Hunters Have One Last Chance to Bag an Elk

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WILLAPA HILLS — It’s a surprisingly warm 40 degrees outside as I arrive at a house I’ve never seen before in Raymond at 5:30 a.m. Friday. A Pacific County native, I’m back home to embark on my first-ever hunting trip and have no idea what to expect.

Jeff Boggs is loading gear into his red, lifted Chevy pickup as he greets me when I pull into the driveway. He hands me a pair of camouflage pants and a long sleeve shirt as I slip my boots on and climb into the cab.

We merge onto U.S. Highway 101 as Boggs rolls his window down and says, ‘There’s your picture!’ as a herd of elk graze in the darkness of early morning just off the road; less than 100 yards from his house. 

Unfortunately, these elk are on private property and are illegal to shoot. Instead, we head deep into the heart of the forest in search of one of Washington’s most prized big game animals.

Adult bull (male) Roosevelt elk can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, and average around 600 to 800 pounds. Adult cows (females) weigh in around 500 pounds. With thick bodies, short tails and long legs, adult elk stand 4½ to 5 feet high just at the shoulder. 

The first elk Boggs harvested two years ago gave him over 200 pounds of meat and lasted him the entire year. He processes everything on his own, from dressing and cleaning to cutting every steak and grinding the burger.

“This is the best meat I’ve ever eaten,” Boggs said. “My kid will eat elk and deer over anything. I’d rather have an animal I’ve killed over store-bought meat any day.”

Boggs and I are heading to Game Management Unit 506, also known as the Willapa Hills region, which runs from the Columbia River in Wahkiakum County all the way up north of Route 6, east of Menlo.

General season ended in Western Washington on Nov. 18 for modern firearms and Sept. 24 for archery. Right now, the only hunting that is open in the Willapa Hills is late archery elk, a season that runs from Nov. 25 to Dec. 15, and Boggs is trying to fill his freezer after striking out during early archery.

Boggs, 33, has been hunting since he was 9 years old, getting one pheasant his first year out. He bagged his first deer at just 10 years old, and has harvested a deer every year since then except once. He didn’t start hunting elk until four years ago, after he bought his first bow.

When we arrive at the spur of a gated logging road at 6 a.m., it’s still dark out and we’re the first hunters to get here. Typically, during hunting season, every timber company gate has a cluster of cars parked in front of it as thousands of hunters descend upon the woods.

In 2019, there were 54,500 elk hunters statewide. In the Willapa Hills alone, there were 1,916 hunters during the general season, many of which pour in from urban areas and cities. This year, 98,000 elk tags were bought statewide since April 1. In the Green Creek area east of Menlo, there were 30-foot fifth-wheel motorhomes parked on the sides of the logging roads. 

Boggs and I, reveling in the early-morning solitude at our empty gate, put our camouflage on and began trekking up a winding logging road. It’s 7 a.m., still a bit dark out, as we step as lightly as possible on the crunchy gravel.

Boggs holds his bow by the string as he walks. It’s a Bowtech Realm SR6, one he bought used earlier this year and set him back $900. In his Bowtech Octane quiver are Easton 6.5mm carbon arrows. A quality entry-level bow for a first-time hunter, he said, would run about $500. 

He got into bow hunting for a multitude of reasons, the main one being that archery season runs from Sept. 12-24, during the height of the rut, when horns clash and males vie for female mating partners. It’s the easiest time to bag an elk as archers use an assortment of calls, such as a bull elk challenge and a female in heat, to coax the bulls near for a clean shot. Boggs uses Phelps Game Calls, a company located in Pe Ell.

Another advantage for bow hunters is that modern firearm season doesn’t begin until Nov. 25, about a month after the rut has ended, meaning a lot less hunters are out during this time. In 2019, there were over 30,000 modern firearm hunters in the state compared to less than 15,000 archery hunters.

