My friend Barney prepares for each hunting season with admirable energy, if unconventional means. While most hunters are sighting in rifles and scouting old territory for deer tracks, Barney spends his offseasons at country auctions and rural turkey shoots, telling jokes and pressing the flesh like a seasoned politician.
"You cannot make too many friends in this life," he says, overflowing with warm feelings and ulterior motives. "And if new friends happen to live on farmland that is thick with deer and wild turkey, I certainly won't hold it against them."
If you like to hunt, you probably don't like doing it in a crowd. The esthetics of a 10-point buck moving into range at dawn are spoiled somewhat when other hunters start firing from all sides. The more crowded a wood becomes with armed hunters, the more nervous a fellow gets that he might be mistaken for a trophy by some nearsighted, liquor-warmed wombat.
The ideal solution is to find a private landowner who is so taken with your charm and good looks that he allows you and a few friends to hunt his 200-acre estate exclusively. But if the neighborhood you live in looks like mine, the closest you are to an estate is a community garden that feeds songbirds and squirrels.
Fortunately, the urbanization of America is not yet complete. And if you live in the Washington metropolitan area, you have only to drive an hour or two in any direction to find public land where wild things roam.
The easiest way to discover the public hunting areas in Maryland is to buy a hunting license. A pamphlet with each license names the state's wildlife management areas, which total 77,409 acres. There are many thousands of acres more in state forests that are open to hunting, including coastal areas where you can use existing goose and duck blinds.
To find Virginia's public hunting areas, you have to work a little harder by paying $1 for the Virginia Hunter's Guide. But the payoff is well worth the price. For each licensed hunter, there are approximately six acres of public hunting land. The Virginia Game Commission owns more than 175,000 acres of hunting land and manages another quarter-million acres through cooperative agreements with the state and federal governments.
Add to that the 900,000 acres of George Washington National Forest and 670,000 acres of Jefferson National Forest where hunting is allowed, and you have enough room to lose a platoon of hunters for the rest of this century.
Then there are the 700,000 acres of land owned by corporations in Virginia that have made their land available to hunters who apply. Some are free with a Virginia hunting license, others charge additional fees, from $1 to $5.
Still not satisfied? There are three military areas in Virginia that allow civilian hunters to prowl the grounds. The U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico has 54,000 acres of land in Fauquier, Prince William and Stafford counties that are open to a limited number of hunters for a $2 fee.
Fort Pickett Military Reservation, with 45,198 acres in Nottoway, Brunswick and Dinwiddie counties, issues free permits on a first-come basis. And Fort A.P. Hill Military Reservation in Caroline County also permits free hunting of deer and squirrels to a limited number of civilians.
If you are really serious about taking advantage of public hunting access, you would do well to get on the mailing lists of both the Virginia and Maryland game commissions. Taking advantage of the periodic special permit hunts in both states can be the difference between a full freezer and just cold feet.
A few years ago, I spent opening day of the deer season in Maryland at Wye Island, which had been closed to hunting for about 10 years. A limited number of hunters, picked by lottery from applicants, were allowed onto an island that was so crowded with deer you had to be careful not to hit two with one shot.
On that day, the only people who didn't get a deer were the ones who failed to show up. And not one complaint was heard about being forced to hunt on public land.