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Ray Grass: Numbers change, but zeal doesn’t

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Funny how much things can change, but still, at the core, stay the same.

This past week, deer hunters spent their time walking through the mud and snow in pursuit of deer.

A few dozen years ago hunters, at this time of year, were doing basically the same thing — walking through the mud and snow in pursuit of a deer.

Certainly, it's not the same now as it was back in the 1970s and 1980s, and yet it is . . . hunters must have a license, must wear at least 300 square inches of hunter orange on their chest and head and must be either skilled or lucky enough to get within rifle range.

Not so long ago, however, the whole world shut down for the annual deer hunt in October.

Schools and businesses closed, hunting stores were stocked to the roof with anything orange and warm, and schools always scheduled away games knowing no one would be in town to buy tickets.

Back then, however, more than 200,000 hunting licenses were sold to hunters for this one hunt. Count tag-along family members and the total number of people out in the hills could easily be 300,000-plus.

Highways were jammed come quitting time the Friday before the hunt and were just as packed on Sunday evening for the return. Finding a campsite was not easy, and finding a canyon or even a clearing that didn't have other hunters was impossible.

Overcrowding was a big complaint of many hunters during those big hunts. Many opted to buy special-access permits in hopes of finding some solitude. Much of that land, today, is reserved by hunting groups.

In the big picture, about the only thing different about this past weekend opener was numbers. There were no traffic jams or fights for camping spots. No lines the night before at sporting stores of hunters looking for last-minute necessities.

There were 60,000 licenses sold for this hunt. If predictions play out, one in four will tag a deer.

That means roughly 15,000 deer will be shot, taken to the butcher and then stored in freezer for future meals.

This is a far cry from the 130,000 deer taken by hunters in 1961, or the 82,000 bucks shot in 1985.

But numbers were not an issue this past weekend. Of the hunters contacted, not a single one complained about lower counts.

Nary a hunter contacted came off the mountains without seeing at least one deer, be it a buck or doe. Reports ranged anywhere from hunters seeing a few deer to, as one hunter said, "a couple of dozen, but I really didn't count because I had my eye on a biggest buck."

It's a fact that Utah herds will never get back to 1960s numbers. And, it will take years of rebuilding to get deer counts back to 1980s numbers. Currently, estimates are that the state holds 280,000 deer. The long-range objective is to eventually hold twice that number.

For those who like to hunt, though, aside from the numbers, the hunt really isn't so different.

Hunters still need to pack up, head for the hills and then spend their time either waiting and watching, or stepping out lightly in search of game.

And for many, tagging a deed is simply a bonus. What appeals to them most is the opportunity to get outdoors in the late fall and enjoy the season.

There's really not another time like it. The leaves are off the trees and litter the ground. The air is crisp and cold, and the food, for some reason, even the simplest of meals, such as a can of warmed-up beans, tastes delicious.

It's a good time to be in the hills. And, some say, even better now that numbers are down. The one thing hunters can find now that they couldn't years ago is a little solitude.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com