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Opening day was ‘like deja vu all over again’

Baseball great Yogi Berra was almost as famous for some of his unique quotes as he was for his career on the field. Some of my favorite Yogi-isms included:

n “It ain’t over ’til it’s over”

n “You can observe a lot by watching”

n “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

But last Saturday morning as I stood admiring the nice buck I had just downed, I was reminded of another of Yogi’s quips: “It’s like deja vu all over again.”

Yogi allegedly uttered that line after watching his Yankee teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back home runs. Deja vu is a French phrase that literally means “already seen” and is usually evoked to express the feeling that one has already experienced his present situation.

We older baseball fans can certainly remember the 1961 baseball season when Mantle and Maris were engaged in an epic duel to break Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 60 homers in a season, with Maris finally doing the deed with 61 that year. I’m not sure how many times those two sluggers homered back to back, but it undoubtedly Yogi saw it happen more than once, hence his somewhat twisted deja vu reference.

So what do Yogi Berra and deja vu have to do with the opening day of deer season? When I think about what means most to me about hunting, especially deer hunting, it mostly comes down to two things — memories and anticipation. When I slung my rifle over my shoulder and headed up the logging road before dawn last Saturday, it marked the beginning of my 50th Pennsylvania deer season.

Those 50 years amount to hundreds of days in the woods and countless memories of the places and times spent there, some great shots made and a few gut-wrenching misses, and every kind of weather possible in Pennsylvania during early December. I regret that I long ago lost count of how many deer I have actually taken. But that score would only mean anything to me, and I am happy with my personal tally, whatever it is.

The memories of all those seasons past produce much of the fuel that fires the anticipation for each new campaign. Deer season was the last event in my adulthood to yield that “kid on Christmas morning” kind of anticipation. In recent years, that eager expectation faded somewhat. My work schedule changed enough to preclude getting in the woods for small-game hunting and other preseason scouting for deer. The lack of scouting and reconnaissance always gives me the uncomfortable feeling of going into the season somewhat blind compared to those glorious years when I was able to put in so much time figuring things out.

Again this year, my preseason time in the woods was limited to a couple of long walks in the woods during the last month or so. Those outings produced little in the way of deer sign to suit me. But my hunting spot is a woodland tract that has been in our family before I was old enough to hunt, and I have probably tramped on every square yard of those 100 acres more than once during my life. Five decades of hunting experience have also taught me that an intimate knowledge of the ground is often worth as much as any amount of preseason scouting. I recall with much satisfaction how many tags I’ve filled with a gut feeling about where to be and when.

That was my strategy this year when deciding where to post at sunrise on the first day and went with a gut feeling. I made a 20-minute walk to the south corner of our property, a spot where I shot a buck the past two seasons. The third time was not a charm, however, and after two hours the only other living thing I saw was a gray squirrel. My threshold of boredom has always been somewhat short, and I have never been able to sit for long hours without the reasonable prospect of some reward for the timed served. The faith in my chosen place this morning had now evaporated, so I decided to move.

I have always loved still-hunting for deer, the art of moving slowly, one step at a time, watching and stalking. And always being ready for that split-second shot when the opportunity presents itself. I set a course to the other end of the property. That trek produced nothing. I decided to investigate a favorite place at this corner of the property before turning around. It is a long, steep-sided hollow where I have spent many hours in deer season and holds many special memories. The longest shot I ever made on a deer was here more than 20 years ago when I dropped a big doe with a single well-placed shot across the widest point of the hollow. I have filled a few doe tags here but never have got a shot at a buck.

As I began my sneak down the side of the hollow, I recalled a foggy morning I was at the same spot. Three deer dashed in front of me, one of them the biggest buck I had ever seen in hunting season. I was unable to get a shot before they instantly disappeared into the gloom, and I will never forget that memory. After early overcast, the sun now lit the hollow. I plopped down on a convenient tree stump for a rest and to enjoy the beautiful morning.

As I sat there, I thought about the many times I had posted along the side of this hollow, relentlessly waiting for a buck to appear along one of the many game trails it contained. How many times I pictured a nice buck coming my way, right up to me on one of the main trails. The closest that scenario ever came to fruition was one time when a doe and a fawn made that trip right past me one afternoon. I also began to contemplate my next move. Maybe I would sit here for a while and then hunt my way back to the truck. Maybe I would be home in time to watch the Alabama-Auburn game that afternoon.

Then I caught a flash of movement at the bottom of the hollow 150 yards away. A deer. I shouldered my rifle and peered through the scope. It was a buck, and it was coming up the hill toward me.

The deer moved in and out of sight with the rugged terrain until it was about 50 yards away, giving me a decent look at its white antlers shining in the sunlight. It appeared to be at least a six-point and kept moving. I settled in for the shot. When the buck was about 30 yards away and still coming toward me, I opted for a heart shot, centering the crosshairs of my Winchester on its lower chest.

At the shot, the deer bounded to the side and disappeared down the steep slope, followed by a noisy crash. As I made my way down the hill, I realized how many times in my anticipation I had seen that buck coming up that hill over the last 40 years. As I stood over the pretty 8-point that anticipation had finally become a reality. And maybe like Yogi said, “It was like deja vu all over again.”

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