For big game hunters, deer and elk are front and center! Here in Washington both opportunities kick-off for archers in September. Deer opens on Sept. 1, elk on Sept. 9.
Even if you’re not a bowhunter, this post aims to increase your knowledge and understanding of deer and elk behavior as these species shed the velvet from their antlers and gear up for fall.
In case you missed it, the July hunting highlight focuses on overall hunting season preparation, containing a section on hunting planning & scouting. This post builds on the foundation and resources therein.
As spring brings new life to the landscape for all wildlife, in turn, deer and elk populations increase with fawns and calves celebrating their long legs and enjoying lush, abundant food sources. As spring is squelched by the summer heat, tender food sources of spring mature and begin to dry up, causing ungulates to shift their diet toward other foods and proximity to water sources. And to escape the heat, deer and elk need thermal cover to stay cool and help regulate their body temperature.
Take note of these three key elements – food, water, and cover – as they are foundational elements to any big game hunting strategy.
Deer are primarily browsers which means the eat a variety of food types, including browse (leafy parts of woody plants), forbs (herbaceous broad-leaved plants, including agricultural crops), hard and soft mast (seeds), grass, and mushrooms/lichens. Elk are primarily grazers, eating mostly grasses but also browse, and they consume a variety of other plants and some fungi.
Preferred food sources for deer and elk change in response to seasonal changes in forage abundance, quality, and metabolic needs of the animal.
Deer will drink water several times per day whereas elk may drink less often but consume more water at each visit to a water source. Much depends on the specific location and habitat in question. A lush, cool creek bottom in Western Washington might provide plenty of food, cover, and water all in one location. However, in Eastern Washington, game may need to travel some distance between preferred food sources, bedding/thermal cover, and water.
With these considerations top of mind let’s dive into some specific hunting strategies for deer and elk, starting with deer.
Washington’s deer license provides a statewide opportunity. This is great news for the deer hunter because it means that you can hunt any of our three hunted species of deer in any open game management unit (GMU) that is not designated for a special hunt permit. For more information, refer to pages 21-23 of the printed 2023 Big Game Hunting Regulations or see the online e-regulations.
Washington is home to about 300,000 deer, including black-tailed deer, white-tailed deer, and mule deer. Each of these species inhabit different regions of the state, so it’s important to understand their distribution and areas where there are overlaps.
Archers enjoyed a 22% success rate last year overall, which is consistent with muzzleloader and modern rifle toters.
13,260 archers tagged 2,975 deer in 2022
Columbian black-tailed deer are our most common deer subspecies. They occur from the crest of the Cascades west to the ocean, preferring brushy, logged lands, and mixed and coniferous forests. Many of the physical characteristics of black-tailed deer are similar to those of the larger mule deer, with a couple exceptions: body size, antler size, and a distinctly different tail.
Mule deer occur from the Cascades east throughout conifer forests and down into sage shrubsteppe and mixed agriculture habitat. Interbreeding can occur in the Cascades where migratory blacktails can mingle with high-altitude mule deer populations.
White-tailed deer are found in Eastern Washington in a variety of habitats ranging from agricultural lands, conifer forestlands, low-elevation stream and river corridors, and near populated areas. There are areas where whitetails and mule deer mix, however, interbreeding is not that common.
As a general rule, a buck’s antlers are finished growing by the end of August. They will rub the velvet from their antlers before the Sept. 1 opener, just as their thin reddish summer coat starts getting replaced by the dull grayish-brown fall pelage. This point in time marks a significant milestone for bucks and their ability to establish reproductive rights within a specific population. The size of their new headgear is an obvious indicator of their age and social status. More on that in a future post.
Patterning deer is a well-known approach to early season hunting because it’s been months since the last hunting season and deer are pretty comfortable in their low-stress spring/summer patterns. Yes, food and water sources might change as fall approaches, but deer will often stick to routines that can be leveraged by a careful approach. Observe from a distance, then move in for the setup.
A lot can be said about the challenging nature of hunting blacktails, especially mature bucks. Their ghostly presence among the thick cover in Western Washington is legendary. Often, just seeing deer can make a hunt feel successful. But rest assured, there are ways to simplify the madness that is black-tailed deer hunting.
Opening day 2019 was successful for Miah Anderson, who shared her first bowhunt with her daughters. (Miah Anderson)
I’ll offer an early season playbook that has helped me fill a handful of September tags when the dog days of summer deliver plenty of heat and available shooting light.
September is hot and deer need to regulate their body temperature, so they will key in on places that provide close proximity to food, cover, and water. Donning a full camo outfit and hiking hills in search of deer is not recommended. Instead, leverage online mapping tools such as Google Earth, onX Hunt, and WDFW’s Hunt Planner to locate potential feed areas next to bedding areas, and likely nearby water sources. I try to find places where a deer can maintain security cover while both feeding and transitioning from feeding to bedding, and from bedding to water since deer typically will drink before feeding in the evening. If you focus on these required movements that all deer make daily, rain or shine, you can quickly eliminate a lot of less productive areas without breaking a sweat.
