Two words; Deer Camp. Together, they quite possibly ignite more anticipation, memories and emotion than any other phrase in the Whitetail world. For hunters who are rooted in tradition, Deer Camp is a sacred place; a place where the recurrence of opening day brings friends and family together to pursue North America’s most popular big game species. The fellowship and camaraderie of deer camp can be hard to surpass, and even harder to replicate once the members of the group return to their everyday lives. It seems as though the feelings you experience at Deer Camp can only be reproduced the next season at…Deer Camp.
In many areas Deer Camps still serve as a gathering place for hunter groups and bands of friends who share a similar passion for the outdoors. However, with land access becoming an increasingly difficult issue with which to deal, and herd reduction initiatives present in many states, both the land available for deer drives and the number of deer available to hunt seem to be on the decline. In the area of Pennsylvania that I hunt, tracts of privately owned land that were once accessible to the public are being bought up and divided into smaller parcels. Nearly gone are the days of deer drives and cooperative hunting in order to force the deer into daylight movement. We used to push deer, and we had a lot of fun doing it. We watched each other miss and we watched each other succeed. We gave a pat on the back or a good razzing, depending on the outcome.
With the changing dynamics of land division and ownership, as well as herd population variations from region-to-region, the outlook for many Deer Camps is changing. Still, we find ourselves heading to Camp every year for opening day.
When I first started hunting, we would leave the cabin about a half hour prior to daylight, back then basically no one in the area archery hunted, and the first time that most of the deer were encountering humans for the year was on opening day of rifle season. Like most camps, we all sat around and ate breakfast, packed our lunches for the day, gave each other a hard time, and secretly imagined that this would be the year we would connect with the buck of a lifetime. I think every year my dad’s friend, Lee, would suggest someone complete the one-shell-challenge, or make some kind of remark that this was the year that he was going to do it. I think we all knew it was never going to happen, because the one shell challenge required you to take one, and only one, rifle shell into the woods with you. There are two problems with this; no, make that three… First, if you missed the buck of a lifetime in Northern PA in the 90’s, the odds were you might never get a chance at another one; and at least with a full magazine you could go down swinging. A hundred-inch buck really was a “buck of a lifetime” during that time and you better would be giving him everything you got. Secondly, I don’t think anyone in our group was a good enough shot to be that confident in their abilities. I know I certainly am not. Now, I guess the third reason why you never, ever, were going to take Lee up on his one-shell-challenge was that if you had one shell, and you missed The Buck on your first shot, and you couldn’t keep slinging lead at that sucker (because, well, no more ammo), once that buck was over the hill being gutted by Steve “Spaghetti”, you would presumably have to explain to Ralph why you didn’t shoot more than once. The fact that you were attempting the One-Shell-Challenge would literally be one of the worst explanations that you could provide in this scenario. I didn’t mention, Ralph was the farmer and he wanted less deer, and we were there, in part, for population control, and we were glad to oblige him.
So once our opening morning cabin rituals were out of the way, we piled into pickups and SUV’s and headed over the hill, armed like an military battalion and feeling like we were being as strategic as one. I remember my first opening day well. I barely slept the night before and I was a frozen 12 year old kid for most of that Monday morning, but, I’m telling you, it was magical and I constantly felt mystified by the whole experience. 10 o’clock was our typical regroup-time and we “pot-hunted” at our individual spots until then. Honestly, I don’t even know if “pot-hunt” is a legitimate term, but that’s what we called standing by a tree and freezing for the first 3 hours of the day. I remember hearing the first shots as dawn arrived and feeling like I was in a weird kind of war zone. Back then, if you missed a buck of a lifetime, he was likely gone forever, because waiting for him at the other end of the woods was another hunter who was probably not going to miss; and so it goes when you hunt a state with over 20 hunters per square mile. You learned to be quick on the draw or go home empty handed.
Once everyone reported to the vehicles for our 10 o’clock meeting, we started to strategize about which parcel we would drive first. You were either a stander or a driver, and if you were flanking, boy you better not let those deer bust over the top. If you were in the middle, you better not get ahead of the flanker, and you better wouldn’t let the buck double back. It seemed like I always got the spot as the first driver down from the top. Looking back, I think it was because I was young and they figured I could make the walk to the top of the hill more easily, and the only walk that was further than mine was the flanker’s. Our friend Dennis always took that walk, and, at the time, I had myself convinced that second-driver-down was the second most important position and I had earned that by (almost) always being in the right position at the right times. Anyway, I think Dennis was the natural choice for top driver because we knew he was familiar with the woods as he lived locally, but I also think, if everyone was honest, none of us wanted the responsibility of being the flanker who let the deer bust the top.
If you were “lucky” enough to fill out while “pot hunting”, you were the designated “dog” for the next two days of driving. I make it sound like the standers had a luxurious life. Waiting an hour on top of a blustery hill for the drivers to make their way through on a December day in Northern PA is no picnic. At least when you were a driver you were warm. If you had the privilege to stand, the pressure was on to make sure you didn’t miss those deer that your drivers worked so hard to keep from doubling back or busting over the top. Somehow, even before all the technology we enjoy today, we coordinated some pretty impressive drives and we pushed our fair share of deer around those hills. A string of thirty is an impressive sight going across the hillside, regardless of the headgear on them. Our typical drives would produce something like 15-20 does with a 3 point at the back of the group, but we had fun, oh boy did we have fun, and we were successful. And, every so often, you would get to the end of the woods and there would be one of your standers gutting a 110″ 2.5 year old, and we all thought to ourselves that he had just killed the buck of his lifetime.
I don’t remember ever thanking a driver when I was on stand, or ever being thanked when I was a driver. I think it was just understood that we were all working together toward a goal, and it was known, without needing to be spoken, that we appreciated the collaboration it took to produce the harvest. These were the days of high deer numbers and low herd quality in Pennsylvania. Our consolation prize was the amount of deer we could see in a day, and the fact that at any moment a herd of thirty could roll around the CRP hill is what kept the day from ever getting boring.
So now, as the land changes hands, and is divided, and divided again, we’ve adapted our hunting methods. We no longer drive at 10 AM, and neither do the neighbors. When you can’t hunt the woods next door, you don’t want to deliver the deer on a silver platter to your neighbor. So we “pot hunt”, and we use treestands, and we sit in new spots, and many of the guys pass up the small bucks like we never used to do. Our hunting methods have changed, our deer standards have changed, our opportunities have changed, but I like to think that we have held onto some remaining fragments of the deer hunting we used to anticipate each and every year and it remains engrained in each of us.
Do you have memories of deer camp that have shaped you as a hunter? Leave a comment below or send me your story at firstname.lastname@example.org