Love, and Bullets, Are in the Air

John Conner of Conowingo, Md., gave the meat from this 200-pound buck to friends:
John Conner of Conowingo, Md., gave the meat from this 200-pound buck to friends: "I don't care much for the meat of rutting bucks. It gets pretty musky. For eating, I'll take the doe every time." (By David Conner For The Washington Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, November 11, 2007

With firearms season for deer a week away in Virginia and two weeks off in Maryland, thoughts of gun hunters across the region are turning to big bucks. From all indications, female deer across the region are focused on the same thing.

A wildlife orgy is underway in the woods and fields as the annual rut and associated mating rituals hit their peak for mid-Atlantic whitetails. The vast majority of mature female deer hereabouts are impregnated between Nov. 5 and 25, says Paul Peditto, head of Maryland's Wildlife and Heritage Division. That means bucks are on the prowl, looking for love in all the wrong places, making this the time of year when normally wary antlered deer are most vulnerable.

While most of us have to wait till opening day to take our shots, a few get to jump the gun. Deer-laden Howard County ran a managed hunt last week at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area near Clarksville, which paid off with the buck of a lifetime for Conowingo, Md., resident John Conner.

Conner was hunkered down in a tree stand when a nervous doe came trotting by, closely followed by a randy buck with a prodigious set of antlers. Conner, 46, a chemical plant manager, has been hunting deer since age 14 and knew it was a remarkable buck, but he had a small problem.

Howard County officials hold the special hunts to reduce the burgeoning deer herd, and the rules are specific: Before a hunter can take an antlered deer, he must first shoot an antlerless one, on the theory that removing females from the system reduces reproduction more effectively.

So there Conner sat, staring down the barrel of his shotgun at a monster, 200-pound buck, but obligated by the rules to target the smaller, 100-pound doe it was herding along. Conner did the upstanding thing, turning his aim on the doe, while fully expecting the big buck to bound off into the woods when the shot rang out.

Sure enough, the buck ran away, but, "I thought he might come back, so I stayed real still," Conner said. "Sure enough, he went off about 80 yards, then five minutes later he came back. I guess he was just so infatuated with her, he couldn't believe it was over."

The buck stood over the fallen female, grunting and snorting, giving Conner time to bag his trophy with a second shot. It was all within the Howard County rules, where wildlife managers are trying to keep expanding herds from denuding the forests.

"The regulations are, they have to shoot a doe first," said Phil Norman, deer project manager for Howard County Recreation and Parks, "and any buck they take after that has to have a rack [of antlers] with a minimum 15-inch spread," which basically means antlers extending beyond the tips of the ears.

Conner's trophy was well within the parameters. The antlers were huge, anywhere from 13 to 16 points, depending on who did the measuring, and the deer weighed 184 pounds field-dressed, making it one of the three biggest bucks taken in the 10 years since managed hunts have been held at six parks across the county, Norman said.

Conner may have satisfied his buck fever, but stories like his just fuel ours. Virginia gunners take to the woods statewide on Saturday, while Marylanders must wait till the Saturday after Thanksgiving for their two-week season to open.

Thus the next week or two is prime time for scouting the woods, a crucial precursor to any satisfying hunt. To go into the woods blind on opening day without scouting in advance is to deny yourself half the fun. Sure, a deer might wander by, but that's dumb luck. The hunter who spends a day or two looking for deer sign, then carefully selects his opening day perch based on clues he unearths, gets infinitely more satisfaction when the plan works out.

My frequent hunting partner Larry Coburn and I spent a morning in the deer woods last week on private land, not far from where Conner got his big buck. We saw one deer scampering away as we eased through the thickets and heard another close by, which snapped a twig on its way out.

But what we didn't see in antlers and tails was more than compensated for by all the deer sign. Bucks this time of year leave plenty of evidence. They thrash away at saplings, beating the bark off with their antlers, and dig bare-earth circles in the leafy ground and mark them with urine. These "rubs" and "scrapes" were plentiful.

Deer also trample trails through the underbrush and leave footprints in the soft mud where they cross creeks and streams. The bigger the trail, the more active the passageway.

Most of the year, deer move primarily at dawn and dusk and at night, making their way from thick cover where they bed down during the day to open clearings and fields to feed in the dark. But during the rut they move all day, bucks pursuing does and the does doing their best to elude the males until they're ready to receive them.

"This time of year," Coburn said, "if you see a doe easing through woods and looking back over her shoulder, or if you see one trotting along a trail, you can be pretty sure a buck is close behind."

One note of caution. As pleased as he was to take his trophy deer, Conner said his family will be feasting on the meat of the doe it was chasing. "I don't care much for the meat of rutting bucks. It gets pretty musky. For eating, I'll take the doe every time."

He kept the antlers but gave the meat from the buck to a friend. "Nothing's going to go to waste," Conner said. "That's a given."

* * *

Modern firearms season for deer opens Saturday in Virginia and runs through Dec. 1 in western portions of the state and through Jan. 5 in the east. Virginia muzzleloader season is open now, closing Friday.

In Maryland, modern firearms season runs Nov. 24 to Dec. 8, with an extra weekend Jan. 4-5 in eastern counties. Muzzleloader season runs Dec. 15-29.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company