Kamas • Aaron Larson set out at dawn, the frost crunching under his feet, taking his son Grayden on his first deer hunt, just like Aaron’s father, who joined them on the outing, had taken him hunting years earlier.
The 12-year-old Grayden, his rifle held across his chest, felt confident they were going to bag their buck as three generations of the Larson family hiked into the Uinta Mountains above Kamas.
Saturday marked the start of Utah’s annual rifle hunt, with as many as 60,000 Utahns expected to ride or hike into the forests and mountains in search of that trophy buck.
But for many, like Val Reeves of Sunset, the event had less to do with shooting a deer than a long-established family tradition.
Reeves, who didn’t get a deer tag this year, was tending the fire while his brother and the rest of his extended family were out on the hunt and others in the family slept.
“Ever since I was a little kid and before my dad passed away, I came up here every year,” said Reeves. “For the family, this is really the last big camping trip of the year.”
Brett Reeves, Val’s brother, drives up from St. George for the gathering. At home, he said, he could stand on his front porch and watch deer come and go in his yard. But the annual get-together is less about hunting — Reeves says now he doesn’t know if he could shoot a deer if he saw one — and more about continuing the tradition started with their father.
“I’m 49 years old,” he said, “and I’ve been up here ever since I was born.”
Several gates on side roads in the national forest remained closed Saturday morning. Hunters said they hadn’t been re-opened since the federal government shutdown, which ended Thursday. And despite periodic gunshots that could be heard echoing through the hills, several hunters on the mountain said they were still looking for their first sighting of a buck.
Mark Hadley, spokesman for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the rifle hunt is by far the biggest hunt of the year, with about 60,000 tags given out in the annual lottery. The number is down just slightly from last year, he said.
Division biologists reported that the southwestern and south central parts of the state were experiencing the best opening day in years, with a number of more mature deer being taken, in addition to the younger deer that are normally shot on opening day.
The tag check stations that the division sets up around the state said traffic was lighter than expected, but that may be because, with the cool temperatures, hunters that take their deer can stay and camp without worrying about the meat spoiling, Hadley said.
The deer that did come through the stations appeared healthy, Hadley said, with enough fat to indicate that those that remain have a good chance of making it through the winter.
There were no injuries reported as of Saturday afternoon, he said. The hunt runs through Oct. 27.
At the top of Sandstone Pass, high in the Uintas, wildlife officers were checking permits and clearing up confusion about where hunters were allowed to shoot their deer. As of Saturday morning, they said they hadn’t seen anyone who had actually taken their buck and had only spotted a few does that morning.
Cass McGuire, of Ogden, has also made a tradition of the hunt, he said as he and his grandsons sat in their utility vehicle Saturday morning.
“To me, it’s to get away from the family, the wife. It’s to get away,” McGuire joked. “I love it up here. This is my place. My dad, God rest his soul, said this is God’s country. I just love it here.”