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Remembering when the deer hunt wasn’t just a hunt, it was a holiday

Schools used to close and football games were moved to Thursday back in the day when the Utah deer hunt took center stage

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Jerry and Carolyn Christensen sit in Jerry’s big game trophy room at their home in Heber City.

Jerry and Carolyn Christensen sit in Jerry’s big game trophy room at their home in Heber City.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

Like it has every October for as long as anyone can remember, the Utah deer hunt begins this weekend.

It’s still a big deal for many. Just ask the 74,025 who drew permits for this year’s hunt. They’re swarming to the hills on their RZRs and Rangers, and still a few horses, as we speak. 

But it’s a far cry from when upward of a quarter million hunters went afield and schools were shut down all over the state for the hunt. 

School was canceled ”because if they didn’t nobody’d even go,” says no less an authority than Jerry Christensen.

Jerry is 80 years old and has been on pretty much every Utah deer hunt since he was born in Heber City in 1941. He can’t precisely pinpoint the first one because his deer hunt history goes back farther than his memory.

But he can remember the first deer he ever shot, even if technically it wasn’t quite legal to shoot it.

He was 12 years old or thereabouts, up on the mountain at the crack of dawn on opening day, doing what his dad and uncles instructed him to do: drive the deer through the brush to where the men were waiting on higher ground.

“Me and my little brother and some of the other small kids, they’d put us out in the thickest brush they could find, and we’d go push the deer out to those guys waiting,” says Jerry, remembering the details like it was yesterday. “I remember I was up there making a drive, but I had my gun with me, a Marlin lever-action .22 my dad gave me. Heck of a rifle. I’ve still got it.

“Anyway, I heard this noise behind me, and there was a deer running right down the trail, a pretty good-sized buck, too. I shot him, and he dropped like a ton of bricks. I thought, ‘My heck, killed him that fast, and with a .22?’ But I didn’t kill him. I hit him right on the horn and knocked him out. Next thing I knew the sucker jumped up and ran off.”

The stories come fast and easy to Jerry, a lifelong hunter for whom the adjective “avid” might be an understatement. He has an entire room in his house on the east side of Heber City populated by the heads of animals who didn’t get back up and run off.

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Longtime hunter Jerry Christensen poses underneath trophy deer and and other animals in his den in Heber City.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

Included are the biggest deer he ever bagged — it weighed 240 pounds field-dressed (“that’s with its insides out”) — and the one with the widest rack. The trophy deer are on either side of a warthog Jerry shot in Africa.

When Jerry was a kid, “everybody went out on the deer hunt,” he says. “If you didn’t, there was something wrong with you.

“We had a two-ton truck we hauled sheep in. We’d fill that truck up with hunters — you couldn’t hardly get them all in there, and it was a big truck. We’d put bales of hay around the outside to sit on. It was colder than all get-out, but it was a family outing and it was a big deal. I used to get so pumped up before the deer hunt started, I couldn’t stand it; it was just like waiting for Christmas.”

In his case, as with many others, it was also a way to get food for the winter.

“People liked to hunt deer because they loved to eat them. My mother would can deer meat that I used all winter long to take to school for my sandwiches, and it was delicious.”

Times have changed, of course. Schools no longer close for the hunt. Football games aren’t moved to Thursday night. Women left behind don’t throw deer widow parties anymore. An army of 200,000-plus — the all-time high is 246,685 hunters in 1988 — doesn’t head for the hills.

Everything changed in 1994, when a diminishing deer population caused the Division of Wildlife Resources to implement a permit system limiting the number of hunters in relationship to the number of deer.

The number fluctuates by the year, but for the past 27 years the average number of permits is 90,000 and the average deer harvest is 29,000. Compare that to the high-water year of 1961 when no less than 132,278 deer were shot by 202,305 hunters.

Due mainly to the drought, this year’s number of permits, 74,025, ranks as the lowest ever. The good news is that the estimated deer population of 314,850 is considerably more than the 240,000 when the permit system began, although still a far cry from the halcyon days of Jerry’s younger years.

The veteran hunter sees three major reasons why there aren’t as many deer as there used to be. One is less deer habitat due to land development. The other two are lions and video games.

Mountain lions, he opines, “kill 50 deer a year, apiece, and we have a lot of lions up there. All they do is eat deer. I say kill all the cockeyed lions.”

As for video games, “a big problem with the kids nowadays is these games they stick their face in and don’t do anything else. I’d put them on the cement and pound them to pieces (the games not the kids), and say, ‘That’s the end of that (expletive).’”

Also, it appears the deer are getting smarter. Jerry cites an article he read in the newspaper about deer standing at an intersection on Main Street in Heber City, waiting for the light to turn green to cross the road.

“It was right down there by the Maverik service station,” he says. “Because of all these houses we’re building, the deer are adapting. We’re getting residential deer.”

That’s something they couldn’t say back in the day.