Mark Vargas has a mantra for frustrated Southern Oregon rifle hunters who keep buying general-season bull elk tags that go unfilled: Pray for snow and at least unbuckle that seat belt.
"It's the same thing as always," says Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist. "Success is weather-dependent. There are plenty of animals out there to harvest ... get out of your vehicles and go look for them."
That great high-mountain camping and hiking week known as the Cascades general elk-season opens to bull hunters Saturday, Oct. 15, in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, which comprise Southern Oregon's general-season haunts.
The Applegate Unit, which sports only a small cache of bulls, falls under the coast bull-elk general seasons. The first season runs Nov. 12-15, while the second season runs Nov. 19-25.
Those opening dates are one day earlier than last year, and they represent the earliest opener possible because state regulations call for the bull hunt to open the third Saturday of October, Vargas says.
The $42.50 general-season tag allows hunters to take one bull elk with at least one visible antler.
Not that this definition matters for most hunters. Shooting the bull is far more common these days in Elk Camp than in the woods.
Last year, 1,790 hunters logged 7,491 days in the woods of the Rogue Unit and shot 88 bulls for a 5 percent success rate.
Sound poor? At least it beat 2009, when hunters battled hot weather and shifting herds and shot just 42 bulls for a record-low 2 percent success rate.
Hunters who crossed Highway 62 and plied the Dixon Unit fared worse than those in the Rogue, Vargas says.
In the Dixon Unit, 1,175 hunters logged 5,393 days in the woods and shot a 2009-esque 40 bulls for a paltry 3 percent success rate.
The problems facing local elk herds and those who hunt them are well-documented.
Reduced logging on federal lands as well as aggressive fire suppression have reduced elk forage areas. With less habitat, the elk herds are shrinking while hunter numbers have held steady, Vargas says.
That makes for a crowded feeling for those who don't backpack or horsepack deep into the region's wilderness areas, Vargas says.
"There's a lot more people and a lot fewer elk," Vargas says.
Compounding the problem is the prevalence of elk on lower-elevation private agricultural lands, where they are not accessible to the general hunting public. Some of the most visible herds of elk in the region reside on small farms, ranches and orchards along North Foothill Road, as well as the fence-crashing beasts in Sams Valley.
Still, the woods around Union Creek and Prospect again will become a tent city full of elk hunters willing to accept miserable camping conditions just for the precious chance to find one of Oregon's largest land mammals, which are often as elusive as unicorns.
But preseason is all about promise, and the Rogue Unit of eastern Jackson County is sporting another year of promising bull ratios.
This year, the unit has an estimated 19 bulls per 100 cows, up from the 16 bulls per 100 cows ratio of the past two years and nearly double the 10 bulls per 100 cows for which the unit is managed.
The Dixon Unit also sports a ratio of 19 bulls per 100 cows, while the Applegate and Evans Creek units each sport 11 bulls per 100 cows.
Some of the best year-after-year successes come to hunters who venture far past the crowds, but that doesn't mean the Rogue Valley resident with only a handful of days off to hunt elk can't hunt from home without success.
The best option for hunters is to hike in well off the roads and into the backwoods favored by elk. Lands within the restricted travel-management area north of Shady Cove offer off-road opportunities for hunters tired of the congestion of the firing line.
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 re-scanning ridges for elk they might miss with a cursory glance.
Hunters are reminded that the traditional green-dot road closures in the upper Rogue River region go into effect the Wednesday before the season opener and run through the general season.
Hunters and others may drive only main forest roads marked with green dots. The road closure creates more huntable areas not marred by vehicle traffic. Maps are available at the ODFW's office in White City and near main forest roads affected by the program.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.