Joy of deer spotting makes way to the next generation

If you have lived in the Juniata Valley for an extended portion of your life there is a good chance you have gone spotting.

Also referred to as shining, spot lighting and a few other various names, this time-honored tradition in the wilds of Pennsylvania has entertained young and old alike with trips through the countryside looking for whitetails after dark.

Growing up I spent countless hours with my family in the backseat looking for deer in fields in Snyder and Mifflin counties. Back then, nearly every field would produce double-figure deer. Some fields, which I always looked forward to viewing, would be filled with shining eyes that would easily be mistaken for a large group of lightning bugs.

My dad had a large pair of binoculars and he would scan the deer to see if there was a nice buck in the field. On the occasion a really nice one was identified, I would grab the optics and check out the large antlers myself before heading to the next location.

I can still remember certain bucks that became famous through spotting. Some giants would be in the same field for weeks at a time. Once word got around several vehicle would be stopped at one time to check out the deer’s headgear.

It was a big deal to me when I was finally old enough to sit in the front seat and direct the beam of light myself.

Once I turned 16, I put plenty of miles on my own truck throughout the summer and early fall on the backgrounds looking for deer. Even at the time, the deer population was still booming and each night would be filled with encounters with whitetails.

By my early 20s, hunters had ruined spotting thanks to over-harvesting due to the Game Commission’s liberal tag allotment. It was simply not enjoyable to drive around and see maybe one or two deer every mile. There were nights the number of fox spotted outnumbered the deer.

Looking back, my favorite spotting outing occurred annually on the night before buck season. Members from my old cabin would fill up an SUV and check out the fields near the property we hunted. It was basically to remind ourselves there were deer in the nearby fields that should be walking by our stands in the morning.

Now that I have changed hunting properties, there are few fields that are farmed near the area that we can spot. We still sporadically go out, but it is more for something to do than to seriously check out the local deer herd.

In fact, the last time I actually went spotting to see if there were any deer in an area I hunted was during the final season I was a member of a camp in New York. After being in the stand nine times in a row without seeing a buck, my brother and I took a cruise around the nearby farm to see if there were any antlered deer on the premises with only one morning left in my season.

Unfortunately, there was only a very small spike mixed in with a large amount of does. I jokingly told my brother, “If that guy comes by tomorrow morning, he’s in trouble.”

The next morning, my brother laughed out loud when he saw me dragging that spikey out of the woods. It was the only spike buck I have ever harvested, and we still talk about my change from trophy buck hunting on that occasion.

We are fortunate enough in the East to be permitted to go spotting. Many states do not allow the practice. The largest reason for the ban is to eliminate any help for poachers who take game animals illegally at night with lights from vehicles. In some areas, if you are seen spotting, you are likely on the law’s radar fairy quickly.

Illegal hunting at night does occur in Pennsylvania. Those who think that it rarely happens are pretty naive. Word on the street is more accurate than you would think. Those who do it do not care about the consequences. It just so happens that of those doing the shooting are a little better on their end than those doing the law enforcement.

Last week I introduced my two small children to spotting. After catching some lightning bugs, we hopped in the SUV and made a small trip around Beavertown looking for glowing eyes. It was the same trip I had made probably 100 times as a teenager near my mother’s house.

I just hoped we would see a few deer and they would understand that the dots in the light were, in fact, deer. We lucked out and most of the deer we saw were within 50 yards of the road. Both my kids were excited and instantly hooked on spotting.

By the end of the night we had seen a fox and about 25 deer as we headed home. They both fell asleep on the return ride. The next night after a Wiffle ball game, my daughter asked me if we could go spotting before bed. It was good to know they enjoyed their adventure in the backseat as many of us did in our earlier years.


Zach Knepp writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.