Okanogan Deer Hunt Report

Before deer season opened in Okanogan County, state wildlife biologist Scott Fitkin told me he expected this fall’s hunt to be the best in half a decade.

Data from the check station he operates shows it was indeed a slight improvement over last year’s hunt which, all said and done, was the best for riflemen by harvest stat for the county west of the Okanogan River since 2005.

A total of 77 bucks came through the station over this season’s two weekends, two more than last year, but it’s hard to compare the years because Fitkin moved the game check from the East Chewuch Road north of Winthrop to the red barn along Highway 20 just west of town.

The new location may have kept hunters from stopping too, especially considering Sunday’s colder, snowier weather over the high North Cascades Highway. My father and I took his trailer over lower Stevens Pass far to the south rather than the more direct route back to the west side over 5,500-foot Washington Pass and 4,800-foot Rainy Pass.

“There were definitely less hunters,” Fitkin says. “The guys who came in tended to have deer or wanted to talk to us.”

That said, he says that given anecdotal evidence and the figures, season was “what we predicted,” slightly up from 2009.

Though Fitkin says “nothing out of the ordinary” came through the station, he did mention that he checked a 101/2-year-old buck.

“Its first molar was below the gum line,” Fitkin says. “It was pretty amazing.”

(How rarely do hunters shoot Methuselah’s grandpa? It’s not exactly comparable, but Kevin Robinette, WDFW’s wildlife manager for far Eastern Washington, says that data from 1,500 whitetail buck and doe teeth pulled over the years at the Deer Park station show .13 percent have made it 10-plus years — basically two deer. That doesn’t include every deer shot in Northeast Washington — hunters aren’t required to stop at the station — but he adds that yearlings make up 47 percent of the sample.)

Fitkin also saw at least three bucks — two on a camera — taken from the Tripod burn area which he described as “monster animals. The body size was just enormous.”

The 2006 wildfire burned 175,000 acres along the hydrological divide between the Chewuch and Okanogan Rivers from Loup Loup Pass north to within a half mile of the Canadian border.

“I’ve been up in the Tripod and it’s starting to get to the point where it’s growing a significant portion of deer forage. I think it’s worth poking around in that area,” he told me for our October issue.

A portion of the Methow herd is migratory, but the biologist says that season timing is early enough that it’s rare for hunters to intercept valley-bound deer.

“From the 25th on, we expect deer to get moving towards the winter range,” he says.

What triggers the migration is unclear, he says, but probably is related to a number of factors, including deteriorating weather, quality of the remaining forage in the summer range and daylight.

Fitkin says during December aerial surveys in previous years, there’s been little snow but lots of deer down on the winter range anyway.

On the wolf front, “It’s been pretty quiet,” he adds.

Telemetry information from the Lookout Pack’s alpha male’s radio collar indicates it’s occupying its traditional range, the west side of the upper Methow Valley. It’s still unclear what happened to the alpha female, missing since last May. Fitkin says he did hear a couple wolf reports from deer hunters.

While it’s finally beginning to snow in Okanogan County, if this winter is like last — weak and warm (the forecast, though, is for La Nina, usually colder and snowier) — and 2009’s mule deer fawn crop can come through OK, that will mean good hunting again in 2011.

“Next year should be OK,” predicts Fitkin.

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