After 20 minutes of slowly trudging uphill, Boggs and I reach the first clearing. It’s the spot he shot his first elk two years ago. I stand a few feet back, concealed behind a small cluster of bushes, as he surveys the landscape with his Vortex binoculars. We gingerly move along the side of the road that runs parallel to the clearing, looking for any signs of movement or the telltale tan bodies of the giant elk.

Archery hunting is no easy feat, I begin to realize, as Boggs points to a stump off in the distance and asks how far away I think it is. After years of covering high school football games, I felt I have an accurate judgement of yardage. I guess 50 yards. Boggs takes out his rangefinder and says “Nope. 100 yards.” 

Even that stump looks like a tough distance to land a shot, and in reality, it’s still a bit further than the optimal shooting range of 40 yards with a bow. His maximum range is 80 yards, but even then it’s a desperation shot.

“You have to get so close, and if the wind blows they smell you and you’re not going to get your animal,” Boggs said. “You’ve got to hunt the wind. If I have an 80-yard shot and I feel like I can get closer, I’m getting closer.”

As we continue along the road, the only sound is the crackling gravel under our boots. Every word we exchange is a hushed whisper. We need every advantage we can get to spot these elk before they see, smell and/or hear us.

With a modern firearm, a well-aimed hunter can drop an elk from hundreds of yards away. Still, modern firearm hunters had a lower success rate than archery hunters in the state last year; 9 percent for firearms and 10 percent for archery. That’s mostly due to double the amount of firearm hunters, however. In the Willapa Hills, archery hunters had a bit more luck. Of the 785 archery hunters, 133 successfully harvested an elk, for a 17 percent success rate.

Still, the odds are against us today.

We make our way through multiple spurs, guided by an app that shows the owner for every parcel of land in the area to make sure we don’t stumble upon private property. It isn’t until about 4 miles in that we find our first spot where elk bedded down the night before. Boggs points to a big circle and a smaller circle in the grass. “That’s where a mom and its baby laid down,” he said.

Yards away, we find our first fresh elk poop. Boggs guesses it’s hours old. We follow the poop trail down a branching road a couple hundred yards before it disappears completely. At some point they left the road and went off into the thick blanket of trees and brush, he said. We won’t venture into the trees. Not only would our steps be too loud, but the branches are too thick to get off a clean shot even if we did find them.

We continue on, stopping every so often to rest, as Boggs tells hunting stories in a whisper. He tells why he won’t elk hunt with a firearm, because of the thousands of people and craziness it brings. He shares a story of his friend’s dad’s friend who shot an elk and after locating it was approached by a father and son who claimed it was them who had shot it. There was an argument, and the man was shot and killed by the father and son. 

It’s just one example of the hyper-competitiveness of elk hunting, and how difficult it can be to get one of your own. Even Boggs had someone try to steal the elk he killed. After landing a shot he was sure would be fatal, Boggs sat on a stump and waited for the elk to die. Chasing after a shot elk is a huge mistake, he said, as they will run for miles and miles if pursued.

When he finally located the elk, a hunter was standing next to it, claiming he had shot it. Boggs showed him his arrows, which matched the arrow in the elk and, luckily, the hunter continued on his way.

Still, the positive encounters far outweigh the negative ones for Boggs. He shoots at least 10 arrows a day, 365 days a year in anticipation for the season. He has targets set up at his house so he can even shoot out of the window of his trophy room.

“I don’t want to have to think about it, I want to draw it and have it just like a gun,” Boggs said. “You’ve got to build the muscle memory. It’s all technique. Once you learn how, it’s all easy.”

We survey a handful of clearings as we make a giant loop on the logging roads back toward Boggs’ truck. We walk a total of 7 miles and don’t see a single elk, though the bedded-down grass and fresh poop let us know we must have just missed them. 

As we near the truck, he takes me down a wooded trail that he saw mushrooms growing in earlier this year. We collect a handful of chanterelles and a large, pink coral mushroom before arriving at the gate. Looks like we won’t go home empty-handed after all.

For now, it’s back home for some lunch, then he’ll head back out for a few more hours until dark. He’ll return on Saturday and Sunday, too, chasing the thrill of the hunt.

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