The morning is sunny and windless. Steam rises from Fish Lake.

The scent of sage wells above the scent of pine. And as Verle Duerden and his family and friends stride through the woods, there is just enough snow underfoot to crunch festively and not enough to founder in.In short, the day is perfect for Christmas tree hunting. The trees are not perfect, however.

"Regan has to have a perfect tree," says Duerden of his wife.

"She'll look all day. In fact, she won't even try to find one today because she knows we are coming back next week." Regan smiles and keeps on walking.

On her back she holds baby Alison, who is smiling too. Both of them have pink cheeks, turning pinker from the cold and sun.

"Yeah," Duerden says, "She's looking for the perfect tree, but even if she finds it she won't say so until next weekend. Until the last minute, when it's getting dark. It's like she's shopping at ZCMI; when she knows there's going to be a 50-percent-off sale tomorrow, is she going to buy today?"

Regan chats with several other women as she walks. They agree the perfect tree will be a round, full fir. The men favor lodgepole pines. So do the children.

Those who hunt, on this morning in the wilderness, are learning a simple truth: Trees are like people.

Trees that would look misshapen and sad in a suburban living room are noble and brave standing among the rocks.

"There really aren't too many that have more than one good side, are there?" says a parent.

A child discovers, "The ones that look the best turn out to be two trees close together. See, this one is really three trees together."

The cry of "How about this one?" echoes. No matter how twisted or pitiful-looking the foliage, if it is a child who finds the treasure a mother stops and gives respectful consideration.

An hour passes. The group splits up, wanders back together. Four-year-old Michael Duerden waddles along in his snowsuit, calling over and over, "Hey, wait up." His voice is cheerful, though, rising over the squeaking of boots in the snow and the sound of adult conversation.

The older Duerden children, Jennifer and Mathew, race with their friends, embracing each tree as if their mother were really going to choose today. As if this could really be the one.

By midmorning, Russ and Laurie Merrill's family finds a tree.

"I can't stand it when they find one so fast," says Regan, quietly.

For her, the long search is an important part of the family tradition of Christmas tree cutting. Their tradition began in 1984, after Duerden became a managing partner of the Fish Lake resort, in Fishlake National Forest, Sevier County.

The next year he purchased a few tree permits and took his family and some friends to walk the woods and spend the night in a cozy new log cabin. The group has been coming every year since.

"Even if the parents don't want to come, the children won't let them miss," says Duerden.

And the group is growing. "I don't remember having any friends at all before I started in the resort business," he adds, smiling. More than 20 people came this weekend. Fifty friends and family, and members of the paying public will be staying next weekend.

Prices for the condo cabins range from $55 to $195 a night. The small condominiums sleep four; the larger ones sleep as many as 22. All have kitchens (bring plenty of food because the Fish Lake Lodge and restaurant close for the winter and the nearest grocery store is 20 miles away) and fireplaces. (Call 377-9750, Provo, for more information.) Resort manager Gary Moulton keeps the Fish Lake road open all winter for those who want to stay - snowmobilers and icefishermen and people in search of a perfect tree.

And what, in the final analysis, is the perfect tree? We asked Regan Duerden, veteran tree-hunter, to describe for us what her tree looked like last year. She says, "Well, when we got it home we discovered it was bigger than we thought and it kind of branched into two trees in the middle so we cut off one and then it was lopsided. It looked OK, that's all. Not perfect. Not like it came from a lot.

"But I wouldn't have one from a lot again. I love our Fish Lake trees."

Anyone can cut a Christmas tree on Utah's National Forest Service land, according to Kathy Jo Pollock, public information assistant. The fee for a permit is $5.

None of the forests you can cut in are located on the Wasatch Front, however. To obtain a permit and map of the nearest spot, visit a Forest Service office in Roosevelt, Vernal, Manila, Duchesne, Richfield, Loa, Beaver, Cedar City, Escalante, Teasdale, Panguitch or St. George. Forest Service employees in Mt. View, Wyo., also issue permits for cutting on Utah land just over the border.

There are some rules, cautions Pollock. "For example there are size limitations. And you have to cut at ground level - even if there is 4 feet of snow covering the ground. Most areas don't allow people to top trees and won't allow specific trees - like Blue Spruce - to be cut," she says.

If you do decide to cut your own tree, you may not find any commercial Christmas tree dealers out there beating the bush with you.

"We don't get any of our trees from Utah," says Tom Cowley, president of Allied Development. Allied runs 33 lots locally and stocks each with 1,500 to 2,000 trees. All of them come from "plantations" in Oregon, Washington or Wisconsin.

"The Forest Service sells public permits for $5, but commercial dealers have to bid on them and we end up paying $7 or $8 per tree for a permit. Then you have to find the good ones, cut and haul. It ends up being cheaper for us to buy from farms. We get a more uniform tree from farms anyway."

Commercial trees are pruned as they grow, Cowley explains. You won't find any of those double-headers you find in nature in a Christmas tree lot. Nor any twisted trees - bent but not broken by their struggle. Nor are you likely to find any with an old bird's nest still clinging. Or any that have been chewed on by animals.

Tree lot trees are probably just as fresh as the kind you cut yourself, adds Cowley. His lots are restocked periodically during the month of December. "It takes three days to get trees from the West Coast, a week from the East," he says.

So what do people gain from cutting their own tree? "A nice family outing," says Cowley. He doesn't fault anyone for that.