Elk season will be full of early challenges

South Cascades elk hunters who already have the deck stacked high against them will have to overcome even more hurdles this fall to bag a Roosevelt buck in the mountains of Jackson County.

This year's general bull rifle season starts earlier than ever amid dwindling herds that are harder to find than the heyday seasons of two decades ago.

And the woods are so tinder-dry this year that many private, industrial forestlands still may be closed to public use while plying the high-elevation woods likely will be a snap, crackle and pop affair.

So hunters looking for a good chance to get their tag wrapped around an antler this fall might do best to go on a good, early-morning hike and let the hunt come to them.

"The weather's going to be a problem; it's the earliest (start) it's ever been," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "Hunters will have to change strategies to intercept elk when it's really noisy in the woods."

That means setting up in tree stands or atop rocks overlooking game trails that spooked elk might use to escape noises in the woods, then being ready, Vargas says.

"But if we get a couple good rains between now and then, go back to your traditional methods," he says.

Either way, that great, high-mountain, camping-and-hiking week known as the Cascades general elk season opens to bull hunters Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, which constitute Southern Oregon's general-season haunts.

The Applegate Unit, which sports only a light cadre of bulls, falls under the coast bull-elk general seasons. The first season runs Nov. 10-13 while the second season runs Nov. 17-23.

Those opening dates are two days earlier than last year, and they represent the earliest opener possible because state regulations call for the bull hunt to open this year the third Saturday after the start of the general deer season.

In past years, it was the third Saturday of October, but it was changed this year by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Had it not been altered, the season would have started Oct. 20.

The $42.50 general-season tag allows hunters to take one bull elk with at least one visible antler.

Not that this definition comes into play all that often in the South Cascades, where shooting the bull is far more common these days in Elk Camp than in the woods.

Last year, 1,955 hunters logged 8,321 days in the woods of the Rogue Unit and shot just 67 bulls for a 3-percent success rate. That's the worst since 2009, when hunters battled hot weather and shifting herds and shot just 42 bulls for a record-low, 2-percent success rate.

Hunters who crossed Highway 62 and plied the South Dixon Unit fared slightly better with a 4-percent success rate.

The problems facing local elk herds and those who hunt them are well-documented.

Reduced logging on federal lands, as well as aggressive fire suppression, have reduced elk forage areas. With less habitat, the elk herds are shrinking while hunter numbers have held steady or increased.

That makes for a crowded feeling for those who don't backpack or horsepack deep into the region's wilderness areas, Vargas says.

"There are definitely fewer elk than the glory years of the mid-'90s," Vargas says.

Compounding the problem is the prevalence of elk on lower-elevation, private, agricultural lands, where they are not accessible to the general hunting public. Some of the most visible herds of elk in the region reside on small farms, ranches and orchards along North Foothill Road, in addition to the fence-crashing beasts of Sams Valley.

Still, the woods around Union Creek and Prospect again will become a tent city full of elk hunters all chasing the dream of shooting one of Oregon's largest land mammals, which can feel as elusive as unicorns.

But preseason is all about promise, and the Rogue Unit of eastern Jackson County is sporting another year of promising bull ratios.

This year, the unit has an estimated 17 bulls per 100 cows, down from the 19 bulls per 100 cows ratio of the past two years and nearly double the 10 bulls per 100 cows for which the unit is managed.

The Dixon Unit also sports a ratio of 28 bulls per 100 cows, up nine bulls from last year.

Some of the best, year-after-year successes come to hunters who venture far past the crowds, but that doesn't mean the Rogue Valley resident with only a handful of days off to hunt elk can't hunt from home with success.

The best option for hunters is to hike in well off the roads and into the backwoods favored by elk. Lands within the restricted travel-management area north of Shady Cove offer off-road opportunities for hunters tired of the congestion of the firing line — the border between the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and Crater Lake National Park, where hunting is banned.

Thorough preseason scouting always helps, but elk seem to have an inner calendar that warns them of the start of the rifle season. So hunters also should consider using better optics and spending more time scanning and rescanning ridges for elk they might miss with a cursory glance.

Hunters are reminded that the traditional, green-dot road closures in the upper Rogue River region go into effect the Wednesday before the season opener and run through the general season.

Hunters and others may drive only main forest roads marked with green dots. The road closure creates more huntable areas not marred by vehicle traffic. Maps are available at the ODFW office in White City and near main forest roads affected by the program.

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