The vastness of the Cascade Mountains can be a bit overwhelming at times. But with some 12,000 elk in the region there are definitely plenty of reasons for hunters to gear up and head out after them when the season opens on Saturday. (Photo courtesy Rob Phillips)

YAKIMA, Wash. — What might be the most popular hunting season of the year gets underway this Saturday when the general elk hunting season opens in Central Washington. This is the season known as the general rifle season, when most elk hunters head to the woods to try to fill their tag.

Because Yakima and Kittitas Counties have some of the biggest elk herds in the state, a large number of hunters from all over Washington converge on our area to hunt the big animals.

According to figures from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, last year over 10,600 elk hunters spent time in our two-county district during the modern firearms season. That’s a whole bunch of folks in the woods during the nine-day general season.

Unfortunately, most of those hunters went home without any meat for the freezer. Last year only 277 spike elk were taken during the general season in Central Washington.

The history of elk and elk hunting in our region is an interesting one. Because elk were not found in this part of the state in the 1800’s, it was thought they were not actually native to our area. But research at archeological dig sites around the Columbia Basin shows that elk were at least seasonal residents of the area at times during the last 10,000 years.

Throughout more recent history though, around the time Lewis and Clark worked their way through the area, the only elk in Washington were the Roosevelt variety, found only on the west side of the state. It was not until local sportsman’s groups and county game commissioners started bringing Rocky Mountain elk from Montana and transplanting them into different areas of Washington in the early 1900’s that the animals became re-established here.

Historical data shows that from 1912 to 1932, 502 elk were purchased in Montana and transplanted in Washington State. They were placed in various counties on both the west and east side of the Cascades, but the transplanted elk definitely did better in some areas than others. Looking at populations studies from 1939, it is pretty obvious that certain regions of the state weren’t suited to the Rocky Mountain elk species.

For instance, in 1912, 60 elk were turned loose in Snohomish County, but by 1939 the elk were gone. Similar results were found in several other western Washington Counties.

In Eastern Washington however, and in Yakima County in particular, the elk found things to their liking. From 50 elk planted in the hills west of Yakima in 1913, the herd grew steadily and expanded into Kittitas County. By 1939, it was estimated there were 3,000 elk in the region.

The first hunting season for elk in Central Washington was held in 1927, when 977 hunters took 137 bulls. In the years that followed, fewer hunting licenses were sold, and every year for the next eight, less than a hundred elk were killed.

By the mid 1930’s, population of elk had grown to the point the animals were actually becoming a nuisance to farmers in the agricultural areas in the lower elevations of the area. During winters with heavy snows, the elk would migrate down and feed on hay stacks and fruit trees.

In 1938, in an effort to try to help alleviate the elk/farmer conflicts, state officials opened an “any elk” season in our area to help bring the growing elk populations in line with the habitat available. That year hunters took just over 1,000 elk.

From 1927 to today, there have been open fall hunting seasons for elk in Central Washington and over the years hunters have had varied success, depending on weather conditions and the number of elk available.

In more recent times, hunters have had to decide how they wanted to hunt elk, either with archery gear, muzzle loader rifles, or modern firearms. That has helped spread some of the pressure out over time, but still it is the modern rifle season that draws the most attention.

This year the general rifle season runs from Saturday, Oct. 26 through Sunday, Nov. 3. With some early high mountain snow storms the past few weeks, the elk may be found at lower elevations or may be in transition. Muzzle-loader hunters had trouble finding elk in their normal spots a couple weeks ago, so hunters may have to work a little harder when the season opens Saturday.

Even when the big animals are in their traditional spots, they can be incredibly difficult to find. You’d think an animal the size of a horse would be easy to see, but that is rarely the case. Hunters who go to the extra effort and get away from the roads, and the crowds, will have a better chance of dining on elk steaks this winter.

According to biologists for the WDFW, there are about 8,000 elk in Yakima County, and another 4,000 in the Colockum herd in Kittitas County. So there are elk around. And come Saturday, there will be plenty of orange-clad hunters out there after them.

Any elk taken during the upcoming season will be well-earned. It is even more special knowing every elk taken in Central Washington this year can be traced back to 1913, when early sportsmen and women had the foresight and wherewithal to bring 50 elk from Montana to help create one of Washington’s most viable elk herds.

Thanks to them elk hunting has been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people over the past eight decades and will continue to be for years to come.

Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at rob1@spdandg.com