This time of year not the same as it used to be

Deer season used to be one of my favorite times each year. I looked forward to the first day of deer season like a kid looks forward to Christmas morning, barely able to get to sleep even though I planned to be up very early. I was also fortunate that my parents owned a decent chunk of forestland.

Those woods were my playground as a child, a place I explored and experienced the wonders of nature firsthand. When I became old enough to go hunting by myself, I spent countless hours in those woods each fall looking for deer and deer sign and an equal amount of time assembling all my gear down to the last detail.

By sheer will and determination, I managed to kill some deer in my early years. As I became a little older, and I would like to think a little wiser, my success rate climbed. I usually killed a buck about 7 out of 10 years and a doe almost any year I drew a doe tag.

Although I built several productive treestands around the property, my threshold of boredom has always been somewhat short, and I loathed sitting for hours waiting for a deer to show up. I learned to still-hunt, which is carefully stalking deer on the ground by walking slowly and watching, and I became quite successful with that strategy. Deer hunting was more fun than ever.

But the Game Commission put an end to that party in the late 1990s when Gary Alt and his invisible boss, Cal Dubrock, decided we had way too many deer in most of Pennsylvania, which was true to some extent. They implemented a drastic deer herd reduction plan along with the smokescreen of antler restrictions to make hunters think they were getting something good.

I won’t rehash that fiasco again, but in less than a decade deer hunting went from great to, well, not so great in most places. If you hunt in the valleys a half mile from some cornfields, you probably still see a fair amount of deer, but if you hunt on the rugged ridges where I grew up, deer are now pretty scarce.

Yes, I know I should find a better place to hunt, but as I get older I also tend to be mighty set in my ways. Where I hunt and how I hunt means more than just getting a deer, so I stubbornly return to the homestead.

Because as bleak as the hunting prospects have become there in recent years, every acre of the place holds a special memory or a great story for me. That’s why I got up at 4:30 last Monday, ate breakfast, packed a couple of sandwiches and headed back there for another first day of deer season.

I walked out the ridge and sat on the side of a hollow at the far end of the property and waited for the sunrise. After an hour or so, I was ready to start walking a bit, so I started my routine of slinking back and forth some old logging roads.

About 10 a.m. I heard a shot close by. I knew my cousin Bill Young had put a treestand in that area and planned to hunt there with his young son Will.

I circled around to that spot and sure enough, there were father and son standing over the forkhorn buck that Will had shot. After hearing the story of the kill, I congratulated the young man on a good shot and then went on with my own hunting. And although I ended the day without firing a shot myself, my old hunting ground had produced another special memory not only for me but also for another generation.

A cautionary tale

On Black Friday, I texted my brother to see if he was off work that day. I also asked if he would help me clear some fallen trees on the access road to our property the next day. He responded later that evening with a rather disturbing message. The nice weather had prompted him to take his kayak to the Juniata River to fish for smallmouths, and his efforts were rewarded with several nice bass that morning.

He is much more mechanically inclined than me and has his kayak tricked out with all sorts of options, including an anchor system that allows him easily to orient the boat perfectly in the river current. But as he prepared to anchor up in a pool, something went awry, and the kayak flipped over, plunging him into seven feet of cold water. Fortunately, he was wearing his life jacket as required by law this time of year and waist-high neoprene waders that buffered the shock of the cold water, allowing him to struggle to shallow water where he could stand up and get to shore.

Out of immediate danger, he watched helplessly as his kayak floated off upside down before the anchor finally caught again, mooring the boat in midriver. Hearing some folks at a camp a few hundred yards downriver, he called out and told them of his trouble. They called 911, and shortly, the local fire department with a rescue boat were at the scene.

Those first responders were able to retrieve his boat and most of his tackle, including the keys to his vehicle, which were stowed in waterproof boxes and had stayed in the forward compartment of the kayak even after it capsized. All six rods and reels he had with him, however, went to the bottom of the river.

I’m happy to relate this incident as a cautionary tale on the necessity of wearing a life jacket during cold weather rather than having to report a family tragedy. Simply put, if you are planning to be on the water in the winter for fishing or hunting, wear a life jacket.

And wearing a life jacket on the water this time of year isn’t just a good idea that could easily save your life, it’s the law. Life jackets must be worn on any boat less than 16 feet in length and on any canoe or kayak from November 1 through April 30. According to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission sources, “The risk of an accident being fatal is significantly higher when the air and water temperatures are colder in late fall through spring. Over the last 15 years, cold-water incidents represented only eight percent of the boating-related accidents, but they resulted in 24 percent of the fatalities.”