Archery deer-hunting season opened in Maryland Sept. 14. By 9 that morning, Tom Hardesty was dragging his deer from some oak woods off the lower Potomac River.
For some people, archery hunting is an excuse to walk around in the woods on the off-chance they might actually see a deer. When Hardesty carries his bow in, he also carries the confident intention of bringing back a deer. He started bow hunting in 1971. In 10 years, he's taken 10 deer.
He has killed many more deer during gun seasons in Maryland, Virginia and his native West Virginia. I have hunted with Hardesty a few times, and would say that if upland hunting skills were measured on a scale of 10, he'd be in double figures.
He attributes his success to childhood years spent honing his silent skills squirrel hunting. He and his youthful hunting pals had a goal. "We used to say Daniel Boone could step on a 10-foot pile of dry leaves and not make a sound. We'd strive for that. Of course, we never made it, and we finally figured out Daniel Boone probably didn't, either."
A week after Hardesty got his deer, I went to the same place he had hunted, a place he regards as one of the best deer spots he's ever seen. In his meanderings, scouting Sunday evening and hunting Monday morning, he had sighted about 10 deer. But I did not see any.
The disparity is more than happenstance. Last week, I stopped in at Hardesty's office, the police station at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NE, where he is a detective. I asked him to jangle the keys to his hunting prosperity in the hope some might fall off that I could pocket.
Hardesty calls himself a still hunter, which to me always meant staking out a good spot with plenty of fresh deer signs and staying there, dawn to dusk. But Hardesty moves some, always going very, very slowly.
"Two to three steps, then I stop, look and listen. If something catches my attention, I might stand for 30 minutes before I move -- some songbirds sounding off, leaves moving, any sound that doesn't seem just right."
His steps are taken heel-first, then he lowers the toe. That way he won't break twigs or branches, which Hardesty regards as the worst deer-hunting sin of all. "Only two things break branches in the woods -- deer and man. And deer only break them when they are spooked and running off their trails." So when a deer hears a twig break, it knows something's wrong.
Deer are most often killed as they move slowly through the woods, either browsing or traveling from bedding to feeding areas.
So Hardesty seeks out heavily used trails and sets up close by, wherever he can find a good tree or thick, brushy cover. He has found two "peak" times for deer to be traveling -- between about 8:30 and 10:30 in the mornings and in the hour or two around dusk.
"I always spook deer when I'm going into the woods at dawn. I believe they go to the thickets and bed down at that time. Then they seem to come out again to feed a little later," he said.
During bow season, the woods are all but empty and the bowhunter tries to adapt to the whitetail's natural schedule. In gun season, when the woods are full of hunters, the schedule changes.
"During gun season, I like to get deep in the woods early, before dawn, and set up along a good deer trail. The other hunters coming into the woods spook the deer to me. Some of the best times are between 11 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon, when the other hunters get discouraged. They go out to get lunch and see their buddies. When they go, they spook the deer again."
Hardesty uses a portable tree stand, with which he can position himself above a "hot" deer trail anywhere in the woods. During bow season, when his shots must be no farther than 30 yards, he keeps his camouflage clothes in a sack of pine needles and rubs scent-laden natural materials on his shoes before hunting, so his human scent won't frighten a wary deer.
The most important time to stay still and quiet, he said, is not on clear, dry days. "On misty days or after a rain is when deer sneak up on you. They might be 20 yards away and you won't hear them to know they're there."
What are the worst mistakes incompetent deer hunters make?
"Hunting with their buddies. The noise you make when you're alone is bad enough, but two guys together is impossible. You should be at least 200 or 300 yards away from anyone else.
"Then, making a time to meet someone. You have to be flexible. Otherwise, you'll be hurrying through the woods when you ought to be going the slowest.
"And too many people are afraid to get off the beaten path. They stay in open fields or along the roads. If you're worried about getting lost, mark a tree or get a compass.
"Stay alert. I've walked up within 20 yards of a friend. And I've walked right by hunters who never even knew I was there."
Hardesty figures on getting a deer for every 10 days of bowhunting. With a rifle, he figures if he spends a day in the woods he should come out with his buck. "If I see him during gun season," he said, "he's mine."
He uses bow season as his scouting time for gun season. He considers time spent learning the woods the single most important factor in deer-hunting success. Trouble is, he's getting too good with a bow. Its hard to learn much when you're done at 9 a.m. opening day.