WDFW home
Buy license
Hunting highlights – July 2023
Monthly recreation opportunities by region

Be ready for fall’s big-game seasons: Hunting success hinges on preparation

How to tune up you and your gear for bear, elk, and deer

By Tom Ryle/WDFW

Summer can be a busy time of year. Warm weather in the Pacific Northwest translates to plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities, BBQs, vacations, gardening, and the list goes on. Even with the long days, time seems to go by quickly.

If you’ve got your sights set on notching a big-game tag this fall, be sure to carve out time to prepare for success. In this post, we’ll cover three fundamental topics that create a foundation for hunting success. They all need equal attention, so think of them as pillars that are highly customizable to suit your hunting goals and abilities. Let’s dive in.

Health and physical fitness

I often say, “your mind and body are the most important gear you take afield.” You can buy all the best gear in the world, but if you aren’t physically fit or are prone to injury, or don’t have the energy and mindset needed to pursue game, then you’re done before you even start.

That said, you also don’t need to be an Olympic athlete either. People tend to go all-in when they decide to “get in shape,” but that can lead to injury if you’re not careful. Working with a professional trainer is recommended.

To keep it simple, a regular walking routine is one of the best holistic ways to condition your body for hunting season. Adding a rucksack or your hunting pack with some weight is even better, but don’t overdo it right out of the gate. Carrying a pack engages your legs, core, back, and shoulders. Start light and work up to heavier weight, if desired. Walking a combination of flats and hills helps engage muscles and tendons that will be needed in the field.

A man wearing a weighted backpack walks on a hiking trail.

Regular walking and hiking with a pack can help tune your body for hunting season. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

With physical exercise comes exertion, which requires that you are consuming high-quality fuel and enough water. Eating a healthy diet will help you perform best in the field and help keep your senses sharp. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has excellent resources to explore. Personally, I’m not a fan of fancy exercise-oriented drinks and powders. I prefer straight-up water because it’s what your body needs and does the job naturally.

It’s difficult to explain in words, but there’s a mental transformation that occurs once you get into a regular exercise routine. Yes, exercise produces endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals in your brain, and it increases your heart rate, which then triggers norepinephrine, a chemical that might help the brain deal with stress more effectively. Those things are fantastic, but I’m referring to the positive motivation that comes from sticking to a routine and knowing that you’re doing the work that will pay off in the fall. That is what drives most of my summer/pre-season workouts. Invest now, reward later. Keep at it!

Now, I’m not a health care professional, so be sure to consult with yours before beginning any exercise routine or incorporating dietary changes. These topics are unique to each individual and should be addressed accordingly. The information I’m offering here can serve to initiate those conversations and develop a plan that is right for you.

Gear preparation and practice

Let’s be honest, once hunting seasons conclude, a lot of hunters store their gear, not to be touched again until the following season. I’m guilty of this too.

Now is the time to start going through your gear. There might be some upgrades or changes you want to make, such as investing in better optics or rain gear, or breaking in a new pair of boots. In any case, it’s good practice to consider your fall hunting plans and ensure you have the gear you need to be safe and successful.

I always keep a notebook in my pack to journal my hunts and jot down notes throughout the season. It’s always best to do this in the moment rather than trying to remember months later. As I encounter a situation where I wish I had (fill in the blank), I jot it down.

Summer is the time to run through your gear to ensure everything is in order. The author used a hot summer day to apply seam sealant and a fresh waterproofing treatment. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

Depending on the style of hunting you’ll be doing, you might need to set up your tent and ensure your seams are still sealed well with a lawn sprinkler or ensure the furnace in your camper still fires up without issue.  There are countless details to cover, so this is a perfect time to get it done. For me, it’s always enjoyable to daydream about the upcoming season while sorting and prepping gear.

Arrows need to be assembled, treestands and climbing/safety gear need to be inspected, I might need to pick up a new water filter for my pack, double check the condition of my boot laces, pick up a few new elk calls, fix that strap on my pack that broke last year, invest in a better sleeping pad … the list goes on.

One of the most overlooked aspects of pre-season preparation is shooting proficiency. Whether you shoot archery equipment, a muzzleloader, or modern firearm, these are the tools that get the job done. Therefore, it’s important to practice and know that your shooting proficiency is where it needs to be to ensure quick, humane kill shots on game. So, schedule some range days to ensure you’re dialed in.

If you’re a bowhunter, now is the time to switch over from shooting field points to practicing regularly with broadheads. It’s also wise to practice in the clothing you’ll be wearing during both early and late seasons to ensure your shooting form isn’t affected or that your bowstring doesn’t slap a loose-fitting jacket.

Investing in a range finder is highly recommended, especially for those new to bowhunting. If you don’t have a portable target or a safe place to shoot, check out Archery360.com’s Where to Shoot webpage to find a location near you.


Hunt planning and scouting

Planning a hunt can be daunting, especially if you’re new to Washington or don’t have a lot of experience doing it, or both. Honestly, this topic could consume the pages of a full-length book, so I’ll break it down into three bite-sized chunks to get you started.

How to start

Washington offers a diverse landscape of opportunity, from sea level to snow-capped peaks and everything in between. So, the first step is determining what type of hunting experience you’re after and what species you’d like to pursue. For example, you might want to do a backpack hunt for mule deer in the high country or you might want to focus on a short hike and ground-blind hunt for elk along the coast. They’re two vastly different hunting experiences, and both are very effective and rewarding.

A woman draws a bow and arrow to practice shooting from a seated position.

