Thirty years ago, deer hunting meant one thing to most Marylanders and Virginians--the week-long gun season around Thanksgiving when anyone who hoped to bag a buck took off work and headed for deer camp, usually in the mountains.
Times change. Today, deer seasons in both states stretch from September to January with a host of options available, depending on how much sport you want. Modern firearms seasons still open in November, but in the meantime deer hunters in both states can pick from archery and muzzleloader seasons that crowd the calendar from late summer to deep winter.
And they no longer have to travel. Mornings before work and afternoons before supper, archers slip into quiet patches of suburban woods to sit in a tree for an hour or two and watch the sun come up or go down while scanning below for signs of whitetails on the move.
Archery season began two weeks ago in Maryland and opens Saturday in Virginia. With the ongoing explosion in deer populations, particularly in close-by suburbs around Washington, bowhunters can find success within a few miles of the city.
It gets easier all the time. Where once rules discouraged hunters from taking anything but antlered deer, they now encourage and sometimes even require them to crop off abundant females in a bid to slow the growth of deer herds. Bowhunters, once a handful of grizzled woodsmen following the legendary big-game archer Fred Bear, are suddenly everywhere.
For a while this trend alarmed many outdoorsmen, including me. Archery is a tricky skill, not easily acquired. The worry was that untrained clods would wander the woods with poor equipment, wounding deer they then might be unable to find or falling out of trees and injuring themselves.
But bowhunting has come a long way. Today's compound bows and the arrows and broadheads they propel are accurate, quiet and powerful; tree stands and the gear needed to get in them and stay there are much improved. They still put you 12 or 15 feet up in the air, a perilous place to be, but properly installed they're unlikely to give out beneath you.
"These people [bowhunters] are very serious and sophisticated," said Bob Duncan, director of the Wildlife Division of Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "Those that are doing it are doing it very well."
All of which convinced me to take up bowhunting again. It was not an impulsive choice. Two years ago, I tumbled out of my tree stand like some untrained clod and broke a wrist that took 11 months and a bone graft to heal.
They say you have to get back on the horse that threw you, but I was in no hurry. The bow hung on a peg in the basement all last season, then this fall I got the itch again and when I took it out for some target practice in the backyard, I hit the bull's-eye from 10 yards, 20 yards and 30 yards, time after time.
Monday morning found me up a tree in deer-rich Howard County, watching the familiar yet perpetually gratifying spectacle of gray light creeping in among damp tree trunks and listening for the snap of a twig or shuffle of leaves to announce the arrival of a doe or buck.
Deer are crepuscular, which means they move best at dawn and dusk. They feed at night, then bed down during the day to avoid predators. Hunters try to catch them on the way back or forth from the fields and my tree stand was ideally placed, at the edge of a thicket just 100 yards or so from a grassy field.
It was a pleasure to hear the birds wake and watch the squirrels root for acorns. At 6:41 a.m. it was light enough to shoot but no deer came. Two hours later I was startled to see a four-legged, furry creature appear soundlessly beneath my feet. I reached for the bow before realizing it was a red fox, which ambled off into the brush. Three hours flew by. Then it was time to go to work.
It was a nice reminder of how enjoyable time in a tree can be even when nothing happens, when you have nothing to do but sit and watch and think--no food, nothing to read, no radio, no phone, no place to go, no distractions.
Perhaps that helps explain the allure of bowhunting, which attracts almost twice as many people in Maryland as it did 20 years ago, according to state figures. The Free State's 47,000 archers spent 618,000 days in the field in 1997, about 14 days a person, and about 40 percent of them bagged a deer. In Virginia, about 60,000 archers bought licenses in 1998, but only about 28 percent brought home a deer.
(Interestingly, Maryland bowhunters took 16,300 deer last year, about 1,000 more than archers in Virginia, where the overall annual deer harvest of nearly 200,000 far outstrips Maryland's 1998 tally of 73,570. Game managers attribute the disparity to the fact that much of Virginia has a long, seven-week modern firearms season for deer, which may keep bowhunters out of the woods.)
Whatever the success rates, bowhunters have the woods to themselves in Maryland and Virginia for the next several weeks, until early muzzleloader seasons open in both states. You won't hear them, for they make no noise; you won't see them, for they dress in camouflage, head to toe; you won't smell them, for they are sticklers about cleanliness, deer possessing an incredibly keen sense of smell.
But they're out there, watching, waiting.