Another good tactic if you’re starting from scratch is finding a large clearcut that you can glass at daylight and just before last light. You can pick up deer feeding about or entering/leaving a cut. Using optics to cover large expanses of land saves your energy, keeps your scent out of your hunting area, and lets you observe undisturbed deer.
Creating a natural ground blind or popping up a treestand in key locations described above are my go-to approaches for September. I don’t like the heat and can’t stand sweating, so I’m very surgical in my approach. For an overview of treestand use and safety, check out a video I put out last fall.
Whitetails are creatures of habit when undisturbed and highly adaptable otherwise. They are masters of their home ranges and leverage strength in numbers when it comes to evading predators. In Washington there are two general types of hunting experiences to be had for whitetails: big timber bucks in conifer forestlands or edge habitats around ag fields and farmlands. Both produce good numbers of bucks each fall, so if you’re more adventurous and want to cover ground, there are plenty of National Forest lands in the northeast corner of the state. If a low-impact hunt is more your style, you can leverage WDFW’s private land hunting opportunities to secure some private land or leverage onX Hunt to research good-looking areas and contact landowners for access.
Mule deer offer a lot of opportunity for those living up and down the I-5 corridor because they are largely found within the middle third of the state, top to bottom. Again, with a focus on food, cover, water, and thermoregulation needs, I recommend using digital tools as much as possible to research and discover likely hunting grounds. If you don’t have access to such tools, traditional maps are still extremely valuable. Identify north-facing (cooler) slopes with timbered areas and benches along ridges adjacent to creeks or water sources. These are high-probability locations to find deer. If you can glass openings and hillside trails early and late in the day, you might be able locate a buck transitioning between feeding, bedding, or watering locations.
As mentioned above, locate from a distance, then move in for the setup. Always play the wind to ensure your scent isn’t blowing in the direction you expect deer to approach. As a rule with thermal currents, the air sinks when cool and rises as it warms. Sometimes (translation: most always) you need to be patient and wait for those changes to occur before moving into your setup location.
Washington and Oregon are both home to a fourth deer species called the Columbian white-tailed deer. While Oregon has a very limited hunting opportunity, these deer are protected in Washington and cannot be hunted even if encountered outside their refuges in Southwest Washington. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a low of only 545 deer in 2002. The population has now rebounded, with an estimated population of 1,296 deer in 2022.
This mature Roosevelt bull was taken in prime bedding cover. (Dustin Howard)
Is it September yet? For veteran bowhunters, this phrase speaks to the sacred fleeting time of year when timbered ridges and deep canyons echo with the sounds of rutting bull elk. For those who’ve experienced the elk rut firsthand, you know well the grip it has on you. And the vivid memories of shoulda-woulda-coulda’s that derailed a hunt but still bring a smile to your face. Indeed, it is life-changing and has the power to connect your soul to the landscape like few other experiences.
Truth is, filling your archery elk tag and packing heavy loads of wonderful elk meat is a tall order, especially in recent years where September is synonymous with wildfires.
Last year, archers harvested 1,098 during the general season with a success rate at 9%, which is higher than the average trend. In order to put yourself in that 9%, you’ve got to sharpen your skills and approach.
On average, only 1 out of 10 elk hunters will fill their tag.
Washington elk hunters have a choice to make before embarking on an elk hunt. Unlike our statewide deer tag, elk are broken into east and west designations delineated once again by the Cascade Range. So, you must choose which side of the state you’re going to hunt and purchase the appropriate tag.
Roosevelt’s elk inhabit the west side of the state while Rocky Mountain elk reside on the eastern side of the state, though they do not occur across the entirety of Eastern Washington.
There isn’t room to discuss all the nuanced differences between hunting these two subspecies, so for this post, we’ll focus on bowhunting elk in general.
Most bowhunters are enthralled with the elk rut, or breeding season, which peaks around Sept. 20-22. That means during the weeks leading up to peak breeding, there is a lot of rutting action going on. There are some great elk hunting resources online in the form of YouTube videos, onX Hunt masterclasses, newsletters, and paid online courses. These are worth your time to explore but don’t overlook the value of learning on your own as well. That is part of the journey, and nothing beats the rewards of direct experience.
Given the timing of this post, I’m going to offer up some important tips gained from 30+ years of bowhunting elk:
Locating elk wallows between feeding and bedding locations can pay off when trying to intercept September bulls. The author has found that wallows located on benches can produce visits any time of day but especially after 3 p.m. when bulls are moving toward evening feed locations. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
See the July hunting highlight for some general tips on fall black bear hunting. Here are a few more:
This late August black bear is following his nose to summer food sources. (Laura Rogers)
The traditional Sept. 1 start of the statewide forest grouse hunting season was moved to Sept. 15 starting in the 2021 season in order to reduce the harvest of breeding-age hens and ultimately increase forest grouse abundance and availability for hunters. For more information, read our blog on the change.
This shift remains in effect. For detailed hunting regulations for forest grouse and other resident game birds, please see the resident game bird seasons: www.eregulations.com/washington/hunting/game-bird/resident-game-bird-seasons.
Ruffed grouse. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)
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