There were deer in the meadows and deer in the woods. Bucks with awesome racks sneaked up behind armed men crouched behind hedges. Herds of bold does ran under trees where other hunters hid. There were so many deer, said Frank Guanti, he looked at about 150 before he chose one to stalk.
"This is the kind of thing everybody dreams about," said the 31-year-old Baltimore welder who spent Saturday, the opening day of Maryland's one-week deer hunting season, on a 2,800-acre island near the Chesapeake Bay so rich in wild game a few hunters were even embarrassed. "They were running all over the place like it was a playground."
For the last six years, since Maryland bought all but a few hundred acres of this historic island 40 miles east of Washington to preserve it from development, the wild deer have been protected from hunting. The herd, always healthy, has grown large and plentiful. But that growth has come at the expense of a farmer who raises corn and soybeans on land leased from the state.
"The man was just losing a lot," said Bob Miller, a biologist with Maryland's Wildlife Administration, which decided to allow hunting this year to reduce the herd. Miller spent the day checking deer at the foot of a one-lane, wooden bridge over the Wye River which connects the island to the rest of Maryland.
Miller, the state's deer specialist, said he expected a good kill ratio from the 43 hunters picked by lottery for each of seven days from 7,000 applications. But at noon of the first day, with almost two dozen deer already tagged and more waiting in the back of pickup trucks or draped over automobile fenders, Miller was quietly amazed.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Miller, who has spent the last 13 years studying deer for the state.
Hunters lucky enough to win one of the permits for Wye Island were aware of similarities between this hunt and an aborted deer kill in Virginia earlier this fall.
Because of an overpopulation of deer, which threatened exotic animals at the National Zoo's research center near Front Royal, officials planned a limited hunt similar to one conducted last year at the center for the same reason. But this year the issue became the focus of a controversy that involved the Smithsonian, local hunters, Friends of the National Zoo and a congressional inquiry. By the time zoo officials called off the hunt, the debate seemed to have become a referendum on hunting itself.
"I'm sure a lot of those people against the hunt had good intentions," one hunter said Saturday. "But I just wish they would leave animal management to the experts."
Wye Island has been hunted for most of the last 300 years, since it was settled by English colonists who sailed up the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe the most famous hunting story about the island involved only legal fireworks. Six years ago, a $15 million libel suit was filed by a national aerospace conglomerate against a Washington newspaper that printed a story claiming Pentagon officials had been entertained by contractors at an island hunting lodge with prostitutes. The suit was dismissed.
A few years earlier the island was involved in a stormy debate when The Rouse Company, developer of the new town of Columbia, Md., wanted to buy most of the island for a community of 890 homes. The residents and elected officials of Queen Anne's County scuttled that plan. With the help of a $2 million federal grant, most of the island, which is a haven for wintering waterfowl, deer and hard crabs, was purchased by Maryland in 1976.
Miller would not try to estimate the size of the deer herd on Wye. "They don't stand around long enough to count them like trees," he said. But hunters returning to the check station with their kills described a scene out of some "Wild Kingdom" episode.
"I watched the buck I got all morning," said Bruce Golt, 20, a student at Chesapeake College. "The little bucks were trying to move in on his does. He'd run them off and come back." During one buck battle, Golt crawled on his hands and knees to a hedge row where he downed the dominant male. Like many of the bucks brought in, it had points broken off its antlers, an indication that there are too many bucks competing for the does available.
For Guanti, Saturday's hunt was a return to the island where he hunted groundhogs as a boy. On Friday he scouted the island for good hunting spots. After a few hours he realized it didn't really matter where he went on this island of deer.
"Every place is good," said Guanti.