For the first time in recent history, deer and elk hunters had two weekend days to head to the field for the opening of the big game rifle season. General deer and elk seasons opened on Saturday, instead of Sunday, this year.
This extra day of hunter opportunity did not directly translate into double hunter numbers or harvest from past opening Sundays, but Region 2 hunter check station data for the weekend did show hunter success rates on par with the past five years—with an average of 9 percent of hunters bringing home game in the season’s first two days.
Over 2,800 hunters passed through the three Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks (FWP) check stations in west-central Montana—located near Darby, Bonner and Anaconda—this opening weekend, compared to 2,715 on opening Sunday last year. These hunters checked a total of 251 animals, including 137 elk, 26 mule deer and 83 white-tailed deer. Last year, on opening day, hunters reported 100 elk, 17 mule deer, and 44 white-tailed deer.
Because of the two-day opening weekend this year, direct comparisons can’t be made to deer and elk harvest numbers in previous openers, but the region’s check stations still had stories to tell.
Although the 1,082 hunters that passed through the Darby check station in the Bitterroot Valley over two days almost equaled the 5-year average of 1,050 for opening day, more of these hunters had elk than in recent years. The harvest of 81 elk through Darby was the highest ever recorded in 57 years for this point in the season. Approximately 75% of these elk were harvested in the Big Hole Valley. FWP counts harvest from the Big Hole because many of these elk winter in the East Fork of the Bitterroot (Hunting District 270).
Very few harvested elk came from the West Fork of the Bitterroot where elk numbers are well below objective and FWP has nearly eliminated antlerless elk harvest opportunity.
Hunters reported 26 elk through the Anaconda station, and harvest locations were widely scattered from the drainages leading to the check station. “This was a great opening weekend for elk hunters in the Upper Clark Fork,” FWP Wildlife Biologist, Ray Vinkey said.
White-tailed deer harvest over the weekend was down in the Blackfoot compared to the five-year average for opening day due largely to more conservative hunting seasons for does and fawns. FWP eliminated the traditional first eight-day either sex season for white-tails this year for the first time in over a decade. Hunters still reported harvesting 58 white-tailed deer, this year, which included 44 bucks.
By the end of the weekend, rain was falling across most of the western Montana valleys and snow was beginning to collect in the higher elevations, giving a promising outlook to harvest success for the remainder of the season’s first week.
FWP Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson noted that the two-day opener combined with an early youth deer hunt threw the hunter travel patterns off a little bit this year and made it tricky to get a good read on how harvest totals are standing compared to years past.
“We’ll have to wait to see how harvest totals play out over the season, but so far the check station data is telling us that, overall, hunters had a pretty good weekend out there,” Thompson said.