PROSPECT — The "96 percenters" who head into Jackson County's woods each fall with a general-season rifle tag that ultimately goes unfilled ought to consider changing their game plans for finally filling their tag this fall.
A new trick to becoming one of the 4 percent of successful Rogue Unit general-season elk hunters might be to think low this season.
Low-elevation elk herds are expanding and may represent an alternative to fighting the crowds pounding the high-elevation forests for a prized Roosevelt elk bull.
"The elk are out there, and you do have quite a bit of competition from hunters, especially at high elevations," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.
"But there are a lot of elk down low. We get a lot of elk harvested at low elevations, but there could be a lot more," he says.
The quest to become a "4 percenter" in 2009 begins Oct. 17 and runs through Oct. 23 throughout the Cascade Range of Oregon, including the Rogue, Evans Creek and Sixes units of the South Cascades.
Hunters in the Applegate Unit of southwestern Jackson County and eastern Josephine County have two choices for their general season. They can hunt Nov.14-17 with a Coast first-season tag, or Nov. 21-27 with a Coast second-season tag.
Those opening dates are one day earlier than last year, but they are later starts than previous years. The dates are more attractive to the few elk hunters who ply that territory for isolated herds, such as those along the back side of Mount Ashland.
The bag limit remains one bull elk with at least one visible antler.
Not that this definition matters for most hunters. With 24 out of every 25 hunters in eastern Jackson County going home meatless, the roughly 6,000 people who hunt elk locally know the overall experience is what brings them back each year.
For many, the general-season elk hunt is considered the great week-long camping trip in the woods.
Also new this year is the dropping of the tag-sale deadline. Any time during the hunt, someone who wants to eschew their duties in town and join their friends in Elk Camp can pony up the $34.50 for a general-season rifle tag.
Going into the season, the Rogue Unit of eastern Jackson County is sporting another year of solid bull ratios.
This year, the unit has an estimated 16 bulls per 100 cows. That's down from the ratio of 21 bulls per 100 cows of the past two seasons, but still comfortably ahead of several previous years.
The high bull ratios of the past two years didn't necessarily translate into success, however.
Last year, the Rogue Unit swelled with 2,415 hunters, who banged through the woods for a total of 10,122 days to kill 90 bulls.
Though the total hunter numbers were up, the total days hunted in 2007 (10,453) and total bulls shot (101) were both down.
Vargas theorizes that last year's $4-a-gallon gas was not high enough for hunters to forego the traditional elk hunt — just trim a day or so off it.
The 1,783 hunters working the Dixon Unit that includes northwest Jackson County fared better, with 101 dead elk for a 6 percent success rate. The numbers were virtually identical to 2007, when hunters shot 101 elk for a 6 percent rate.
Despite the low return on their investment, the woods around Union Creek and Prospect again will become a tent city full of elk hunters more than willing to accept, cold, snowy and even miserable camping conditions for the prospect of good, fresh tracking snow for opening weekend and beyond.
"Weather makes elk more susceptible to harvest," Vargas says. "If we're going to see high harvest levels, it will be weather-dependent. If we get that three to five inches of snow, that helps a lot."
Still, don't forget that the target here are Roosevelt bull-elk that eke out a pretty darn good living in forest conditions that are tipped soundly in their favor.
Years of fire suppression and reduced clearcut logging — factors that spike thick undergrowth that make elk harder to find — conspire against hunter success here.
"There are plenty of bulls out there," Vargas says. "They're just difficult to find."
The best option for hunters is to get well off the roads and into the backwoods favored by elk. Lands within the restricted travel-management area north of Shady Cove represent off-road opportunities for hunters tired of the so-called "firing range" along the Crater Lake National Park boundary.
Another option is to pick a high spot and park yourself, hoping other hunters will drive a bull toward you. Thorough pre-season scouting never hurts, but hunters also should consider using better optics and spending more time scanning and rescanning ridges for elk they might miss with a cursory glance.
A more drastic approach, however, would be to go low.
Herds of elk abound throughout the upper Rogue River corridor, as well as the hills outside of Eagle Point, Talent and Ashland.
However, most low-elevation lands are private ranches and tracts of timber where landowners often don't allow mass public access.
"Land owners just don't want to be overwhelmed with hunters," Vargas says.
One way around that is to find pockets of federal Bureau of Land Management lands near private lands housing elk, and hope a bull wanders onto public land for you.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.