It was not a good day for Mick Couchenour. He was busy in the kitchen of his restaurant, Mick's Quail Inn in Indian Head, Md. The door burst open Jan. 28 and in marched eight state and federal agents and a state's attorney.
They were there to fold the tent on Couchenour's annual game dinner, which had evolved from a small informal gathering of friends and hunting partners into a major undertaking.
"They read me my rights," Couchemour, "and then they started confiscating my game.
When they were done, according to Counchenour's estimates, the agents had carted off the following:
Six whitetail deer, 20 rabbits, 30 Canada geese, 20 squirrels, 160 doves and 30 quail.
They left 150 pen-reared pheasant, that Couchenour said he had bought and for which he produced receipts. Counchenour said all the confiscated game was wild, and had been acquired on Couchenour's hunting trips or from friends and associates who hunted.
Counchenour said he never bought any wild game. Nonetheless, advertisements for and information on his annual game dinner apparently indicated to state and federal agents a possibility of law violations.
No charges have been filed.
Robert Nalley, state's attorney for Charles County, said officials are awaiting final reports from investigating officers and that no action could be expected before "a couple of weeks."
His story offers an interesting insight into the way the seemingly harmless custom of a game dinner might evolve into a court battle.
Couchenour always has loved hunting. He hunted as a civilian employee of the Navy and he kept hunting when he left the government a decade ago to start his restaurant.
As part of the restaurant trade he decided to hold the game dinners. "It was good public relations," he said, "and I enjoyed doing it."
At first, he said, it was a small - perhaps 100 people, once a year. But as Couchenour's restaurant grew, so grew the annual dinner. A few years back he broadened the menu and started serving in shifts. Word of the dinner spread and more and more people sought invitations.
Hunters he met would bring their surplus game and in return Couchenour would invite them to the dinner, free.
By this year, Couchenour could expect more than 500 people to come to the dinner, so he split into five consecutive Sundays, each serving a maximum of 175 persons.
The menu was impressive. Quail a la Rennert, roast pheasant in cream sauce, barbecued venision, rice-stuffed wild goose, oven braised squirrel and rabbit, plus baked ham, vegetables and dessert.
He sent handsome printed menu -invitations to hunting friends and restaurant customers who had signed a guest book indicating interest in the game dinner. At the bottom of the menu was the price tag - $7.
That price tag probably caught the eyes of the law, Couchenour said. According to Col. Frank Thompson of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, who participated in the raid, it is unlawful to sell wild game in Maryland and it is unlawful for any hunter to possess more than two days' bag limit of any game species at any time.
TFederal agents apparently entered the case because of the presence of migratory birds - geese and doves.
It all came as a rude shock to Couchenour, who said he never has made money off the dinners and never expected to. He said at least one-fifth of the 500 invitations he sent out were graced with the notation that the dinner was on the house.
From Thompson's standpoint, the raid was at least partially an effort to keep others from starting game dinners after they saw the success of Couchenour's.
"These things have a way of spreading," he said. "People might get on the idea as a way of making money."
Game dinners are permitted under some circumstances. Nonprofit organizations and clubs frequently hold them, but Thompson stressed that organizers should pay close attention to strictures on legal acquisition of game meat.
For Couchenour, there's one benefit to the whole affair. He's been so wrapped up in providing for the game dinner that he saves almost all the game he shoots for it. "I told my wife there's one good thing," he said. "At least now we can get to eat some quail again.