State's restrictions on where they can hunt are meant to help game populations rebound.
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Uinta Mountains • Robert Gehring has been hunting deer in Utah for 60 years.
He was back in the mountains Saturday chasing deer along with 52,000 hunters across the state hoping to bag a buck on opening day of the 2012 general rifle deer hunt.
The 77-year-old resident of the Salt Lake City area was, however, missing two things: his rifle and a deer hunting permit.
"I've hunted for 62 years, and this is the first year I didn't get a license," Gehring said. "I just got so disgusted with the state of Utah and how hard they have made it to get a permit and how hard they have made it to hunt with your family."
Deer hunters Saturday faced one of the biggest changes ever to the Utah mule deer general season: A decision by the Utah Wildlife Board forces people to pick one of 30 areas across the state.
Hunters last year were allowed to hunt one of five regions across Utah, but the Wildlife Board felt being able to monitor the declining deer herds on a more specific geographic footprint would make it easier to help the populations rebound.
For Gehring, the draw of being in the mountains in October and chasing deer was too much to resist, so he joined son Shawn and grandson Nick Smith for the hunt in the mountains along the Mirror Lake Highway. Two granddaughters also joined the party for a weekend of hunting.
"I love being here with my kids. It is the greatest thing in the world," he said. "They have taken a family tradition and ruined it as far as I am concerned."
The Gehrings have been hunting the mountains near Mayfield for years, and Shawn and Nick had listed that as their first preference on the deer hunt application but ended up getting their second choice: the Kamas Unit. They spent Saturday morning covering some of the ground Robert had hunted decades ago but only saw a few does and one young 2-point buck they decided not to shoot.
Pressure on the Kamas Unit seemed much lighter, at least around the Soapstone Basin area, than in years past, and that may have ended up making it tough for hunters who are accustomed to letting other hunters push deer in their direction.
Across the state, deer reports are low as many hunters are taking advantage of the great weather and spending another night camping in the woods. But officials saw more mature bucks than expected at checkpoints and noted the surprisingly healthy condition of the animals.
"Despite the dry conditions, the deer that were checked were in good condition," said Mark Hadley, of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). "While biologists would like to see a little more fat, the animals still had plenty of fat. That fat is important in helping the deer survive the upcoming winter."
State wildlife biologists were expecting the number of yearling bucks to make up the majority of animals seen at checkpoints this fall, but Hadley said a high percentage of the animals being checked were mature deer. He noted that the checkpoint on U.S. Highway 40 near Strawberry Reservoir had 10 deer go through by 1 p.m. Saturday and that three were yearlings, one 2½ years old and six were 3½ years or older.
Wildlife biologist Randall Thacker said the higher number of mature bucks could be the result of fewer hunting permits in the northeastern region of the state the past two years, leading to younger animals living longer.
Law enforcement officials with the state wildlife agency said they were experiencing a similar number of violations and calls to the poaching hotline (1-800-662-3337) as past years. It seems hunters are doing their homework on the smaller units and avoiding legal issues with hunting in the wrong areas, at least early in the hunt.
Hunters who procrastinated may still have a chance to get out before the hunt ends Oct. 28. Hadley says there are still permits available on the Chalk Creek/East Canyon/Morgan-South Rich and Box Elder units. He suggests visiting a hunting-license agent rather than buying a permit on the website so hunters will have the permit in hand when they pay for it rather than waiting for it to arrive in the mail.
The weather in Utah's mountains is expected to stay nice Sunday, but cold and wet conditions are expected early in the week.