Opening day of deer season Saturday was the best in memory, if you happen to be a deer or have a very short memory.
"Pitiful," is how Marty Lieberman saw it. He spoke from the perspective of the hunters who drifted into his Edgewater sporting goods shop all day like drowned rats, as he put it. Last year Lieberman checked in 32 deer on opening day of gun season -- 23 bucks and nine does. This year he checked in 12 -- eight bucks and four does.
Down here at the Beaver Dam Creek Hunt Club, where six deer fell last opening day, the tally Saturday was zero, as near as I can tell. Truth is, I didn't stick around to see how all the other fellows did. After 11 hours of shivering in a steady, cold rain, the thing that looked best to me at quitting time was home and a warming fire.
"It was a rotten day," agreed Bob Miller, forest wildlife program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. "It was foggy in western Maryland, particularly in Garrett County, and from there east it rained.
"The rain doesn't bother deer so much," said Miller. "It's more what it does to the hunters. Either they don't go, or they go but don't stay. Personally, I hate it. Walking around in rain isn't so bad, but to sit still in a deer stand all day and get soaked is the worst."
Miller figures the statewide kill opening day was about half what it might have been with good, calm, cold, clear weather. That's significant, he said, since more than a third of the deer killed in the one-week Maryland firearms season generally are taken opening day, when just about everyone with a license hits the woods and the activity keeps the game on the move.
"You'd expect the opening-day total to be 6,000 or 7,000 deer," he said. "I'd say this year it'll be 3,000 or 4,000."
On top of that, after a day of rest Sunday, when hunting is not permitted, the wind turned foul Monday with the arrival of a cold front. Deer don't move in a big wind because it masks their best defensive weapons, the ability to hear and smell predators. Serious deer hunters were scratching their heads and wondering if by week's end they'd get a day fit to hunt.
Nor were only Marylanders cursing the skies. Over in western Virginia, rain soured the prospects of those closing out the firearms season Friday and Saturday. These were "doe days" for Virginians west of the Blue Ridge, when they could take a deer of either sex. But conditions were no better there than to the east in Maryland, acccording to Bob Duncan, the state's assistant chief of game.
What is it like to hunt deer in the rain? Let's just say that for this cowboy, the big excitement lay in counting rain drops dripping off the beak of his blaze-orange cap and mentally composing letters to the manufacturers of his supposed-to-be-waterproof Gore-Tex hunting jacket.
Then there was the thrill of disorientation in the dark before dawn. This was in the deep woods at least 50 yards from the road. In this flat country, choked with greenbrier vines and "dog-hair" fledgling timber, you don't have to go far.
I was searching for the high spot next to a gully where last year a spike buck made its mistake and pranced out just before sundown, sniffing around for does. I thought I could find that place in my sleep, so often and fondly had I recollected it, but everything looked different in the darkness and downpour. Among other things, the dry gully was now a roaring creek.
I shone the flashlight down one hillside and four green eyes looked back up, frozen in the light.
"Did you shoot?" one of our less-ethical club members asked later. I said no, which was the truth, and that the thought never crossed my mind, which was a lie.
Those two deer took off in a shower of noisy spray. I figured since I was lost anyway, and there were deer here, I might as well sit down.
The rest is history. I just can't read the notes.
The good news is that while Maryland hunters didn't shoot many deer on opening day, they didn't shoot each other, either.
"Safety is something we are always concerned with," said Miller, "and I'm happy to say nobody got killed out there."