.

Chris Yee, an assistant district wildlife biologist from the Springfield office, reported that elk herds in the Cascades have been increasing over the last decade. Bull to cow ratios, at 15 to 18 bulls per 100 cows are above the management objective. However, hunters don't always capitalize on the high numbers of animals. Yee recommends that hunters scout and find places where elk live and other hunters pass by. "If you push them out, bide your time and be patient. The elk will come back."

Unlike the Rocky Mountain elk in the open country east of the Cascades, west slope herds tend to stay in smaller groups and are likely to disperse when they feel threatened. They are also less apt to move around and will return to the same area unless harassed.

As James Flaherty learned in three years of scouting and hunting, much of the elk habitat in that high country doesn't hold high numbers of animals, but a person can find areas to hunt away from the crowds. And a hunter won't get an elk if he or she stays at home. But before the season opens, there is some homework to do. The first thing to do is focus on one piece of real estate in one unit. Then get to know it.

After narrowing down to a particular region, lay a map on the table. Pay attention to the biggest chunks of roadless land. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management maps will show whether the land is owned by the government or in private hands.

One source of information is the Department of Fish and Wildlife. By summertime, most wildlife biologists have completed their herd composition studies and have data available to share with interested hunters. Phone numbers can be found in the Oregon Big Game Regulations.

The work isn't done when the season opens. "Most hunters stay close to the truck," James said. "If you want to find the elk you have to get in the woods." James uses topo maps to locate the kind of terrain features that a herd will use throughout the summer and fall. He locates waypoints on the map and records them in his GPS unit and hunts them. And he's not afraid to hunt a new spot if hunters or hikers have moved through one of his favorites.

"I'm looking for benches far away from hiking trails or roads that are used by hikers and other hunters," he said. "Any area of any size between trails is going to hold elk. And I like to know that there is water nearby, but water is generally not a problem in the Cascades."

Chances are you'll be at least two miles from the nearest road when you find the herd. If you've done your homework and you're paying attention to the details, you'll find their sign and see them before they see you. Perhaps the bull will show himself before the wind changes. You won't know unless you try. Even if all you pack out of the hills is a memory, at least you were there, in elk country.

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