It’s well before sunrise at a small body of water about an hour east of Salt Lake City. Perry Hall is preparing for a duck hunt.
“We've got the wind at our back right now, which is pretty much perfect,” he said. “I almost prefer more of a crosswind so that the birds aren't looking directly at you as they're coming in and kind of helps camouflage you a little bit better.”
Hall is an avid hunter. Not just of waterfowl like ducks and geese but of big game like elk and mule deer, too. He’s also chairman of the Utah chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The wildlife and public lands conservation group is made up of hunters and anglers across the country, including about 550 members in Utah, Hall said.
“We're kind of a great organization to reach out to if you're interested in hunting because there's programs, there's people who are willing to raise their hand and be like, ‘Hey, I've been hunting a long time. I'm at that point where I'm willing to start giving back to someone else and taking someone under your wing and educating them about what this whole thing entails.’”
Hunting is hugely popular in Utah. Thousands partake in hunts each year for everything from massive elk to small upland birds like pheasants and chukar. The right to hunt and fish is even enshrined in the state’s constitution.
According to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, nearly a half-million hunting and fishing licenses have been sold this year. The money generated is responsible for almost half of the division’s yearly revenue. Last fiscal year, that number was $54.7 million. That money then goes toward projects like habitat preservation and research.
That’s something Hall can get behind. His organization’s work is largely centered around preserving access to public lands and conserving the ecosystems that sustain wildlife.
“We want there to be habitat so that these species can thrive,” he said.
After setting up a half-dozen decoys in some knee-deep water just off the shoreline, we hunkered down about 30 yards away and watched the sunrise over the mountains.
Shotgun at the ready, Hall let out a few calls to coax out some birds he saw across the water. Quacks and warbles filled the landscape and the ducks, well, they wanted nothing to do with us. In fact, no birds flew our way all morning.
“It's not called killing. It is still called hunting,” he said. “People are like, ‘Oh, they're just bloodthirsty killers out there just killing for fun.’ And it's so much more than that.”
Even though Hall and I never got close to any ducks that morning on the water, that’s OK. For hunters, success is more than just the number of animals you take home.
“We had one duck land 75 yards away, and that's been about all we've seen,” he said. “I'm still going to say today was a success. We saw the sunrise, we came out, it's been a beautiful morning. It's just rewarding in a different way.”
Non-hunters don’t always understand the time and effort it takes to have a successful hunt, Hall said. Last year, he spent 18 days in and out of the woods, balancing work and family responsibilities before successfully harvesting an elk. That animal is still feeding his family today.
Turning that meat into food gets to the heart of why people hunt. In Utah, intentionally wasting an animal — that's killing it and not claiming the meat or fur — is considered poaching, which can rise to the level of a felony.
Caitlin Curry, another member of the Utah Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board, invited me over to watch how she prepares an antelope harvested a couple of days earlier for storage in her freezer.
I was immediately hit with a wall of intoxicating smells coming from a slow cooker sitting on the spacious kitchen island.
“This is one of my favorite slow-cooked wild game recipes,” she said. “We have two Sitka black-tail deer shanks. Just kind of some basic stuff in there. Red onion, garlic, some spices. Chipotle and adobo. It should be pretty good.”
The meat is fall-off-the-bone tender and a rich and fragrant broth coats everything. She’s gracious enough to hand me a barbacoa deer shank taco. It tastes a little bit like lamb and is delicious.
She said her family likes to have about three animals in the freezer each year, but none of that is guaranteed.
“Hunting is actually pretty difficult, especially here in Utah,” she said. “There's a lot of opportunity to get a tag for elk, but they're not the easiest hunts. We're talking 5 to 10% success rates.”
Hunters don’t always harvest meat for themselves, either. The state division of wildlife will occasionally have depredation hunts, where animals might be encroaching on busy roads or destroying agriculture, and the meat from those hunts often goes to a good cause. A state law passed in 2022 allows hunters to donate meat from their hunts to food banks.
“Our agency also donates game meat to the public when an animal has to be euthanized or an animal is poached and seized,” said DWR spokesperson Faith Heaton Jolley.
And that could be a lot of food. For example, a single mule deer could provide over 100 pounds of meat.
As Curry began to separate the different muscle groups from one of the antelope’s back legs on her butcher block, she said she did not grow up hunting. Instead, she was a college athlete looking for a new challenge and came to hunting as an adult through her husband.
“To me, it's changed my life in very positive ways,” she said. “It makes me more respectful of wildlife, it makes me more involved in conservation and ensuring that this resource is around forever. And I don't think that I would be able to have that kind of attitude towards wildlife and public lands if I wasn't a hunter.”