Hunting public land in Utah
Utah is a unique State when it comes to hunting because of the way the Great Salt Lake and other natural features funnel the populations into the valleys. The Wasatch Mountains are very rugged in comparison to many other States. There are very steep hills and during the winter the snow gets very deep causing access to be limited.
I had more experience hunting in Idaho, Colorado and Montana before moving to Utah. The difference between Utah and other states is that Utah has the Great Salt Lake and the West Desert which affects demographics heavily.
The Great Salt Lake and the West Desert really capture and remove a large chunk of potentially hunt-able land if you ask me. But they also push the populations of people up against the mountains. This seems to cause a lot of hunt-able land to be private. It also causes a concentrated population to be hunting in a small area relatively speaking.
I have been trying to figure out what it takes to be successful on public land in Utah for about 8 years. Through trial and error and through interviewing successful hunters I have been able to identify some good best practices.
If you don’t take this advice to heart, you will very likely go home empty handed. If you go home and wonder why your buddies keep bagging giant deer and elk and you don't, I suggest you read these tips below. Hunting big game is not sitting around the camp and drinking beer and hoping an elk runs by. It can happen but it’s probably not something you can reproduce year after year right. Here are my suggestions.
1. Get in Shape. Utah is rugged and you won’t have much of a chance if you don't have the physical stamina to scout, hunt and drag out or pack out a big animal. I am saying this because your experience will be drastically more enjoyable if you can hike a few miles and not feel like you need the life flight to take you back out. You don't want to be that guy that has to be rescued by helicopter every year. I am not kidding; you should be running 4 miles every other day for several months and maybe even years before you set off in the rugged mountains of Utah with expectations of success. However, there is one exception to this rule which is if you have horses. If you have horses, I'll submit that you can be in average shape. I know you think I’m exaggerating but after living here and hunting here for the last few years, being in basically okay shape is not good enough. You need to really train and push yourself.
2. Acquire a spotting scope and binoculars. I like Nikon and Vortex. The better your optics are, the better you will be at not only spotting game but at determining what you have spotted. I spot elk on the mountain tops with my 10x32 vortex binoculars, but I have to admit, I have a hard time telling sometimes the difference between a spike and a two point. It would be nice if you had a spotting scope so you can determine if you want to get close enough to the animal in the first place to take a shot.
3. Contact the Wildlife Biologist for your hunting area, or talk to hunters who have had success in that area, who are willing to help. Keep in mind, not all hunters will steer you right, they may say, yeah, there is a whole herd right up there, and in reality you won't see anything all day, because they pointed you away from their spot.
4. The earlier the season the better. When the animals start getting pressured by hunters they turn into ghosts, they either head to private property or become nocturnal. Bow hunters and muzzle loader hunters have the best chances on public land but rifle hunters definitely have a chance during rifle season if you are really dedicated, but even then it's best to get the earlier season of the rifle hunt.
5. Put in for tags or at least preference points for every animal you can, whether you want to hunt them that year or not and build up those preference points. It’s not easy to draw a tag in Utah without preference points. I suggest you put in for all species, including Turkey.
6. Early Season Scouting is a big benefit, if you can figure out where the animals are living generally speaking, and what times of year they are living there, you will be far more successful.
7. Take advantage of the Dedicated Hunter program, the depredation hunt program, and get your walk in access authorization number. Don’t read through like I did and think to yourself it’s a little more effort than I want to put into it, because in Utah, if you don’t have an edge, you will likely not even draw out for a tag. Regarding the walk in access authorization, it can't hurt to have that. You get that under "other" licenses.
8. Don’t put in for a tag or buy an over the counter tag in an area if you have not scouted and seen animals in that area or talked to other hunters who have scouted that area that year because your chances are low even if animals are in that area, you'll be behind the curve and you might as well get a preference point for a better hunt.
9. Small game hunt your big game area. By small game hunting you will get to know the land, the area and you will have many experiences that make your success much more likely not to mention more enjoyable. I have seen evidence that elk and deer return to the same areas they have been spooked from so don't think that just because you spooked them out that they are gone forever, that is just not always true.
10. Take a hunter safety course again. If you took a hunter safety course 10 years ago, well, things change and class material improves. Take another one, if it's required or not. A good opportunity for that would be to sit through the one your kid is taking, never rest thinking you have already done it all and know it all.
Bonus Tip: Be aware of thermal wind swirls and hunt with the awareness of which way your scent is traveling. When hunting pressure increases in Utah, your objective should be to find the food source, water source and bedding areas of the particular game you are after, and solve where the travel corridors are and then figure out how the thermals and wind factor into that situation and ultimately if you don't find sign, or actual game, then you should probably move on to a new area. There are areas where animals will typically go each year, but the areas are huge, and if you really want to narrow it down, you must be aware that the herd will be within a certain area but, in different parts of that area each year. There is really no way to know where they will be for certain during your hunt, other than to find them in advance and hope they don't move out by opening day. Typically what that means is, find the cows, does, hens, in July. The bucks, bulls and roosters will find the females during the breeding season. You are looking for the females, because they are what matter most in the system before the hunting season. After the mating season, the picture changes a little and you'll be looking for the sanctuary areas and it's each animal for itself (Generally speaking).
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