The Utah Swan Hunt That I’ll Never Forget

Have you ever had something in your life that has always stuck with you since you were a kid? To me, swans have always had a special place. It first started when I was 7 doing a skit in church. We were doing The Ugly Duckling and I was the ugly duckling. When I was learning the story I realized that the ugly duckling wasn’t liked by the other ducks because he was different. I went running to my mom because I was sad for the ugly duckling. Then I learned that the ugly duckling wasn’t a duck at all and really was a beautiful swan. Since that little skit, swans have always had a spot in my life. I’ve always admired them flying and feeding and just plain old being swans.
To some people, this may seem contradictory but duck hunting has really added to how much I appreciate other animals. Watching them fly and move and swim, it just adds to the respect you have for an animal. Being a hunter we learn what it takes for them to grow up and learn to fly and all of the odds that are against them. To me this just adds to the respect I have for any game we harvest. Once I started hunting, I always wanted to hunt a swan. One of the reasons is that resonance a swan has always had within me and the other is how majestic they are in everything that they do. Once I started hunting in Utah, I started putting in for a swan tag.

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It took a couple of years to draw a swan tag. When I got the letter in the mail saying I had a successful draw, my excitement was unquenchable. I was finally able to connect with an animal that has spoken to me in so many ways. I knew this was going to be my first hunt so I didn’t expect to harvest a swan but I knew I had to try. The year went by and duck season came along. Kaela and I went hunting pretty often and my shooting was not the greatest. We even went and had a range day but my shooting didn’t really improve. This had me nervous for the swan hunt. I wanted to connect so badly but it seemed that the odds were just going to stack against me. Soon, swan season opened up and so did all of life’s events. The swan season in Utah is about 2 months long but the swan really are only here for about 2 weeks. They come in and stay but the peak numbers and highest chance of hunting them is really for about two weeks in a year. This being said, I didn’t have 2 full months to hunt them, I only had 2 weeks.
Finally, those two weeks came along. I managed to find a few days that I had free and dedicated to hunting. Kaela had to work and I figured the more I went out, the better my chances. I had never been swan hunting so trying to figure it out by my self was intimidating to say the least. I talked to my friend Marcel who had done some swan hunting and he was able to give me some pointers. He had told me to shoot my magnum shells and to use my 3 ½ shells. I went ahead and bought some Hevi X shells earlier in the year just to get used to them for when the swan hunt came around. They didn’t pattern the best in my gun but I figure I could use the extra bang and extra tungsten pellets. Remember how my shooting was not going great, I think I used the shells as a handicap. Marcel also told me that when I get out there, to listen and try to imitate the noise they make to call them in. I was not feeling very good about that at all. If you’ve talked to me you know I have a raspy voice and the idea of mimicking a swan was not sitting right with me. What I decided was that I could give it a shot but otherwise I would take the same strategy as early season duck hunts and not call but have a good spread.

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The hunt hadn’t even started and I was already getting nervous. The time came to get ready for the hunt. The day before I met up with Marcel to pick up some swan decoys he had. He had repainted some goose shells and put some foam to make them float. My other buddy Chase had told me to use plastic bags to decoy them. I was fully intending on using the plastic bags but luckily Marcel let me borrow his decoys. I was nervous and the help from my buddies is really what made this happen. I had gotten tips from both Marcel and Chase and I was feeling a little more prepared. That night I went to bed and sleeping was a challenge since I was so excited for this hunt.
The alarm went off and the hunt started. To me it starts when I wake up and get dressed and start getting mentally prepared for what the day may bring. I got my thermals on, loaded up my shotgun and my marsh chair. Loaded up my duck decoys and the swan decoys. Checked for my ammo and call lanyard. All things loaded and I was good to go. Unfortunately Kaela had to work that day and couldn’t come hunting with me. I love hunting with her and was hoping to shoot my first swan with her there, but I also was being realistic and didn’t plan on shooting a swan that day. I told her where I would be and screenshot the area on OnXmaps and sent it to her phone and told her when to expect me to be home. I planned on being out all day and I had a 2 hour drive ahead of me.
I hit the road and headed to Bear River Bird Refuge. It’s a federal bird refuge in the northern part of the state and it is one of the top places for swan to congregate during the migration. They hang out just north of it and then fly over the hunting part of the refuge on their way to other waters and food. I decided to go to my usual spot for duck hunting. I hadn’t done any scouting so this was my scouting hunt. I wanted to see which way the swan were flying and where to set up the next day when Kaela could be there. I hiked the mile and a half to my spot and found some duck hunters set up near me. I made sure they were ok with me setting up for swan close to them and told them I’d let the ducks and geese go so I could set up close by. They were great dudes and were ok with me setting up near them.