If you hunt from pop-up blinds, remember to practice shooting from a seated position. Practicing shooting from the blind is the next step as the season approaches. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

Which brings me to my first tip: Use a variety of resources. Sharing your ideas with other hunters can lead to general locations or tips about who might have more helpful information. Hunting forums can be helpful to review as well but understand that popping into a forum and asking for hunting location information is generally not recommended. Talking with WDFW staff is also a good bet. It’s best to have some specific questions ready to help them help you. For example, asking a biologist where to hunt elk isn’t the best approach. Inquiring about elk numbers and/or bull-to-cow ratios in a specific region or drainage is much more specific and will lead to better insights.

Much of Western Washington and large tracks of timberlands in Northeast Washington are owned by private timber companies. In the last decade or so, these timber companies have reduced public access to their lands, which can be confusing for hunters. It’s best to search public records and/or apps such as onXhunt to view landowner information so you can contact them directly to learn about their access policies.

Digital tools

There are a growing number of digital resources and apps available to hunters today. Exploring free trials and choosing the one(s) that work best for you is a good investment. The three big players that offer some amazing features at your fingertips are onXhunt, HuntStand, and GoHunt Maps.

Old standbys such as Google Earth and its dynamic 3D-mapping experience are invaluable in exploring topography and access. By doing a lot of the preliminary legwork from the comfort of home, you can formulate a plan to put boots on the ground and see the area firsthand.

WDFW resources

  • Hunting prospects: To help hunters prepare for a successful hunting season, wildlife biologists consult their local sources and contribute their personal observations about hunting prospects throughout the state.
  • Hunt Planner: We have recently upgraded and relaunched our Hunt Planner tool with new features, improved functionality, and a more intuitive design. Review harvest statistics and trends alongside hunting opportunities.
A woman crouches on the forest floor to pick up a matched set of blacktail deer antlers

Summer scouting can lead to clues that help you refine your fall hunting strategies. Finding a hefty, matched set of shed antlers tells you where this blacktail buck spent the fall and winter. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

Boots on the ground

Technology is a tool, and nothing replaces being there in person. No truer words have been spoken when it comes to scouting and planning a hunt.

Armed with some preliminary information and a pocket full of hunches, it’s important to gain first-hand knowledge of the area you are planning to hunt. Start by driving the road systems in and around the area to learn about access, potential road closures, etc. All the while, watch the embankments and ditches for obvious game trail crossings. These crossings can be great jumping off points to locate bedding and feeding grounds, both key pieces of any hunting strategy.

Depending on the specifics of your location, put yourself in position to use optics and glass for game during early morning hours and again at dusk. Your goal is to find evidence of the game you’re pursuing without expending a ton of time and energy. Once you find game or well-traveled trails, you can consult your maps/apps and pursue a more granular approach on foot.

The overall approach is to start broad, narrow your focus, visit the area, and find game. Each step of the process can lead you down adjacent rabbit holes of exploration, which is also fine and good. Stay flexible and enjoy the process.

Big-game season kick-off

Aug. 1 marks the beginning of fall big game seasons in Washington with the fall black bear opener, and the season runs through Nov. 15. Soon to follow is archery deer on Sept. 1 and archery elk on Sept. 9.

Old elk wallows, appearing as large, muddy puddles, are situated in a lush conifer forest.

Locating valuable information such as these old elk wallows can help you pinpoint where to find rutting bulls in September. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

If you’re reading the printed Washington Big Game Hunting Regulations pamphlet, which can also be downloaded as a PDF, you’ll find more information on bear season on page 68, more on deer season on page 22, and more on elk season on page 46.

Don’t forget!

Hunter education is required for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1972. These courses fill fast as hunting seasons get closer. WDFW offers fully in-person hunter education courses as well as hybrid courses that combine online and in-person learning. Washington’s certification is accepted in all 50 states.

Begin with bears

We’ll dive into specific early season hunting tactics in our next Hunting Highlight feature here, but to get you started on bears, here are a few tips that can help put a bruin in your sights:

  • First, consult the regulations linked to above before bear hunting in Washington. There are a few restricted game management units (GMUs) and a required bear identification test to complete before hunting in other specific GMUs. Know before you go.
  • Bears feed throughout the day and will consume a variety of food sources including insects, grasses, skunk cabbage roots, nuts, fruit, carrion, and most notably as of this writing – berries! Find ripe blueberry, salmonberry, huckleberry, or blackberry patches, and you’ll likely find a bear. Key places to search are open alpine hillsides, clearcuts, creek bottoms, riparian zones, and along logging roads adjacent to clearcuts where blackberries thrive in the summer sunlight.
  • Unless they are actively feeding, bears tend to be moving constantly in search of food. Spend time watching clearcuts early and late in the day, searching for black blobs that appear out of place or to be moving.
  • Female bears, called sows, often have their spring cubs in tow, so a common best practice used by experienced bear hunters is to hold off on shooting until you can verify that no cubs are trailing behind their mother. Often, they tend to lag behind, so exercise patience before shooting. If you notice the bear pausing to look back where it just came from, that’s a good indication it’s a sow with cubs. When in doubt, don’t shoot.
  • Bears can be called into view using distress calls simulating an injured fawn or calf elk. There are plenty of YouTube videos demonstrating the calls and how bears typically respond. Use caution if using this technique and it’s recommended to employ this tactic with two people for safety reasons.

For more on big-game hunting, check back here for new articles and be sure to read our past how-to articles using the “Previous hunting highlights” link below. Good luck in the field this season from WDFW!

Ripe blackberries are clustered on their plant.

Fall bear season is upon us. Hunting near primary food sources such as ripe blackberries can help put a bear in your sights. (Tom Ryle/WDFW)

Previous hunting highlights
Buy License