The excitement of the rifle deer opener
Pennsylvania now has so many deer seasons that just saying, “the opening day,” doesn’t tell anyone much anymore. Although I also enjoy archery hunting, in my mind the premiere opening day is still the first day of the regular firearms season, which now begins on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Every opener is different, and this year was no exception. It produced several personal “records” for me as a long-time hunter. I have been fortunate to have been in the woods for many deer season openers, but this one was particularly enjoyable. Hunters like to see deer, or at least wildlife, spread out throughout the day. So do I.
I was settled in my treestand by the time that it was light enough to safely shoot. My stand is an open, but sturdy wooden affair that I built 12 feet high between four cucumber magnolia trees that grow on my property. Mother Nature had provided a 29-degree morning, with total cloud cover, snow flurries and some moderate wind. The leaves on the forest floor were wet and quiet underfoot, with a dusting of snow in places. The nearby ridges block the worst of the wind, but they also limit light and shorten hunting hours.
My stand provides a 360-degree view of good deer habitat in the bottom of my hollow. Of course, trees and brush block some of my vision. Over the years, I have seen deer and harvested a good number from almost every degree of that circle.
A 360-degree view is nice, but when the forest is quiet (like it was on Saturday), I know that I won’t see every deer. This is even more reason to be as vigilant as possible. As the day unfolded, I jotted down my observations in a small notebook.
The first distant shot was at 6:57 a.m. Less than an hour later, I saw what appeared to be an 8-point buck, along with a very tall spike, as they ran across the hollow above me. As luck would have it — bad luck — they stopped where they were totally hidden by brush. Minutes ticked away as I watched a clearing ahead. The bucks finally moved, but again quickly, with no opportunity for a good shot.
At 7:59, I caught just a glimpse of a deer above me. Between 8:45 and 8:57, I watched a small spike buck feed across the hollow towards the stream. It came as close as 50 yards.
Nuthatches chattered, a woodpecker prospected a nearby tree, and a raven flew overhead, breaking the quiet with a few raspy calls. The sun first peeked out at 11:38. My toes were getting cold, but I was momentarily warmed when a very cautious doe came across the hollow within 30 yards.
I had antlered and antlerless tags — both unfilled, so I was in control of what I wanted to shoot that morning and what shot I deemed ethical. I let the doe pass. I lowered my unloaded rifle with a cord and decided to take a walk to warm my toes.
All was quiet back in the treestand. The sun started to drop below the ridgetop — casting a shadow over part of the hollow. By 3, I was totally in the shade. My tally showed that I had counted more than 80 rifle shots, but none had been mine.
At 3:50, I spotted a spike buck feeding above me. He ate grass and the tips of twigs. Every now and then, he would stop and stare into the rhododendron to my right. Most hunters know that is a sure sign that another deer, a bear or maybe a human is approaching.
At 4:03, the spike was joined by a second spike and a few minutes later, a “forkhorn” joined the group. The original spike started some of what appeared to be friendly, half-hearted head-to-head pushing with the 4-pointer. They were oblivious to me, and I enjoyed the show unfolding only 25 yards away.
After watching the buck for nearly a half-hour, a nice 6-pointer joined the other three. Based on the size of his antlers and his body size (bigger than the others), I guessed him to be a two-and-a-half-year-old. More feeding and pushing occurred.
I decided that I would take this larger buck if a good shot presented itself. One more step and he was broadside and in the clear. However, just then, a spike decided that another joust was in order. A few minutes passed, and at one point it looked like all the bucks were going to exit without me getting a shot.
Then, the six-pointer stepped into the open. I centered the crosshairs on his chest and the 130-grain copper bullet did its job. The buck ran about 30 yards and dropped.
Personal records — the most bucks that I have ever seen in one day while deer hunting, the biggest 6-point that I have ever harvested, and the latest, 4:25 p.m., that I have ever shot a buck on opening day.
My daughter helped with the drag, and it was well after dark when we finally loaded the buck on my pickup. It was a sweet end to one of the best days that I have ever had in Pennsylvania’s deer woods.