An estimated 15,000 sportsmen will head afield Saturday in this elk-rich corner of Washington when hunting season begins its 12-day run.
And while Southwest Washington is home for the largest elk populations in the state, killing a bull in the modern firearms season is a long shot with about 5 percent of hunters being successful.
For many hunters, the season also is about a reunion with family and friends. It’s about elk camp, camaraderie and being out in the woods when it might be 60 degrees at noon and snow that night.
Weather conditions play a huge role in hunting success. Just ask some of the archers and muzzleloaders who did not have access to their spots in September and early October due to the fire closures.
Snow and cold weather often improve hunting for the modern firearms elk season. Southwest Washington started getting snow as low as 3,500 feet elevation two weeks ago.
But on Wednesday, the automated snow sites at June Lake, 3,400 feet elevation on the south side of Mount St. Helens, and Surprise Lakes, elevation 4,300 feet near Indian Heaven Wilderness, reported no snow and temperatures in the middle 40s.
“Lower snow levels improve conditions for the hunter,’’ said Pat Miller, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in Longview. “The elk are a bit more vulnerable.’’
Snow late last winter — actually in March and April — took a toll on elk in the mudflow area of the upper Toutle River, Miller said.
The state tallied 47 carcasses, he said. The average is in the mid to upper 20s.
“There was a lot of late snow and they did not enter the winter in the best of condition,’’ he said.
Winter losses were noted in the North Toutle, South Toutle and Green River areas.
Miller said the survey serves as an index of elk populations north and west of the mountain, but can not applied to other parts of the Mount St. Helens area such as Lewis River and Siouxon.
“Those places have totally different habitat,’’ he added.
Willapa Hills unit 506 is productive elk habitat, but changes in road openings and closures and hunter access are happening.
“It’s always good for hunters to reaffirm where they have gone historically to be sure those places are still available,’’ he said.
David Anderson, a state wildlife biologist in Trout Lake, said he does not think the game units in his area had much loss of elk last winter.
“Elk numbers in Wind River and West Klickitat look good, so I think the upcoming elk season should be pretty decent, especially for those with cow tags, he said.