We took half an hour for lunch, recovering in front of the wood stove from the numbing cold of the opening morning of deer season. In seven hours in the woods, we each had seen one doe, which did not bode well. But Luther had a plan.
"I'm going to kill a buck this afternoon," he said. "The only question in my mind is whether it'll be a little spikehorn that comes prancing across the river in broad daylight or a big, wary eight-pointer skulking over in the gloaming, when I'll need these just to see his horns." He shook a pair of binoculars for emphasis.
The plan: across the river lay a narrow strip of woods bordering a pasture. Luther in the past had seen deer filtering from the woods into the pasture to feed at dusk. By studying a topographical map of the 2,000-acre farm, he determined that the deer probably crossed the river to get there. There were only two places shallow enough to cross easily.
He planned to station himself at the one closest to the cabin and send me 150 yards further downriver to the second crossing. We'd wait there for deer or darkness, whichever came first.
Deer came first. As we stood on the bank studying hoof prints and game trails, there came the scratching sound of traffic in the leaves across the river. Six deer in a hurry. They ran to where Luther was planning to hunt and stepped querulously into the riffle. They crossed, one by one, backlit by a brilliant winter sun. The last one had horns, we think, but it was too far to shoot.
At the turn of the century, all six deer would have been fair game, but a 1909 state law made it illegal to shoot does (female deer) and to sell or ship game in the state. A survey the following year showed a population of about 1,000 deer in West Virginia.
Now we enjoy happier times. State biologists guess there are 250,000 to 400,000 deer in West Virginia. In Hampshire County alone, hunters claimed 2,643 deer last year, the highest kill in any county in the state.
The huge population increase is attributed to changing land uses and protection afforded deer by hunting laws. The laws have been revised and updated since 1909, but the basic idea is still to protect antlerless deer -- does and young bucks. At the same time, urbanization has left marginal farms all across the east abandoned, and as the fields reverted to second-growth woods, perfect deer habitat was created.
At 6:02 Monday morning, the first rifle shot echoed across the hollows near Luther's farm. I couldn't have seen to tie my shoes without a flashlight at that hour, nor could I have at 6:07, when a second shot rang. Those shots, we guessed, must have come over "jacklights," bright lights that mesmerize deer. And that proves not everyone cherishes protective laws.
At 7:30, shivering, I stood up to ease a cramp. My nose was running and I sniffed. From thirty yards away came a tremendous snort in response. I watched a large doe turn on her hind legs, send her white tail up like a flag and bound off through the woods. It was the only deer I'd see that morning.
At 3:15 p.m., from my perch overlooking the river crossing, I heard more shuffling in the leaves. I turned slowly and found, to my astonishment, a large doe shambling toward me, perhaps 40 yards away on the riverbank. Just to see if it was possible, I eased the rifle to my shoulder. She kept advancing. Twenty yards away, she lifted her nose, as if scenting me, looked around warily and ambled off into the woods, unperturbed.
At about 4:08, more shuffling in the dry leaves disturbed my reverie. I watched two deer come upriver along the same trail the doe had followed. I could see the lead deer clearly. It had no horns. The head of the second deer was obscured by brush. My heart pounded.
They came into the clearing 20 yards away. The second deer was smaller, a fawn with its mother. No horns; off limits to hunters.
I relaxed and watched for five minutes as they nuzzled and played, oblivious to a man with a rifle close enough to hit them both with a rock. Following Luther's script, the doe eventually dipped a foreleg into the water and set off across the river, a large wild beast picking her way daintily among the submerged rocks. The fawn followed. I watched until they disappeared in the woods, and that was that. Luther didn't see any deer.
Deer season, the hunting season that leads the list in adamant followers, continues through Dec. 5 in West Virginia. Bob Miles, chief of the state wildlife division, expects hunters to claim more than 50,000 deer in all, including about 10,000 antlerless deer for which special permits have been issued.
Some 30,000 to 40,000 bucks will fall during the firearms season, Miles said, and perhaps half of those or more were taken on opening day, when everyone and his uncle was out in the woods. "They even close the schools in some counties for opening day of deer season," said Miles.
Firearms season for deer opened Nov. 16 in Virginia and will close in most sections of that state on Saturday. Maryland deer season lasts one week, beginning this Saturday.
There is no deer season in the District of Columbia, where it is illegal to discharge a firearm. However, there are deer even here. Take a look some time in the woods along the C&O Canal between Key Bridge and Chain Bridge. If you don't see deer, you should see prints, droppings and perhaps even a rubbing, where a buck has cleaned his horns against a sapling.