"June in November," Bob Duncan called it.
And that's how it seemed in the early part of Virginia's deer season as balmy breezes swept the state Thanksgiving week. The effect on hunting was predictable.
"A lot of our areas got off to a very slow start because it was so unseasonably warm," said Duncan, chief of the state's Wildlife Division. "The deer just weren't moving."
Likewise in Maryland, for much of last week conditions were better suited to walking the beach than stalking a buck. On opening day of the 1989 gun season, with snow coating the woods, Maryland hunters took 17,834 deer; this year under a bright autumn sun the opening-day total dropped to 15,485.
While Maryland hunters muttered about bad luck and listened to the time ticking away, Virginians could take a longer, less harried view. With a two- to seven-week-long firearms season, they could wait for conditions to improve.
Marylanders, with just seven days to hunt, were under the gun, which is where many (this one included) wound up deerless when the statewide season ended Saturday. Officials won't have a final tally until later this week, but they don't expect 1990 to approach last year's record kill.
Most Virginians, meantime, are just settling into their deer season, with a full month to go before gun hunting closes Jan. 5 everywhere east of the Blue Ridge.
All of which begs a question: Why are the seasons so different in these neighboring states? Both Maryland and Virginia are enjoying boom times on the deer front, with bigger herds than perhaps at any time in history.
Both have been liberalizing limits and regulations to take advantage of the abundance and to control burgeoning deer populations. But while Maryland has expanded opportunities for muzzleloaders and bowhunters, it sticks faithfully to its brief, one-week, statewide gun season, leaving hunters at the peril of weeks like the one just past when the weather simply doesn't cooperate.
Gary Taylor, director of Maryland's Wildlife Division, said there's no "resource-related reason" why gun season couldn't be extended. There are plenty of deer to support additional pressure, he said.
But he said that, when the question has come up in the past, landowners and farmers cited concern about more people on their property for a longer period, and game managers worried that a two-week season might actually decrease the number of deer taken.
"Extending the season from one week to two often decreases the kill because it lowers the number of hunters in the woods at any one time," Taylor said. And since hunters on the prowl keep deer moving, it's often a case of the more people in the woods, the better the hunting.
But Taylor and his forest wildlife chief, Josh Sandt, conceded that last week was hard hunting and said they are continuing to look at possibilities for extending the gun season. One idea, said Sandt, would be to open a late deer season for one or two weekends in January after Canada goose season closes.
By then, Sandt said, most farmers have finished harvesting and are less concerned about having people on their land. Also, he said, it could open up a way to hunt close-in public areas in suburban counties like Montgomery and Howard, where deer are abundant to the point of being nuisances but gun season is inappropriate in November when other recreational use is heavy.
But Sandt said no strong move is afoot to extend the season dates, and a more likely change to check the expanding deer population next year would be a three-deer limit in some counties, instead of the current two.
One reason Virginia is inclined to let its season linger longer is that deer hunting has long been the No. 1 gun sport there. "Ninety percent of the 300,000 people who buy hunting licenses in this state go deer hunting," said Duncan, "and 55 percent of all hunting time is spent in pursuit of the whitetail.
"Deer is our bread and butter," with a herd of perhaps 600,000 animals, of which some 150,000 fall to hunters, he said.
Maryland, by contrast, is best known for its waterfowl hunting. Only about three-fourths of Maryland's 165,000 license-holders hunt deer, said Taylor.
But times are changing. Goose and duck flocks are in decline and hunting seasons and daily bag limits for both have been slashed drastically.
Wouldn't Maryland be wise to fill in some of its lost waterfowl hunting time and revenue by expanding the season for ever-more-abundant deer?
"It sounds good," said Southern Maryland hunter Tom Hardesty, "except for one thing -- one more week of deer hunting and my wife would divorce me."
If you favor expansion, or have other ideas about future deer seasons in the wake of last week's experiences, Taylor said to write him at Tawes State Office Building, Annapolis, Md., 21401, before public hearings on the regulations come up again in March.