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I waded out into the water and set up my duck decoys and then started setting up the swan decoys. As I was setting up, a flock of 5 swan were coming straight at me. I was still standing in the water and expected them to fly off but instead they kept coming right at me. I’ve learned to always keep my gun on me and ready when I’m duck hunting. I dropped everything and grabbed my shotgun and shouldered it. I’m sure the nerves got me because I missed 3 shots at them. This was at 8am, the hunt had just started so I wasn’t super worried. What it did do was get me super excited. I finished setting up my decoys and went and set up my marsh chair and hid in the reeds. Now the waiting game started.
As the sun started making its way in the sky, so did the swan. It was amazing seeing how many swan there were and watching them fly. The sky seemed to be full of them. Ducks and geese would randomly find their way in the sky but they looked like specks against these massive birds. My buddies told me how big they are and how they look like airplanes. Other than at zoos or park ponds, I really hadn’t been super close to swans so I didn’t know what to expect. Airplanes seemed to be a fitting description of those massive birds. With them being so big, there was a different challenge that I didn’t expect.
I was warned before the hunt that the size of the birds can be really deceiving. I didn’t grasp what that meant until that hunt. I had missed my first shots at a swan and even though they caught me off guard, I should have hit one. Shortly after sitting down on my marsh chair, I could hear other hunters shooting and calling at the swan. I really decided that my best bet was to stay quiet and let the decoys do the work. As I sat there admiring these birds fly, a swan was coming right over the top of me. I shouldered my gun but I had horrible footing. As I pulled the trigger, that magnum shell made quick work, of me. I pulled the trigger and felt my self starting to fall over. I still managed to get another shot out before going straight into the water. My marsh chair has just a post that goes into the mud, well it wasn’t set very well and you still need to have decent footing shooting off of a marsh chair. This time I got thrown right out of it and luckily my jacket managed to keep the water from going in my waders so I didn’t get super wet.
I adjusted my marsh chair and repositioned my self a bit and sat back down. This is where it sunk in how my friends had mentioned that swan can be deceiving. They are huge birds, and even though they don’t look like they are moving very fast, they are. Both times I shot at a swan, I was shooting behind them. The first one was head on and this last one was a going away shot. Not the easiest of shots but I still should have hit those big birds. I realized that I needed to put on a bigger lead on my shots. The day went on and the flocks of swan started to slow down.

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The slowing flights had me thinking that the hunt wasn’t going to be successful. What kept happening is the swan were flying a little too high right over the top of me. They would come from the reeds and flying into the marsh. This is where I realized that maybe I needed to adjust my decoys. The reeds were tall enough that if I stood up, the reeds were taller than me. I had the decoys set up about 10 yards away from me in the water and I realized that the reeds may have been hiding the decoys a bit and making it so the swan wouldn’t want to finish in my decoys. I had both my ducks and swan decoys out to seem more convincing and I knew if I adjusted everything, I might get something to finish in my decoys. I decided to take advantage of this slow down and move everything and do a little exploring.
I moved my decoys out into the water more and away from where I was set up. I thought this might make for a harder shot but hopefully the swan would land in front of me and not further out. Then I decided to do some walking in the marsh and check out this other spot that I always saw ducks landing in. It was about a quarter-mile away and I figured if some thing landed in my decoys, I might get a shot on it still. I got to this spot and it was a good little hiding hole in the reeds. I marked it on my OnXmaps app and kept it as an option for next time I came out. I hiked back to my marsh chair and decided to wait for the afternoon flight and see if some ducks would come in.
As I sat there I decided to stand up and stretch a little bit since nothing was moving. It was about 11 am and I was just expecting to hang out for a bit while I was standing there, totally unexpectedly, two swan sneak up on me. Right over my right shoulder. They were cupped up and coming in for a landing. I again shouldered my shotgun and this time I got a good lead on my swan and pulled the trigger. This time I watched this massive swan curl up and go down. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I watched it laying in the water and half expected it to just pick up and fly off. I had only shot it once and I had been told it takes multiple shots to bring one down. Instead it lay there, calm and quiet. I left my hide and started running towards it. I got to it and still couldn’t believe that I had shot my first swan. I instantly called Kaela and told her I had shot my swan already. I really wished that she was there but life happens. I then called Marcel and sent him a picture of the swan in the water. I didn’t know what to do at this point. Do I continue hunting and turn this to a duck hunt, or do I just call it a day?

