The season's over for waterfowl hunters and around the area duck and goose hunters are cleaning and storing their guns, shelving their ammunition.
The guns will be out again next fall, the scent of oil still sweet on the blue steel. But the old shells will stay on the shelf as the federal government has all but shut the door on lead-shot hunting for ducks and geese.
The facts: lead shot is banned on all waters in Maryland's Worcester, Somerset, Wicomico, Dorchester, Talbot, Caroline, Queen Anne's, Kent and Cecil Counties and portions of Harford, Baltimore, and Annee Arundel Counties east of Rte. 1. The ban extends to all land within 150 yards of these waters.
The same is ture in Virginia for the waters of the James, Rappahannock and York Rivers and their tributaries and the waters of the city of Virginia Beach.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is acting to save the lives of 2 million waterfowl it says are lost annually to lead poisoning. The ducks and geese die from ingesting spent pellets. They pick up the shot along with gravel, they eat to grind food in their gizzards.
Ingestion of just one small lead shotgun pellet can kill a duck, although generally it takes more. It all depends on the health of the bird and its diet. Waterfowl on a seed and grain diet are more susceptible, thogh scientists aren't sure why.
It all sounds simple - a straighforward switchover to steel shot to save lives nad increase the bird population for better hunting.
But hunters and munitions makers are in a snit. Hunters claim the steel shot, with less mass than lead, is short on killing power and leads to crippled birds that profit no one. The ammo producers say steel shot costs more to make and the hard steel can damage gun barrels.
It's one of those situations where both sides are right. But it's the law and hunters are going to have to live with it.
Steel shot indeed does not carry as far or as forcefully as lead shot. Grits Gresham, the shooting editor or Field and Stream, did some woodshed experimenting that's as enlightening as any of the tests the government or the munitions biggies have conducted.
Gresham took old Sears catalogs and measured the penetration of steel and lead shot. At 40 yards he found that No. 4 lead shot punched holes in 129 pages of the catalog, No. 4 steel shot made it through only 90.
At 60 yards the lead punctured 86 pages, the steel 55. At that distance No. 2 lead shot scored on 107 pages and No. 2 steel punched out at 85.
Gresham was using 1975-76 vintage steel shot sheels. Manufacturers are claiming better performance now with newer, heavier load steel shells.
Gresham's findings are printed in the current issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine. He also tested patterns, the number of pellets that wind up in a 30-inch circle at a certain range. Steel consistently outperformed lead, because softer lead deforms on ignition and the deformed pellets tend to scatter.
Robert I. Smith, the Fish and Wildlife Service's specialist on steel shot, said what that means is that steel shot will reduce the bad shooter's chances at bagging his bird but will help the good shooter.
Closer patterning means a good shooter who can put the pellets where the bird is at a resonable range will get more of those pellets into the bird. A poor shooter will get more birds with lead because the shot spreads further. He's more likely to get a lucky shot.
As for gun barrel damage, Smith conceded that hard steel can create a "ring bulge" in the end of the barrel, where it's choked down to compress the pellets as they leave the gun.
Smith said the ring bulge can occur after only a few shots with steel. It's much more likely to occur in double-barrel, over-and-under or older, lighter guns because the barrel steel is thinner.
The ring bulge generally does not severely affect performance, Smith said, but it can knock the value of an expensive gun down substantially. It's not a good idea to take your grandpa's Purdey on a steel-shot binge.
The government conducted a rather gruesome steel-shot test in 1968. It took 1,100 farm-reared mallards and strung them up, one by one, to an overhead harness system.
The ducks were trundled along to a specified spot where they tripped an electronic eye and a shotgun fired automatically from 50 yards. There was no room for hunter error.
The gun was located alternately with a one-ounce steel load or a 1 1/2-ounce lead load. The results: 44 per cent killed instantly with No. 6 lead, 38 per cent killed instantly with No. 4 lead, 34 per cent killed instantly with No. 4 steel.
Again, the tests used what Smith calls "primitive" steel loads - the new ones are more powerful. Smith said there was no measurable difference in the crippling effects of the three loads.
As to cost, the hunter will be pinched, at least for awhile. A box of steel shot shells costs about $8, against $4 to $5 for lead. Smith figures when production gets going on steel shot the disparity will ease.
Also, home reloading of steel shells is not possible, for the time being. The shell parts aren't available.
The law will skirt smaler-gauge shotguns for awhile. No. 16- or 20-gauge steel shot shells are manufactured now and use of lead shot in those gauges will be permitted until ammunition becomes available.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has copies of its 276-page environmental impact statement on steel shot - the statement that led to the new law available to the public.
Writer to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Interior Dept., Washaington, D.C. 20240.