Olaf Hurd Jr. had guessed wrong. The deer, which he had expected to appear at the edge of the woods close by on his left, instead moved out into the marsh from his right, 125 yards away.
Hurd estimated the range at 150 yards or more, thrown off by the smallness of Sika deer, which average about half the size of whitetails. The shot would be pushing Hurd's personal limit, because his hunting standard is first-round kills no cripples.
Hurd knows about bullets and pain. A Viet Cong slug caught him 13 years ago in a Vietnam jungle, when Hurd was a 21-year-old draftee paratrooper.
Which is why he was hunting from a wheelchair mired axle-deep in salt marsh. A helper had horsed him into position, and there Hurd would stay, unable to move his wheels so much as an inch, until the "walker" came back. The deer before him were three mature does, the breeders that must be taken first under the rules of the deer-management program at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
He raised his rifle, which he had to hold at an awkward angle because of his position, and studied the largest of them through the telescopic sight, trying to decide.
Elsewhere, strung out in the woods and marsh along Pony Pen Trail, were Tom Jean, 42, of Suffolk, who 17 years ago took one ride too many on his motorcycle; Joe Lyttle of Waynesboro, whose helicopter went down in Vietnam; and Pat White of Norfolk, who survived 30 years in the Navy only to lose his legs to a surgeon's saw.
The special hunt was laid on by refuge manager J.C. Appel, whose other efforts to make the refuge more accessible to the handicapped include a ramp over the dunes to the beach, wheelchair wildlife trails, rollin portable toilets, lower drinking fountains and telephones and encouragement of a prototype off-road wheelchair. His handicapped hunter initiative, now in its second year, has been adopted by Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus as the model for a nationwide program.
Special hunts may be laid on at about a dozen federal refuges besides Chincoteague next fall, an Interior spokesman said, and the times and places will be publicized well in advance. To qualify, disabled hunters must meet all state ruquirements, make a perfect score on a written test covering game laws and place three consecutive shots in a 12-inch target at 50 yards.
Local rules about the size and sex of deer to be taken may very, but they will be strict. At Chincoteague, for instance, a hunter must take a mature doe before he or she can shoot a buck, and bucks must have antlers with five or more points. It's not always possible to tell a doe from a young "button" buck, nor to count antlers, since there may be more points on one side than the other. Estimating maturity is also difficult, since a full-grown Sika is about the size of a whitetail fawn. On top of that, rifles or shotguns (deerslugs only) must be modified to hold only one round.
"We only give you one shot because we want you to think about it before you shoot," Appel said during the two-hour lecture session the day before the hunt began. The wheelchair hunters thought a lot about it on the first day, because most of them saw deer that were within reasonable range but either were bucks or could not, in the rain, be surely seen to be mature does.
"I'm getting real good at not shooting," Hurd said at the end of opening day.
Volunteers and rangers supply whatever assistance is needed, but the department stresses that "These are not babysitting operations or deer drives. We're not trying to make hunting easy, just available."
"This is real, no-fooling-around response to the needs of handicapped people," said Bob Miller of Roanoke, president of the Disabled Sportsmen of America. "This isn't passive entertainment or basket-weaving, it's really getting into the action."
Manager Appel got the idea from the Easter Seal Society of Virginia, which ran a special hunt for several years until protests from anti-hunting members caused internal feuding and declining contributions. There was some picketing at last fall's inaugural Chincoteague hunt, and the local Kiwanis Club, which sent a couple of members to help the hunters through the woods, had been more than a little afraid that there would be another demonstration.
"It's a heck of a public-relations problem," Appel said. "This refuge has enough cover and forage to support about 750 deer; we can't keep the herd healthy if it expands beyond that." Trapping is not the answer because whitetails are overpopulated throughout their range, and few wildlife managers will have anything to do with the Sika, which are native to Japan and have been breeding like rabbits since they were privately introduced onto the island in 1923.
"We can have managed hunting or we can just slaughter part of the herd periodically," Appel said. "Well-managed hunting is best, because it thins the herd [by five to six dozen a year] without educating the deer that remain, and so most of the birders and other visitors who come here get to see some. But it's hard to make people who don't like the idea of killing such beautiful animals understand why it has to be done."
The wheelchair hunters understood why they were being encouraged to thin the herd, but they were beginning to wonder how. It was their second day out, and the opening day, which should have been the best hunting, had produced only a chilling rain and special frustration for Tom Jean, an experienced hunter who had missed a doe standing 30 yards away. The volunteers, moving freely through the woods, saw lots of legal deer.
Then Hurd made his decision and broke the silence of the second day with his shot. The big doe dropped on the spot; the two smaller ones moved unhurriedly down the shallow marsh and came into the view of Lyttle, who killed another. The third, seeming unaware of what had happened, moved slowly into the woods, stopping now and then to graze.
Hurd's helper staggered through the marsh carrying the doe and pacing the range. "Hundred and twenty-five yards," he gasped. "Perfect shot through the chest."
Hurd has the reserve of a man who despises depending upon the kindness of strangers, but he fairly bubbled back down the paved section of the trail, doing wheelies and spins to force his chair over fallen twigs and pine cones. His doe dressed out to 60 pounds, 20 percent above average, Lyttle's to 50 pounds.
While the deer were being examined and checked in at the ranger station, Jean missed another doe, which left him so disgusted he almost decided to give it up.
Pat White was just about to start wheeling back to the parking lot at 9:30 -- the pony trail is reserved for nonhunters between 10 and 2 during deer season -- when his doe came along. She went down but not dead, and then the cruel reality of both their situations punished them: she couldn't get away and he, bogged down in the soft ground and blocked by brush, couldn't get quite close enough to finish her. It was a long few minutes before White's helper, who was assisting with the other shot deer, could get to them.
Jean, a great bushy-bearded bear of a man, missed yet again that afternoon. Since giving up is a habit no person in a wheelchair can afford to indulge, he studied the problem and decided his sights must have been knocked out of line since the sighting-in session on the Sunday before the hunt. The third morning he adjusted them and, hunting alone, killed his doe with one shot.