Success has different connotations to different people, but for hunters the most appropriate definition may be “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” For individuals whose primary tools are shotguns, rifles, bows and muzzleloaders, the obvious goal is to harvest an animal. This, however, is just one characteristic that makes a hunting season a success.
I broach this topic because if you defined my current year’s success solely by what I have harvested, it would be considered a failure. The lack of biomass in my freezer is correlated to fewer close encounters with the animals I am pursuing rather than a lack of time in the woods.
The primary reason for less success this year compared to last is the weather. August, September, and October in this region were warmer, calmer, and drier than normal. This made the woods noisier and gave deer and elk the advantage with limited reasons to move during the day. Fewer storms in early fall also meant many public waterfowl hunting areas had less water and fewer windy days. The sustained high-pressure ridge over Utah the last couple of months allowed ducks and geese to find areas that are difficult for hunters to reach. The Valley’s pheasant numbers, in contrast, were more affected by the heavy snow that fell last year during mid-November and remained through the spring. The few pheasant encountered during my summer dog walks was a harbinger of the poor hunting season to come.
Another aspect of hunter success that is difficult to control is drawing a big game tag. This has long been difficult, but I wondered if the odds had changed due to COVID. I found little evidence of increased success. In 2020, 104,353 residents applied for 50,383 Utah deer tags. This was fewer than the 108,719 people that applied in 2019, but there were more deer tags (57,477) in that year. Overall, the chances of drawing a Utah resident deer tag in 2020 was 1 in 2.1 compared to 1 in 1.9 in 2019. Utah’s limited entry elk tags were slightly easier in 2020 when 1 in 18.5 residents drew a tag compared to 1 in 19.1 in 2019.
A look at Idaho’s trends in license sales suggests a different dynamic. With more people moving to Idaho, there are more residents purchasing big game tags. This is making non-resident tags harder to come by. Regardless, these data suggest successfully acquiring a big game tag will remain a difficult task.
For many people, getting outside with family and friends is the primary measure of a successful hunt. My youngest son shot his first turkey, ruffed grouse, sage grouse, and duck this year. Each of these outings brought me as much joy as any bird hunt I have been part of over the last twenty years. Hunting trips force people to disconnect from technology and talk around camp. Given all the bad news in 2020, having discussions with friends rather than accessing Facebook or newsfeeds has been an unexpected benefit of this year’s hunting trips.
Although the nice weather might have reduced the number of big game animals I saw, it made the process of hunting more enjoyable. Camping, traversing hills and hiking ridges looking for deer and elk is much more pleasant in the sun rather than in the mud and snow. The lack of wind and rain meant the fall foliage persisted longer than normal so many hunting trips occurred when the canyons were still colorful. Given the lack of clouds, it has been enjoyable to have the time to watch the sky shift from cobalt blue in the early morning to pale blue by the middle of the day.
Many people hike for recreation, and when a hunter doesn’t harvest any game, they still have taken a hike. Finally, I’ll admit that carrying a couple grouse out of the woods is much more agreeable to my aging body than packing out an elk.
Not everyone had a down year in terms of harvest like I did. Some hunters shot the largest deer or elk of their lives. The point is that a successful hunter has a much broader set of experiences than those that occur in the few minutes around when the gun’s safety has been switched off. Hunters find success in the process, pursuit, and harvest associated with hunting. One of the most significant hunter’s traits is they continue to be optimistic that a heavy beamed mule deer or six-point elk lies just over the next ridge. The ability to be optimistic has come in handy this year.