Tom was in the back of the boat, nuzzling a fifth of bad whiskey and warbling "Winter Wonderland" on his way home from deer hunting. A December wind howled across the Potomac. The sky had cleared to reveal a half-moon. Whitecaps crashed over the bow, sending back sheets of spray.

Tom had a tarp over his head but it was a five-mile run dead into the wind. After a mile, he was drenched.

He held up the bottle and beckoned me over, grinning. "I'm happy," he said. "Know why? Because deer season is over and tonight I'm going to go to bed and sleep all night."

No doubt similar sentiments echoed across Maryland after dusk Saturday as the week-long statewide gun season for deer ended.

Tom had been up at 3 every morning but one, heading out in various directions to pursue deer. He'd hunted the mornings and gone to his job evenings, getting home after midnight and up again two or three hours later to hunt some more.

After a week, no deer. But he wasn't distressed. "Black-powder season opens next week," he said, "and we can bowhunt for another month."

You learn deer hunting by degrees. Tom is an expert and the fact he was blanked in Maryland this year is a surprise. His kids won't go hungry. He took two deer in West Virginia, bow hunting and rifle hunting.

To hunters not so expert, the sport unfolds painstakingly. When I started deer hunting four years ago, I did not even see a deer. The next year, I began to get glimpses of gray, four-legged ghosts skulking through the woods, far away. By the third year, I'd learned to expect where and when the ghosts might appear. This year, I got so close to deer it took my breath away and set my heart pounding. I have yet to fire a shot or loose an arrow. Maybe next year.

Several seasons ago, I stopped at Howard's Sporting Goods in Waldorf on opening day and interviewed people checking in their deer. An astonishingly high percentage of veteran hunters were celebrating their first successes. One guy had been hunting for more than 20 years and was checking in his first buck. Another said he'd hunted every day of deer season for seven years before he'd brought home a deer.

Tom led Fernando and me through the dark woods. He was agitated by how near it was to dawn. He dropped me off on the edge of a thicket, saying, "Go about 80 yards further and take a stand where you can see into the thicket. The deer will be moving along the edges. Be alert. With the rain, you won't hear them coming."

I found a tree, propped myself against it and slid three slugs into the shotgun. Bucks and does were both in season in southern Maryland, where deer abound. It grew light. A bird chirruped but it's call was not one I knew.

At 8, having seen nothing, I moved 50 yards away to a new tree. At 8:40, I was startled from a half-sleep and scanned the woods. Something was moving. An immense buck passed through a small opening at the edge of the thicket. The deer was silent, graceful and as big as a cow.

I tried to follow where he'd go but as I scanned along his likely path I caught out of the corner of my eye another big deer passing through the opening in the thicket. I tried to follow that one and a third deer slipped through the opening. I had never even raised my gun, and all three within easy range. What an idiot!

I stood up in pursuit. I'd taken three steps when a deer 30 yards to my right snorted and fled through the woods. Idiot!

There are people who say deer hunting is easy. It probably is easy once you've crossed an informational threshold and learned what to expect out of deer and time and the woods.

For me, deer hunting is an exercise in declining attention span. I'm never quite sure when something is likely to happen, or where. So I spend as long as I can in a state of tense readiness, scanning as much of the woods as I can see and straining my listening powers for a hint of something moving. If the wind scatters dry leaves or a squirrel scurries up a tree, I have a heart attack.

You can't stay in a state of combat readiness forever. About the time fatigue takes over, a deer sidles past and vanishes.

I'm a slow learner, but I am buoyed by the knowledge that many of my hunting colleagues suffered similarly for years, then awakened one day with a thorough comprehension of the mysteries of deer hunting. They go out in this new, relaxed state, bag a deer opening day and get one every year after.

Each year, through failure, I gain a little toward that happy, enlightened state.