When dawn arrives tomorrow morning, I'm planning to be sitting on a favorite ridge top, and like hundreds of thousands of fellow hunters, I'll be waiting, watching and listening for any hint of an approaching deer.
For me, this will be the 41st renewal of the unique annual ritual that is the opening day of deer season here in Pennsylvania. Although no one in my family hunted, I was attracted to the mystique of this unofficial state holiday even before I was old enough to hunt myself.
School was always closed on the first day of deer season, of course, and since we lived in the country, it wasn't uncommon to hear the occasional rifle shot coming from nearby woodlots when we kids happened to be playing outside that day. Those sounds often sent me to daydreaming I was that lucky hunter, now standing over the nice buck I had just downed. Sometimes I would see a deer lashed to a passing car or truck or maybe one hanging in the backyard of a neighbor.
Finally, the glorious day arrived when I could become a participant in the opening day festivities, and my life was changed forever. But while I began my deer-hunting career with unbounded enthusiasm and anticipation, those first couple of seasons brought little success. I had no doe license during my first season of deer hunting and never had a glimpse of a buck that year. The following season also went without my even seeing a single buck, but I had drawn a doe license. There was no way, I thought, that I wouldn't be able to bag a doe. But I still remember where I was sitting as darkness fell on the final day of that doe season and the bitter disappointment that came with it, knowing I would not get a deer again that year.
If anything, the lack of success those first few seasons strengthened my resolve, and that dedication paid off as I killed a nice 5-point buck with the first shot I ever fired in deer season. Looking back on all that now, I'm somewhat thankful I learned early on just how tough deer hunting can be at times. Even after I gained the hunting experience that made success a regular occurrence most years, I've never really embraced what I like to call the "trophy mentality." After more than four decades of hunting, I'm satisfied with any deer I take, buck or doe. Sure, I like to take a nice buck if I can, and I certainly can understand why some hunters aspire to settle for nothing less than the biggest buck on the mountain. To each his own. Deer hunting means something different to every hunter, and that is undoubtedly why the sport appeals to so many folks.
Another lasting memory of my first deer seasons is just how cold it was back in the 1970s. How I wish during those brutal winters I could have had some of the high-tech boots and clothing we enjoy nowadays. Red-and-black Woolrich coats and pants were the uniform of veteran deer hunters of that era. Such outerwear was warm but somewhat heavy and even heavier when wet with rain or snow.
As much as I appreciate the traditions of the sport, I also appreciate that I now have the latest and best gear from clothing to all sorts of electronic marvels such as LED flashlights, handheld GPS units, small and inexpensive two-way radios, compact digital cameras and more. A few years ago as I prepared to make the predawn hike to my deer stand, I realized that I had with me more AA batteries than rifle cartridges.
In spite of being an incurable gearhead, one piece of equipment I own has spent nearly as many hours in the deer woods as I have - my rifle. I bought a Model 70 Winchester .30-06 in 1977, and while I killed my first couple of deer with another rifle, that Winchester has taken every deer (and a black bear) ever since. Not that I haven't been tempted to buy a newer, flashier model a few times. But that rifle performs so well and I'm so used to it that it just wouldn't feel right carrying anything else.
So sometime around 6 a.m. tomorrow my Model 70 and I should be settled into the spot I've chosen to begin the 2011 deer season, watching for the first sliver of daylight to appear over Brush Mountain a few miles to the east. And if I've guessed right, that faithful rifle might help to add another great memory to an already long list of deer-hunting memories.