The modern firearms portion of the 2013 elk seasons got off to the first of its dual, staggered starts on Saturday, Oct. 26, in many Eastern Washington game management units.
Its second phase, a 12-day hunt for big bulls west of the Cascade crest, opens in selected GMUs on Saturday, Nov. 2.
Elk hunters are coming off one of the more successful seasons in 15 years, according to fish and wildlife department officials. Hunters bagged an estimated 9,162 bull and cow elk in 2012, well above the average annual Washington elk harvests of between 7,000 and 8,800 animals.
Washington's two elk species - Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain - are one of two hooved big game species that have general seasons open to all hunters who purchase a license with elk as an option.
Since elk are prone to concentrate, historically hunters have focused most of their attention on various herds east of the Cascades where sight distances are longer.
To encourage dispersal of hunting, elk hunters must choose between modern and primitive weaponry seasons in obtaining their transport tags.
They also must narrow their field by opting for one side or the other of the Cascades in which to hunt. The only exceptions to this rule are multi-season permit and raffled tag holders with special privileges associated with their lottery chits.
Elk hunters choosing to hunt in core herd management areas are generally restricted to killing male elk, with further restrictions on legal animals designated by their antler development.
In peripheral herd zones or GMUs designated as the boundary areas of acceptable elk habitation, elk of either gender may be killed. This is intended to prevent herd intrusions into neighboring agricultural areas, where the animals do damage to crops and fences.
LOCAL ELK OPTIONS
General season elk hunts remain limited for the North Cascades herd. Just GMU 407 will be open to all comers, and only a fortunate few permit holders will be able to stalk the herd's core holdings in GMUs 418 and 426 around Mount Baker.
Whatcom County rifleers do get the best of the likely elk areas in the 407, including the foothills locales near Sumas Mountain, Van Zandt Dike and Stewart Mountain. The 407 portions in Skagit and northern Snohomish counties lie west of Highway 9 and normally do not hold any elk at all.
Road access and entry is haphazard, with much of the Sumas and Stewart mountain areas in private ownership.
Van Zandt Dike is largely in state ownership with its roads mostly open, but the more traffic on these forest routes, the further from sight any elk there are likely to be.
EASTSIDE ELK PROSPECTS
Timing of the nine-day eastside elk hunts a week earlier than the westside opportunity is no accident.
It's designed to provide opportunities to hunt elk before the first big snowstorms generally hit. Any later, and tendencies are for fall snows to quickly push animals out of the high country and into the teeth of what would be an overly effective hunt effort.
With the major management herds meeting or exceeding population targets, state officials are again expecting good elk hunting success, especially in the Yakima and Blue Mountain areas.
Managers say the Yakima herd is increasing in response to a reduction in the numbers of antlerless permits several years back, while the Blue Mountain herd in particular is experiencing a 40-percent spike in bull survival, which bodes well for hunters.
Colockum herd hunters will find considerable changes in the look of mountainous forest habitat between Ellensburg and Wenatchee due to recent wildfires, but the immediate regeneration of burned areas in newly sprouted grass is expected to benefit both the animals and hunters searching for them.
WESTSIDE ELK OVERVIEW
The Mount Saint Helens herd remains the biggest elk herd in the state, even though a latter-day hoof disease continues to plague a portion of its bands in pockets throughout the herd's range.
Veterinary health specialists say the lower leg deformities in these elk, sometimes gross in appearance and smelly, has not been found to be a malady communicable to humans, however the exact cause of the disease is not known.
Hunters following basic sanitary field processing techniques will be able to safely use the meat of afflicted animals, managers said.
Besides the South Cascade herd, the Willapa Hills elk are expected to produce good numbers in the general hunt, though many will come from private forest lands where the main mode of access is on foot or bike. Hunters also will find the requirement to pay an access fee governing more private lands in Southwest Washington.
Hunters seeking Olympic Peninsula branch-antlered Roosevelt bulls are urged to look in higher elevations in GMUs surrounding the national park.
HUNT CAMP IMAGES
Since it's often necessary to go further afield for elk, hunting base camps for this season are planned and prepared in great detail.
Comfort is not the sole dictator of what goes into these multi-day stays in forest and mountain settings far from home.
Tradition plays a big role, such as the use of old frayed or dented but tried and true gear that served previous generations of family and friends. There's the notion of fortune, the lucky campsite where in years past everyone filled their tags.
Familiarity with a campsite breeds easier preparation. But camps also can evolve, prompting either the elimination of paraphernalia found unnecessary last season or the inclusion of new items you remember you wished you had the year before.
Of their many and varied characteristics, hunt camps might have great views of rising and setting suns, the appearance of an alcove in the cathedral of majestic trees or relative isolation from other hunters.
There's also the semblance of familiar order, the big canvas tent always goes here, firepit there with a ring of seats in stick poking range, the mess table of boards spanning saw horses with hanging kitchen utensils and coolers in handy reach. Coffeepots usually cozy up to the fire on a big soot stained rock, a lantern swings loftily from a stubbed limb, while hind quarters and sleeping bags air some distance from the smoke but still within watchful view.
Hunt camps can just as easily be expressions of alter-egos, with tidiness and the constrains of life during the other 51 weeks of the year shed for this brief interval. These chaotic digs can be jumbled challenges to aging memories, begging repeated questions of "Where did I leave this or that?" In keeping with their yin and yang nature, hunt camps often have morning quietness that belies the raucous nature of the evening before.
Such backwoods locales also have their share of non-human inhabitants, from camp-robber jays or a yearling doe to perhaps a neighborhood ruffed grouse and even a persistent panhandler chipmunk that for the duration instead of being quarry or vermin are tolerated and even welcomed visitors.
In a soaking rain these backcountry layover sites have warm and inviting look or mantled in freshly fallen snow or frost a magical other worldly appearance. They also may have the look of being remote, but are sneakily situated on a backwoods route with a convenient café or tavern not too far down the road.
Next to the trophy shot, hunt camp scenes are the most often snapped vignettes that are intended to tide us over when our days in the field are done.
For three years now the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has solicited entries in a photo contest that leads to the selection of the cover picture for the coming year's hunting rules.
This year's theme for contest photos is hunting camps and department officials say the winning shot will be immortalized on front of 475,000 copies of the 2014 big game hunting seasons and regulations booklet.
Photos may be submitted on line to http//:wdfw.wa.gov/sharephotos/contest.html.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent since 1983, has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at bellinghamherald.com/outdoors-blog/index.html.