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Great Salt Lake Tundra Swan Hunting

A swan hunt will blow your mind, especially when you miss a bird the size of a B-52.

Great Salt Lake Tundra Swan Hunting

My swan hunt epitomized teamwork, what waterfowl hunting is all about, and was an experience I’ll forever hold close to my heart. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

As the last tundra swan in a string of seven peeled from the flock, my heart raced. When it bowed its neck and cupped its wings, I knew this was it. It was the first flock of the morning.

The big bird swiftly lost elevation, cutting the distance from 300 to 100 yards in the blink of an eye. “Be sure and lead it,” whispered Chad Yamane, as he changed his mouth calls to a bubbly, inviting chuckle.

The swan leveled out and circled the decoys, aligning in the wind for a final approach. The big bird seemed to be moving so slowly, like it’d fall from the sky if it didn’t start flapping its wings.

Just when I thought the bird would drop the landing gear and coast into the decoys, it made a couple wingbeats and moved across the spread from right to left. At 35 yards the bird was well within range, and still moving slowly, or so I thought. “Take him!” whispered Yamane, standing next to me.

I shot, and shot again, and once more. The bird kept flying. “You shot behind it all three times,” Chad pointed out.

It was one of the lowest moments in my 47 years of waterfowl hunting. I’d already had dozens of waterfowl hunts under my belt this season, in multiple states, and was shooting as good as I ever had. How I just missed the biggest target I’d ever shot at, not once, but three times, left me speechless.

“The next one that comes in, lead it by a canoe length,” laughed Rob Friedel, Yamane’s partner at Fried Feathers Outfitters, trying to make light of the situation. I wasn’t laughing. I’d waited my whole life for this moment, envisioned how it would play out, countless times, and it happened just as I’d dreamed; until I missed, three times.

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The Dream

Swans have always intrigued me, from the time I was a boy hunting public lands in eastern Oregon where their songs echoed through the marsh, to my more than 30 years of seeing them in the places I lived in and traveled throughout Alaska. Their numbers are growing in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where I was raised and now call home. I’ve always been around swans, but never where I could hunt them.

Since boyhood I had an interest in swan hunting, but I wouldn’t call it a deep drive. I could have hunted them on subsistence permits when I lived in Alaska’s Arctic. I could have been putting in for a Utah permit, but chose not to. Then I was a part of a swan hunt in 2017, with Yamane and Friedel.

Two of their friends held swan tags, and I was asked to tag along on the afternoon hunt. I was there to hunt ducks, which I’ve done many times with Fried Feathers throughout the Salt Lake region. We’d taken a limit of ducks that morning, so I jumped at the chance to see what an afternoon swan hunt was all about.

We set decoys, brushed-in boats, and within an hour swans began to fly, and Yamane started calling. Though I’d heard about Yamane’s realistic swan calls he makes with his mouth, the soft-edge sounds surpassed what I’d imagined, sounding so real, no matter what he offered.

swan hunting with swan decoys on Utah's Great Salt Lake
The spread of decoys used to bring in the author’s swan consisted of nearly 100 swan, a dozen duck and a dozen coot decoys. Big, real spreads are important, especially as the season progresses. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

When the first flock of nearly a dozen swans locked up over 200 yards above us and dropped straight into the decoys without circling, I was in awe. To see birds this size drop in elevation so quickly, and hit the water in a matter of seconds, was the most amazing decoying experience I’d encountered. Waiting for more mature birds, the hunters passed on that flock.

Soon Yamane called to another flock, a pair dropped out of it, and again locked on the decoys. The birds bowed their necks, tucked their wings in tight and dropped straight from the sky, like a cannon ball jump at the swimming pool. There was no circling, no hesitation. One of the hunters fired one shot and killed the biggest bird. It fell in the decoys and Yamane’s black Lab retrieved it, which was a sight to see.

Over the course of the next hour, as darkness approached, multiple flocks of swans decoyed. The second hunter, a resident of the area, had taken swans before, and was waiting for an exceptional bird to approach; I think he was just prolonging the hunt for all of us to enjoy, for which I’ll be forever grateful. It was during that time I set my mind on swan hunting, for there was nothing I’d ever experienced in my years of waterfowl hunting that came close to matching the magnificence of seeing these big birds plummet from the sky and work the decoys. With a few minutes of shooting light left, a flock of five bombed into the decoys and the second hunter dropped a stunning, mature bird.

“You’ll have to start putting in for a swan tag,” encouraged Yamane as we picked up the decoys. He didn’t have to say it twice.

In 2020 I drew a Utah swan tag, but Covid interfered with that dream. Many hunters draw tags with two preference points. However, the Division Variance Committee of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources kindly approved my request to reinstate my general season swan preference points due to the Covid situation, meaning my accrued points allowed me to draw a tag for the following 2021 season.

The Hunt

Not only did I have a swan tag, but so did two other hunters, meaning I got to be a part of three swan hunts during the days prior to Thanksgiving. It was then that, not only did my passion for swan hunting grow deeper, but the entire process surrounding it consumed me.

“We’re looking for travel routes that connect roosting sites with food sources, and it’s even better if we can set up in some sago pondweed, the primary food of swans in the area,” shared Friedel as we set out decoys and he pulled up a handful of the pondweed to show me. “We like hunting afternoons best, as morning hunts pressure swans and kick them out of feeding areas early, and after sitting all day they get hungry and move in high numbers later in the day, but if it comes down to the wire, we will hunt mornings.” Coming down to the wire means if the trumpeter swan quota is close to getting filled, which shuts down the tundra swan season.

hand calling for tundra swan swan hunting
Guide, Chad Yamane, singing the swan song. His realistic voice calls have accounted for countless swans dropping into the decoys over the years, and it’s a sweet sound you’ll never forget. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Yamane and Friedel put out 98 swan decoys and a couple dozen duck and coot decoys the morning we hunted for my swan. We hunted the morning because time was running out as the trumpeter swan quota was only two birds shy of shutting down all swan hunting for the season. “We want as realistic of a spread as possible, so use a lot of swan decoys and mix in coot, wigeon and gadwall decoys near them to simulate what happens in nature,” added Yamane. “Swans dredge up a lot of food ducks can’t reach, and you often see ducks moving in close to feeding swans to grab food they pull up.”