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I went back to my spot and carried my swan back into the reeds to hide it. I sat down and thought about what had just happened. I had fulfilled a dream of mine. Little did I know, Kaela was already making plans. We had talked about mounting my swan if I shot one. We talked about it again briefly after I shot it but being the amazing fiancé she is, she was already calling around to different taxidermists trying to see who was available to get my swan. It was about noon and I started thinking about the mile and a half hike back to my truck and all of the gear I had and how long it took for me to set up. Instead of hunting all day, I decided that it was probably best that I leave.
I didn’t realize this but I was about to have the worst pack out of my life. I’ve packed elk meat out with multiple trips over 5 miles one way before. That wasn’t even close to what was ahead of me. I went and picked up all of the decoys, and then I emptied my shotgun since I was done hunting and put my marsh chair on my back. I also put the decoy bags on my back, sort of. The decoys kept sliding down my shoulder so that was a battle. On top of it, we had decided to taxidermy the swan at this point so carrying it by its feet was my only option. I didn’t want to throw the swan over my shoulder since I didn’t want to ruin its feathers. I had to carry this huge bird by holding its feet straight in front of me. Just like doing that shoulder workout where you hold weights straight out and don’t let your arms go down. The only difference was that if my arms went down even a little bit, the swan’s head would hit the ground. If I carried it close to me, I would kick its wings and ruffle the feathers.

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I don’t need to describe it much more but this hike out was miserable. I would go about 100 feet and have to stop. I would gently set the swan down and then rest for a second and then start hiking again. At one point I decided to just leave my duck decoys in the middle of the dike and hike the rest of the way with the swan and my friend’s decoys. I made it to the truck 2 hours later. My half hour hike more then doubled trying to carry that swan back. I decided that day that swan hunting by your self is a horrible idea. I would check in with Kaela on my hike back and I know she felt bad she wasn’t there but that’s just how things played out. When I got to the truck there was a guy there that was just heading out. He was hunting his first swan too. I gave him some tips and let him check out the swan I had shot. Eventually I got all my equipment to the truck and was able to head out.

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This hunt was unforgettable for many reasons. It was my first swan. The first time I took anything to the taxidermist. I learned a lot about hunting swan that day and gained some other strategies that paid off as the season went on. The biggest thing to me is that I had connected with an animal that always spoke to me. It was a dream of mine to hunt a swan and be able to admire that animal in an even closer way. What started as an admiration as a child, now continues when I see the swan on our wall at home. This hunt felt like it was going to kill me. That’s an exaggeration but that pack out was brutal. I think that alone can be the most memorable part but I choose to look at the positives. Now I can’t wait to get Kaela on her first swan.

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Lessons Learned:
• Moving the decoys out can pay off
• Always be prepared to harvest when you go hunting
• I need to find a better way to haul all of my gear
• Having a good footing when shooting magnum shells is important
• Swan are big and even though they look slow, they fly a lot faster than they seem

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3 thoughts on “The Utah Swan Hunt That I’ll Never Forget

    1. It turned out way good. I’m thinking of getting a bike for next year and using one of those kid carts to carry all of my gear. One day we’ll get a boat.

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