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Elk Hunting is a Rite of Passage in Oregon

 

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 Coast Elk, A Rite of Passage    

From Ashland to Portland, the vast majority of Oregon’s residents live along the Interstate-5 corridor.  With the Coast Range Mountains looming just to the west of their backyards, it stands to reason that most Oregon hunters have at one time purchased a tag and sought Roosevelt Elk in our State’s coastal mountains.  Tens of thousands of Oregonians have known the misery of constant rain and nearly vertical terrain associated with Oregon’s Coast Bull rifle season.  Hunting’s most seasoned veterans will readily tell you that seeking coastal elk in this perennial rain forest can be one of the most physically demanding hunts in North America.

Yearly harvest statistics gathered by Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife show nearly 50,000 rifle elk tags are sold for the Coast and High Cascade hunting seasons.  Statistically, fewer than 6,000 cows and bulls will be killed, with an overall hunter success rate standing around 13%.  Shockingly, approximately 3,500 bulls will be harvested by well over ten times that many men and women who purchase bull elk tags, leaving the actual bull elk hunter success ratio at less than ten-percent.  So, using twenty consecutive years of hard to come by vacation time from the salt mine, solidly average hunters will take fewer than two bulls.  Terribly difficult terrain, sometimes an inch of rainfall per day and a 90% chance that you will not kill a bull elk, you’ve got to ask what gives?  Why would so many otherwise intelligent people submit themselves to this kind of yearly torture?  In addition to mere proximity, I believe the number one reason must be “family”. 

Evolving across three and four generations of Oregonians, hunting coast elk is a family tradition.  Who among us has not heard someone make a statement similar to, “My family has been using the same elk-camp for the past twenty or thirty years.”  One such family is the Parnell’s of southwest Oregon.  Their coast bull tradition spans nearly fifty years.

Brothers – Duane, Brian (deceased), Glenn and Robert Parnell grew up on a small ranch just outside of Sutherlin.  Their father, Chester Parnell, fell trees and built roads in coastal timber for over forty years.  Having relocated his family to Sutherlin in 1950, “Chet” readily took to hunting elk in this rugged country.  Referring to the 1940’s and 1950’s, I heard Chet say many times, “folks raised their families on elk and deer meat in those days”.  Always an avid hunter, he excelled at meeting coast bulls head-to-head, ignoring the rain and torturous terrain.  Chet shared his hunting prowess with friends and family, and passed his elk hunting skill to his sons and grandsons. 

Before his death Chet Parnell would personally tag over forty coast bulls, and aid those close to him in the taking of countless others.  But, knowing the environment so intimately, Chet closely guarded the whereabouts of his private “honey-holes”, sharing their locations only with his children and grandchildren.  I had the pleasure of sharing an elk camp or two with Chet and while he never ran short of elk stories, I never tired of hearing them.  I have hunted since I’ve been big enough to keep-up, and my hair is more gray than brown.  Chet Parnell was unquestionably the best animal tracker I’ve known, and probably the best hunter I ever met.  He was a master elk hunter.

The Parnell’s hunt within the Tioga Unit, which extends from the Umpqua River, south to Highway 42, and from just west of Sutherlin to the ocean.  They like hunting in the old growth forests east of Coos Bay.  Fearing for my personal well being, I will provide no further description of their favorite hunting grounds.  Like all of the coast range, it is steep unforgiving terrain.  While the old growth is more open than “reprod”, there are certain pluses and minuses for each type of forested hunting situation. 

For instance, old growth timber allows hunters the ability to see for long distances inside the trees.  But, when a fallen tree blocks your path, it is often too large to climb over, or even to see over for that matter.  When moving on nearly vertical slopes, walking or climbing two or three hundred feet in one direction, simply to get around a fallen tree, can add a lot of work and time to your hunt.  Experiencing this several times per day throughout the season, seriously adds to your workout.  Rhododendron patches the size of cornfields, rocks the size of houses and cliffs dropping off to nowhere, all add to the coast elk experience.

The Saddle Mountain Unit in northwest Oregon and the Tioga Unit in the southwest have each been established as trophy bull hunts by Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.  In order to comply with established hunting regulations, any bull taken in these areas must have a minimum of three points on at least one antler.  This “three point or better” rule applies to both rifle and archery hunters.  Archery hunters can still take a cow elk, but if they harvest a bull it must have three points on one antler.  About the fourth day of your hunt, you have climbed mountain after mountain, and it has rained every minute since you arrived, this restriction can be extremely frustrating.  You may have seen dozens of elk, but none with the required three points.  Let me tell you, a spike elk never looks so good as the third or fourth day of a Tioga elk hunt.

Even in his sixties Chet Parnell was in superb physical condition and could climb up and down unforgiving mountains for day after day.  Coming across a single elk track in the timber he would make a judgment call as to whether or not the animal was a lone bull.  So long as the ground was not frozen hard, if he decided to follow an elk track, chances were good that he would get a look at the bull.  If he lost his race with the sun, the next morning he would either guess where the bull was heading at sundown and make his way to a particular canyon or timber stand, or he would return to where he had stopped the day before and begin a new.  I loved listening to he and Duane’s stories about bulls Chet had taken on the second or third day of a hunt, having tracked the same bull for days on end.  Duane paid close attention to his father’s lessons on tracking.  We followed a bull for hours one day, climbing over ridge after ridge.  I was spellbound at Duane’s ability to detect the slightest irregularity or disturbance on the ground and rightly connect it with the bull we were following. 

The Parnell’s have a particular “honey-hole” on a nameless ridge, off a nameless road, somewhere in the Tioga Unit.  On that steep ridge there is a small flat resting squarely above a cliff, about 1,000 yards off the nearest road.  The circling trees are ancient and enormous, allowing little light to penetrate the earth on even the sunniest of days.  It seems likely that elk and deer have rested on this little flat for hundreds and hundreds of years.  An Indian or two may have walked in this flat in the past few thousand years, and I suppose it is possible that a timber cruiser has stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow during his long workday.  But, in decades of Tioga elk hunting, Chet and Duane Parnell never saw so much as a human footprint in this flat, their own private “honey-hole”.  Three generations of Parnell’s have sat in wait at this beautiful slice of the coast range.   While patiently waiting for a yellow bull to step into this special place, two Parnell fathers (Chet and Duane) have passed on coast elk knowledge to sons.      

I happen to know the precise locale of this small slice of heaven on earth.  In 2003 I had the privilege of helping young Brian Parnell bring his bull from the little flat, up and out to the roadway.  This was Brian’s first bull and because he had taken it in a secret place where both Duane and his father had harvested coastal elk, it is and shall always be a cornerstone day in Duane’s life. 

The Parnell’s may be typical of countless thousands of west-side Oregon families.  Young men and women learn to elk hunt in the forests of the Coast Range Mountains.  For these families, hunting coast elk is truly a rite of passage by which youngsters can gauge a never-ending journey into adulthood and fathers can mark the passage of time.

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March 11, 2008 - Posted by | Deer, Elk, Antelope, Big Horns and Such

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