"Look at it this way," Bill Fishell said as the last of daylight disappeared over South Mountain. "If you'd shot a buck today you'd be up here dressing it out now. You'd be cold and wet and up to your ears in innards. Worst of all, you wouldn't get to hunt tomorrow."

A mixed blessing. Dressing out is no picnic but with the weather for the opening day of Pennsylvania deer season yesterday, getting ready for another day afield was going to take some fortification.

We'd spent the day freezing in snow, sleet and rain on John Hoffman's farm and in his woods. It took an hour of thawing out over the heat register in his living room before any of us was ready for more.

Hoffman and Fishell are bosom friends, hunting partners of three decades. Hoffman's farm nestles against the easternmost of the Appalachian Mountains near Dillsburg. And his backyard is a valley haven that deer find as enticing as people do. When Hoffman offered to share that haven on opening day I jumped at the chance.

"We'll hunt the bottom," he said. "There's plenty of deer in there and we won't have to worry about the other hunters. There's only three of us who own the valley and we shouldn't see anyone else."

On Sunday, while hordes of down-staters and out-of-staters made for the traditional white tail hotbeds of the northern tier, Pottery County in particular, Hoffman took me for a tour of the gentle rolling land we'd be working.

"I'll put you over here in the woods," he said, pointing to a spot 200 yards from the house. "The deer bed in the honeysuckle up near the road, where they come down the mountain to feed. Either way, they have to go by you to get where they're going."

We walked to the spot, a stone pile. "Now let's see if we can find some deer," he said. "I know there's some in here."

The woods were no more than 400 yards across, between a road and an open field. We walked uphill toward the road, with Hoffman's big Labrador retriever Mala heeling close by.

Nothing, Hoffman, who has hunted these woods for 33 years, was puzzled. "Got to be some deer in here." He let Mala loose and the golden lab cruised the brush, nose to the ground.

"There," Hoffman shouted. "There he goes." A buck jumped from its bed and glared at us through the trees.

"See him? He's a big-bodied deer."

The buck didn't stop long. We had time to count the four points of his antlers, then he turned, flipped his white tail and ambled out of sight.

That sighting made Hoffman's hunt-close-to-home plan look great. It looked even better that night. We took his family out spotlighting and found another dozen and a half deer feeding in the fields within three miles of the farm.

And it looked better still with snow falling and building through the night. Just before dawn three inches lay on the slope behind the old log house and more was piling up as we gobbled breakfast.

While the rest of Pennsylvania's would-be deer slayers battled on unfamiliar frozen turf, we strolled out the back door, down the hill and took our positions. And saw nothing.

Not in the first hour, not in the second. Not in the third hour when our jackets grew heavy with sleet and rain and our bodies began to shake with the cold. Not in the fourth hour. Finally, shortly before noon, a wise old doe slid by 200 yards ahead of my stand, never giving a look.

Fishell came to get me. "Aren't you ever going to quit?" he wondered. We reconvened at the house and unloaded the rifles. Inevitably no sooner were the bullets in our pockets than three deer broke from the trees and pranced across the road, 50 yards away.

We hunted the afternoon but never saw them again.

And that's why we'll be back out Tuesday.

Pennsylvania is the most popular deer hunting state in the nation. Officials estimate that close to a million hunters were afield for yesterday's opening. Dick Spotts kept his tiny store in Dillsburg open all night to service late arriving hunters.

Most Pennsylvanians consider the northern counties the best deer habitat, but Hoffman and Fishell feel hunter success is as likely in the southern tier as it is up north.

"They get more deer up there, sure," said Fishell, "but more people hunt up there. Your chances are just as good up here."

Last year York County hunters harvested 1,231 white tails out of a statewide bag of 146,078. Game officials expect a similar kill this year although it may drop slightly because of herd losses in the severe winter last year.

Neither Fishell nor Hoffman can remember it but there was a time deer were a rarity in the Keystone State. A recent Sports Afield article cited statistics showing a deer harvest of only 200 in 1907.

Fishell backs that up. He can recall his father telling him of the days when if a man sighted a deer, he tracked it for days just to get a shot. "There just weren't any around in those days," he said.

The resurgence is credited largely to advances in game management, enforcement of bag limits and the return to wildlife of mountain habitats, not good for farming.

There are enough deer around that Hoffman is sure he will get his buck this year as he does every year and it'll probably be in his back yard.