With a chocolate milk in one hand and a spotlight in the other, I eagerly scanned the dark roadside for an open field.
For a young boy eager to turn 12 and get my first hunting license, spotlighting was my outlet during the years before I was old enough to hunt.
My father knew it, and he patiently drove the car for hours — several nights each week, as I shed a beam of light on every field we passed.
We had a routine.
Around 7 p.m., my father and I would jump in the car for our daily spotlighting trip. We’d stop off at a gas station, which is where I always had to get a chocolate milk for the trip, and then head out to a few remote areas — dirt roads and farm fields mostly — and see the wildlife that ventured out after dark.
With a flick of the switch, the spotlight beam would pierce the darkness and I’d sweep it across a field looking for eyes. My father and I would count the does and marvel at the big bucks. We occasionally saw piebald deer and several times we watched two bucks fight — unaware that they were literally in the spotlight.
I learned a lot about deer behavior on those spotlighting trips. I watched how bucks during the rut would react when I put down the window and gently blew on a grunt call. Sometimes the call would get a buck so incensed that it would charge to the car, stopping several feet away looking for the source of the grunts.
With my spotlight, I watched how does interacted with their fawns, taking note of how deer seemed to prefer fields with a specific variety of grasses or legumes, and how weather conditions limited movement.
Oftentimes, we would see more than deer on those spotlighting trips. Bears were a special treat. Raccoons, skunks and opossums were quite common, and occasionally we’d spot a coyote or fox.
Those spotlighting trips of my childhood were as educational as they were entertaining.
It was a great father/son time and spotlighting fueled my passion for hunting and the outdoors.
It was a good thing — but one that some would like to end.
Several officials with the Pennsylvania Game Commission have been discussing banning or restricting spotlighting and I can’t really blame them.
While it would be a shame to deprive today’s kids of the excitement that spotlighting offers, there are plenty of people abusing the activity and using a spotlight to shoot deer at night.
That’s what the PGC wants to curtail, although a spotlighting ban would have to be implemented by the state legislature.
Poachers, it seems, are as plentiful as legitimate spotlighters. Virtually anywhere in the state, there are stories about a big buck that was shot at night or, worst of all, the killing sprees that occur when poachers drive around shooting any deer they catch with their spotlight.
And while our wildlife conservation officers and their deputies do a good job of nabbing them, there is plenty of poaching that goes on undetected.
A ban on spotlighting would make it easier to catch poachers. Right now, if a beam of light sweeps across a dark field, there’s no way of knowing if it’s someone spotlighting for enjoyment or a poacher looking for a deer to shoot.
If spotlighting was banned, that uncertainty would be eliminated.
Still, it’s a harsh consequence.
Right now, spotlighting is allowed until 11 p.m. It’s illegal to spotlight during the two-week deer season and lights can’t be cast on livestock, houses and buildings.
Maybe a restriction is needed instead of a ban. Eleven o’clock is pretty late, so maybe spotlighting should be legal until 10 p.m. That would give deer trying to feed in the fields a break, and it would also increase the window in which WCOs can watch for poaching activity.
And, best of all, a child can still jump in the car with their father — a chocolate milk in one hand and a spotlight in the other — and get a firsthand look at wildlife after dark.