Bowhunting is the cleanest, quietest, most satisfying way to hunt deer, unless you're the deer.
The season lasts months, instead of the week or so gun hunters get, and the woods usually are empty of people when the bowhunter goes in. He sees deer and the rest of the forest-dwellers in a natural state -- shuffling through the woods, munching on browse, warily sniffing at a breeze, listening, even playing, instead of running from a barrage of gunfire. Mostly a bowhunter spends time in the woods. Once in a long while he gets a shot.
Bowhunting is the hardest way to hunt deer, and it can be the cruelest when the game is not recovered. When that happens, it can be a horror, as a recent example showed.
The doe slipped past the tree stand and stopped 20 yards away. The hunter drew the arrow but it was his first year hunting with a bow and he wasn't sure. Was she close enough? Would the brush deflect the arrow? Was it a good shot?
The doe whiffed him. Her head shot up and her ears went up. The bowhunter felt his reasoning give over to instinct.
"I knew she would run then, so I shot," he said. "I hit her here," and he poked his partner below the ribs. "It was a good shot."
The books say to wait at least 20 to 30 minutes before beginning to track, so as not to push a deer into running far away to die. But it was getting dark and he wanted to get started.
The deer had taken off on a run. He marked the direction and quickly found blood. Using a small flashlight, he tracked the way his mentor had told him -- on hands and knees, a few feet at a time, never advancing until he found new blood.
Tracking this way you can work an hour or two to go 100 or 200 yards. Two hundred yards in thick woods is a long way, and wounded deer run for the thickest cover. They don't run straight, either.
"You need patience for tracking," the hunter said. "And faith."
His patience wore thin when the trail gave out. He left the flashlight hanging from a tree, aimed at the last blood so he could find it again, and he walked out to camp to get his partner, an expert tracker.
The partner brought a double-mantel lantern that lit the woods like daylight. They rediscovered the trail, and from the signs they found they knew the deer was dying.
Inexplicably, the trail ran out again. It was late, black night and in addition to their weariness the men were attacked by tiny ticks they knew would burrow under their skin and itch for weeks.
While one stayed with the trail, turning over individual spears of grass in search of a clue, the other walked circles with the flashlight. But they turned up nothing. Eventually, even the good tracker lost his patience and faith.
They left the deer for dead in the woods.
"We gave up," said the bowhunter sadly. "We should have kept going. It was my first deer with a bow. It was a horror."
Game managers say the possibility of unrecovered game is particularly high for novice bowhunters, because so many skills are involved in doing it right. No one likes to wound and lose game. Some simple guidelines make sense. Here are a few that come with the endorsement of a veteran bowhunter.
Unless you are a bow wizard, you should be within 20 yards for a trustworthy shot. And you need to practice with the bow at that and other distances so the shooting is automatic, because you only get one shot and it should be true.
Jim Crumley, who has taken 27 bucks with bow and arrow, said he added up those kills from records he kept and divided them into the total yards he'd measured for all the shots. His average shot, he found, was 17 yards, much closer than he would have guessed. And he's an expert.
"The rule of thumb," said Crumley, who owns Trebark Camouflage Co., manufacturers of clothes for bowhunters, "should be 20 yards, unless you know from practice you can shoot at a greater distance. My standard is, if you can hit a pie plate with five out of six arrows at a specific distance, then you're competent at that distance."
Crumley's rule of thumb for tracking, the second half of the bowhunting skill equation, is: "As long as you have blood, you have a deer." He does not stop tracking because the blood gets sparse or because the night gets cold or rainy. He carries a bright lantern with fuel for all night.
Nor does he quit when the blood trail gives out. He marks the last spot and makes circles, and if that fails he gets more people and they search grids. Failing that, he sits down and thinks, "where would I go?"
He once found a deer the day after he'd shot it, in the opposite direction from the direction it had been tracked in, lying dead. With patience and faith, he turned a hunter's horror into a triumph.
It sounded like popguns going off in the woods last week as acorns from the biggest crop in years hit the ground and anything else that got in the way.
Game biologists in Maryland and Virginia said fruit of the oak tree, a major source of food for squirrels, deer, bear and turkeys, is abundant this year.
"It looks like a very good year for both hard mast (acorns and other nuts) and soft mast (berries and fruit)," said Jack Raybourne, who heads the Virginia Game Commission.
His assistant, Bob Duncan, said acorns from the red oak family, including northern red, black, pin, scarlet and willow oaks, appear to be extremely abundant and production from the white oak family (white, swamp and chestnut oaks) is fair to good.
Red oak fruit takes two years to ripen and fall, Duncan said, so a good crop this year reflects good conditions two springs ago. White oak acorns form in the spring and drop the same fall.
Joe Shugars of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources said his data hasn't been compiled yet, "but it looks like a great year for acorns."
Acorns are the predominant hard mast in the two states, and acorn production strongly affects the health and reproductive success of wild species that use them for fall food, Duncan said.