The swan decoy spread consists mostly of headless decoys. “We like headless decoys a lot,” confirms Yamane. “You’ll never see 30 swans sitting on the water with their heads up; they’re either feeding or sleeping. If their heads are up that indicates alert and nervous birds, which is exactly what you don’t want in a decoy spread.”

For over a decade Yamane and Friedel have been guiding waterfowl hunts in the Great Salt Lake and surrounding marshes of northern Utah. While they devote time to scouting for swans, most of what they observe is while on hunts, as Yamane confirms. “Habitat wise, little has changed over the past decade, and swans are predictable. We’ll monitor ice conditions and how that impacts access to food, and watch places that are drying up, but we’re hunting virtually every day from late October through November, so know exactly where the swans are roosting, feeding and what their flight paths are.”

With the decoys set and boats brushed in to cover any black holes and block glare, it’s a waiting game. On my morning hunt we were setting up well before daylight as we hunted pressured public land. On the two evening hunts I went on, we were hitting the water at noon, after the morning hunters left and before the late afternoon hunters headed out. As with all waterfowl hunting, being on the X is key, even with swans.

two hunters holding dead tundra swans on Utah Great salt Lake
Over the years, Fried Feathers Outfitter have gotten their swan hunting clients 100% shot opportunities, while tagging an average of about 35 tundra swans a season. (Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Once the swans start moving and Yamane begins singing the swan song, a different level of intensity consumes the boat. Even Harley, his young Lab knows it’s game time. Personally, just hearing Chad call using his mouth is worth the price of admission. Perhaps it’s because the sound is so real, maybe it’s because every flock he seems to call to responds in some way.

Hearing other hunters around the marsh call with their voices where they throw out some hyped-up Whooos, makes you realize just how good Yamane’s voice calling really is. And when you hear swans calling back, well, they sound identical to Chad’s voice. “To me, the calling part of swan hunting is priceless,” Yamane smiles. “These birds are very vocal but quality calling is crucial, especially as the season progresses. When you hear their calls grow louder and the excitement build, that’s what you want to emulate, and I’ve found to get ‘em in consistently you need to really listen closely to their calls and study what sounds they make, when and why, and mimic those sounds to perfection.”

Yamane’s attention-getting calls sometimes attract whole flocks, especially family units, but often pull one or two birds from a flock. To me that’s the most impressive part, as it’s unlike goose hunting where the whole flock commits, or nothing. This signifies the effectiveness of his mouth calling, for if you can repeatedly convince mature birds to leave a flock, that’s saying something, in a language they understand.

Once he has their attention, Yamane issues comeback calls when the swans start swinging into an approach position. If they come straight in or commit, he switches to a soft chuckle, like a feeding call. “I really like the comeback call as swans are so territorial, but the chuckle definitely keeps their attention and brings ‘em in tight.” It’s the bubbly chuckles I love hearing Yamane deliver, sounds I hear swans make wherever they are.

Redemption

Two hours after I missed that first swan, another flock finally took to the sky and Yamane began calling. By now the morning sun had crested the mountains. The marsh was calm, quiet and the water like glass; it was simply beautiful.

I’m not going to lie, I was frustrated with myself for missing that first bird, not embarrassed, for all hunters miss, but agitated because I wanted the hunt to go flawlessly. To me a great hunt means shooting well. I hadn’t.

Hearing Yamane’s calls echo across the still marsh, I didn’t think there was a prayer in the world of the distant swans even hearing us, let alone responding. But at more than a half-mile away, two birds in the back of the flock dropped from formation and headed our way. Chad’s calls grew louder and more excited, and the pair of tundra swans began calling back. “You’ll want the bird on the left,” Yamane pointed out, still 400 yards away.” I didn’t take my eye off that swan as they approached, occasionally crossing paths.

Rather than circle and quickly lose elevation, however, the swans held out their wings and coasted in from 200 yards away. It seemed to take them forever to reach us, and when they dropped the landing gear, a surreal feeling overtook me. The swan I wanted approached the center of the decoy spread, head-on. Just before his big, black, splayed-out feet touched the water, I pulled the trigger. The shot was simple.

hunting tundra swans on Utah Great salt Lake
Unlike other waterfowl hunts where excitement consumes you following a good shot or dropping a unique bird, this moment was different. I was pleased with filling a swan tag, but I was more taken by the process that led to success.(Photo By: Scott Haugen)

Following that dream hunt for swans in Utah, I returned to my home in Oregon where I experienced the best duck hunting season, ever. In addition to the Valley being loaded with ducks, there were tundra swans like I’d never seen, or heard.

Each time I laid eyes on a flock of swans it took me back to Utah, but every time the call of a swan penetrated the dense fog, it brought to life the calling of Yamane and visions of big white birds cupping into the decoys. For me, a successful swan hunt is about the all-encompassing experience of hunting with friends in a beautiful place I’d otherwise not see, watching iconic birds work the decoys, and hearing swan songs echo through the marsh. My swan hunt epitomized teamwork, what waterfowl hunting is all about, and was an experience I’ll forever hold close to my heart.




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