YAKIMA -- In his heart, Curt Johnson is a big bull hunter.
That's the only kind of elk he really wants, and although he hunts every year, he has waited 10 years to draw that any-bull tag.
This year, he got it. Life was good. But then, unfortunately, so was the weather.
The area Johnson hunts in the Nile, he says, "I know like the back of my hand, I've been hunting there so long." For 35 of his 47 years, in fact.
Over the nine-day 2008 modern-firearm elk season that ended Nov. 2, though, Johnson saw a grand total of 10 elk. Only one was a male -- a raghorn bull, a small 4-by-5. He shot it simply because he wasn't seeing anything else and didn't want to come away empty-handed.
"It wasn't what I wanted," says Johnson, a Yakima resident. "I'd rather get something to fill my freezer than nothing at all, because I love the meat. Over the years I've shot plenty of elk, but it's aggravating for me and my buddies."
What's aggravating to those long-time hunters in the Cascade foothills west of Yakima is the timing of the season itself, which they say is simply too early.
"I shot my bull elk in my tennis shoes and a T-shirt," Johnson says. "In my tennis shoes. Give me a break."
Hollis Baughman, 72, of Yakima, has been hunting the Nile for 50 years.
"We used to hunt in the snow," Baughman says. "Now you can go out in a T-shirt. In that kind of weather, those animals just get in the deepest, darkest canyons they can find. I didn't see nothin' ... and I hunted hard, too."
A quarter-century ago, modern-firearm elk season in the game management units (GMUs) populated in winter by the Yakima herd ran from Nov. 1-18. In 1996 the general season dropped down to an 11-day season and then to nine days the following year, when the general hunt also reverted to spike-only because of poor bull-cow ratios in the herd.
Steve Brulotte of Moxee, who has hunted Yakima-area elk since he was 8 years old, says he misses the old days of longer, later modern-firearm seasons.
"The archery guys have got the best seasons of the year," says Brulotte, 61. "They've got the rut in the deer season (Sept. 8-21) and then they've got the cold-weather season (Nov. 20-Dec. 8) for elk. "It's sad when guys have cow (elk) permits and can't fill 'em because they don't see a cow the whole season. In general, the rifle guys have got the worst season of all."
Jerry Nelson, who heads up the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife deer and elk section, has heard all this before. He understands the hunters' frustration, but he also has a job to do -- and the statistics to verify just how difficult it is.
"A lot of folks don't know this and are really surprised by it," he says. "Of the approximately 11 Western elk states, we are the smallest in landscape area, but the human population is second only to California, with well over 6 million now. We have approximately 50,000 to 55,000 elk, and we put roughly 90,000 elk hunters in the field this year -- people who actually go out in the field."
In 2006, Washington had the western states' highest congestion of active, in-the-field elk hunters -- 1.3 hunters for every elk. The next highest were Oregon (1.1 hunters for every elk), Colorado (0.8), Montana (0.7) and Idaho (0.6).
Setting up deer and elk seasons, Nelson says, is "really two things. One is trying to fit all of the seasons into a finite calendar, and that includes deer and elk, and that includes archery, muzzleloader and modern firearm."
The other part, he says, is the vulnerability of the animal to excessive harvest. Were the elk season pushed back, he says, "Those numbers would go up and we'd ultimately be taking more elk than we want to kill."
Regional wildlife program manager Ted Clausing says having a single season in which the harvest numbers were higher than anticipated could result in a change in ensuing years.
"There's no question that for one or two years you could make a season where everybody's happy and successful," he says. "But if you had a real high success rate on bulls, you'd have to reduce that so your recruitment would hold up."
WDFW surveys routinely indicate that hunters prefer having the seasons fairly consistent, rather than changing from year to year. As a statewide group, hunters haven't even shown a profound interest in the very issue that most irritates the Yakima elk hunters.
A 2008 hunt-season survey question on whether to push the Yakima-area elk season back a week, so that it would run through the first week of November, drew only tepid response.
Of nearly 4,000 respondents, 36.1 percent favored pushing the season back into early November, while 34.8 percent opposed it; the remaining 29.1 percent responded that they had no preference.