By Benjamin Thomas
I grew up as a hunting kid in south-central Pennsylvania. Our small family farm felt like paradise some days, covered in wildlife from corner to corner. But it was like a walled-desert other days – no deer to be found and turkeys gobbling beyond the property line. It was home, however, and hunting and kid adventures were right beyond my backyard.
Now, in my late twenties, life and work has moved me one-and-a-half hours from my old family property. For four years I’ve spent my autumn weekends driving back to hunt whitetails – leaving late on Friday nights or before before 4 a.m. on Saturdays to get to my treestand in the dark. My wife never understand the pull to drive back to my childhood home while our new home is surrounded by public lands. At the end of the season I was tired. My freezer was full but my gas tank and wife were neglected.
My teenage love was hunting whitetails on those 70 acres with a bow and arrow, but another passion was hunting behind the American cocker spaniels my family bred to flush and retrieve. It was behind these dogs I first stepped foot on a public land just 20 minutes from home. The game lands were stocked with ringnecks, and we would venture out on opening day along with all the other locals who ran bird dogs, getting showered in BBs from the next hedgerow over, trying to keep our distance and avoiding skirmishes between dogs.
I didn’t understand the value of that land. Saturdays were spent each autumn with my father and uncle behind a team of four or five dogs, chasing after non-native birds on habitat manicured for the birds’ temporary survival. But anyone could be out in the same fields or nearby wooded tracts – hunting rabbits or whitetails or squirrels – in a place anyone with a hunting license could enjoy.
But to me, hunting Pennsylvania State Game Lands came secondary to my own farm. Hanging a treestand on public land was something for those without access to private.
Eighteen years later it’s become essential to my outdoor experience.
Something was different at the farm this year. Whether due to a low acorn mast or more food and refuge on neighboring properties, which were recently logged, I again found myself in that walled desert. Hardly any deer were to be found, and only the occasional turkey scratched through the field during a light fall rain.
After filling one tag in archery season, still holding two more in my pocket and making trip after trip for a month, I finally surrendered to my wife’s persistent nudging to hunt public land five minutes from our home – somewhere I liked to walk in the summer. Somewhere I set trail cameras and watched deer and coyotes in the winter. Somewhere I talked each year about hanging a treestand and finally attempting public land deer hunting but hadn’t.
It was mid-rifle season in Pennsylvania, and I had no set plans on how or where to hunt this piece of land. I had somewhat of a knowledge of where deer spent time on that land, but I had no knowledge of who hunted where, or how many people I might run into. Or, even worse, who’s hunt I might screw up by traipsing through public land looking for deer.
I completed the 30-minute walk to where I planned to sit in the pitch black. Arriving nearly an hour before shooting light, I expected to see the glow of headlamps reflecting off the trees and the brush on their way to their own hunting spots.
I saw none.
I had found my outdoor paradise once again, but this time, just a five-minute drive from my front door.
Mid-morning came and I had yet to see a deer, but I finally laid eyes on one other hunter. As he passed close by without noticing me, I decided it was time to move and see what I else could find.
While I walked, my greatest hope wasn’t that I would find a Boone & Crockett whitetail but that I wouldn’t encounter a bunch of other hunters. Memories of being showered by BBs from opposing hedgerows still stuck with me from 18 years before.
As I still-hunted through a patch of mountain laurel, nearly an hour after I had left my original post, I saw two brown rumps and white tails flickering as they bounded away from me. I stood silently for a moment, and the sound of trotting hooves came to a stop not far from their initial location. I crept ahead through the laurel, trying not to crack a twig beneath my feet.
I emerged from the thick patch into an open forest of oaks, maples, and walnuts and saw the same two white tails, again trotting away. They stopped again, turned broadside and stared back toward me. I pulled up my rifle, settled my breath, and squeezed the trigger.
I walked up to my first public land whitetail lying dead with its back against the base of a black walnut tree, exactly where it had stood minutes before. I took off my hat and offered a prayer of thanks. I had found my outdoor paradise once again, but this time, just a five-minute drive from my front door.
Next spring, I think I’ll chase the turkeys I hear gobble … from my new home.
Benjamin Thomas is a BHA member who spends time outdoors in Central Pennsylvania with his wife and corgi. He studied energy and sustainability policy at Pennsylvania State University and enjoys writing about issues surrounding the conservation of wild places.