The week-long camping trip also known as the general Roosevelt bull elk rifle season in the south Cascades will start earlier than ever for area hunters who already are seeing circumstances tipped heavily toward the elk.
A change in season language two years ago puts the traditional Saturday season opener this year on Oct. 12, a day earlier than last year's all-time earliest opener.
"The agency's decision was to shift the (Cascades) season a little earlier, and that's not helping people down here in the south Cascades, because we're so dry," says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District wildlife biologist.
Like last year, hunters are coming off another poor showing in the field despite strong bull ratios amid herds that continue to shift from Forest Service lands to lower-elevation private lands.
"It's the trend we've seen for quite a few years," Vargas says.
But thousands of hunters will head to the woods with the intent of bucking that trend — hoping to bag the biggest big-game animal Western Oregon has to offer.
The Cascades general elk season opens to bull hunters Oct. 12 in the Rogue, Evans Creek and Dixon units, which constitute Southern Oregon's general-season haunts.
The Applegate Unit, which sports only a light cadre of bulls, falls under the coast bull-elk general seasons. The first season there runs Nov. 9-12, while the second season runs Nov. 16-22.
Those opening dates are also a day earlier than last year, and they represent the earliest opener possible because state regulations call for the bull hunt to open this year on the third Saturday after the start of the general deer season.
In past years, elk hunting began on the third Saturday of October, but it was changed by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Had it not been altered, the season would have started Oct. 19 — much closer to the date south Cascades elk hunters have become accustomed to since the seasons were shifted out of November three decades ago.
The $42.50 general-season tag allows hunters to take one bull elk with at least one visible antler.
Not that this definition comes into play all that often in the south Cascades, where success rates have plummeted to a point where all but a handful of participants see it as a week of camping and hiking with a rifle over their shoulder.
But the aura of Elk Camp keeps hunters heading to the woods, hoping this will be the year they get to wrap their tag around a tine.
Last year, 1,655 hunters logged 6,929 days in the woods of the Rogue Unit and shot just 48 bulls for a 3-percent success rate. That's the worst since 2009, when hunters battled hot weather and shifting herds and shot just 42 bulls for a record-low 2-percent success rate.
Hunter numbers, hunting days and dead bulls were all down last year from 2011, but the difference wasn't enough to change the success rate.
Hunters who crossed Highway 62 and plied the Dixon Unit enjoyed a 6-percent success rate.
In the Dixon, 1,084 hunters logged 4,508 days in the field to bag 64 bulls, according to ODFW statistics.
The dramatic difference could be as simple as more elk crossing Highway 62 during the hunt week, or maybe hunters mistakenly believe the Rogue River is the unit boundary and not the highway, Vargas says.
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 relatively steady for years.
That makes for a crowded feeling for those who don't backpack or horsepack deep into the region's wilderness areas, 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, in addition to the fence-crashing beasts of Sams Valley.
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 20 bulls per 100 cows, up from the 17 bulls per 100 cows last year and double the 10 bulls per 100 cows for which the unit is managed.
The South Dixon Unit sports a ratio of 14 bulls per 100 cows, half of last year's numbers.
"It's still above our minimum of 10 (bulls per 100 cows), but we just didn't find them this year," Vargas says.
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 with 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 so-called "Firing Line" — the border between the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and Crater Lake National Park, where hunting is banned.
Thorough preseason scouting always helps, but elk seem to have an inner calendar that warns them of the start of the rifle season. So hunters should consider using better optics and spending more time scanning and rescanning 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, which elk try to avoid.
Maps are available at the ODFW 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.