A line of cars led to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge toll booths at 4:30 a.m., which means only one thing on a Saturday in late November: opening day of Maryland deer season. When I held out my $5, a warm gust of wet wind nearly swept the bill away.
"Careful," said the smiling toll-taker. "If that thing gets loose it'll be as hard to find as an Eastern Shore deer." Prophetic words.
Thirty minutes later I was dodging graceful does on the way into camp. They darted from thickets and streaked across the narrow lane that winds through oaks and pines. You learn the danger spots from years of making the trip. I had the high beams on and a foot on the brakes. No harm done.
Forty minutes later I was up in a tree stand making like an oak leaf. The hard rain that lasted all night was finally over, leaving pools on the forest floor. It was pointless to listen for deer; you would never hear them tiptoeing through the dampness. You had only your eyes to rely on, and a slow dawn arriving.
This time of year deer go from crepuscular to nocturnal. Crepuscular creatures creep around at the turn of the day and whitetail deer fit the description by moving silently at dusk and dawn between farm fields where they feed at night to woods where they bed during daylight hours.
That's the pattern, anyway. But when gun-hunting season opens, they quickly learn that danger lurks in the gray-light hours, when folks with shotguns sit in trees along deer travel lanes. So they go to their beds early and stay late, emerging to feed only when it's bitter dark.
Opening day is when they get educated and the day gun hunters do most of their damage. With the woods full of gunners and deer unaware of their presence, the first hour of daylight can sound like the opening of a war movie, with blasts from every direction.
But this morning was oddly still in the Talbot County woods, perhaps too wet and warm for deer to be inclined to travel much. I watched daylight filter slowly through the dripping trees. An owl's hoot announced the arrival of a dawn otherwise hard to discern, muted beneath a canopy of dark clouds stretching from horizon to horizon.
I saw a hawk swoop soundlessly below the tree limbs, hunting the mouse or vole bold enough to make a move. A flock of Canada geese made a racket getting ready to fly from some nearby creek where they'd rafted for the night. Wild swans joined the chorus with their high-pitched cries of "woo-woo!"
It was light enough to shoot at about 6:30 but I didn't hear the first distant volleys till 10 minutes later. They came in bursts, four or five at a time, so I knew they weren't coming from our little woodlot. Here, owner George Hughes has a one-shot rule: Hunters may load only one shell at a time to keep folks from blasting wildly at running deer.
Six of us were scattered around the Hughes woods. At 7:15, I heard the sharp, 'Ka-PANG!" of a single shot close by. I reckoned it to be either Terry Sirois or his son, Pierre, who were guarding the two nearest corners of the soybean field.
It was the only shot in our woods all morning. I never saw a deer, though I got a pretty good jolt of adrenaline when large creatures darted through the trees 100 yards away, dashing from one to another.
At first I thought it was a huge herd of deer bound my way, but why were they moving so quickly? Then came the chorus of clucks, putts and purrs that identified a flock of wild turkeys, 30 strong, flitting nervously in the leaf duff looking for something to munch.
They were gone as quickly as they came, but that evening when I set up to wait for deer to emerge for their nightly feed, the turkeys came back to roost around me and I listened to the most amazing cacophony of turkey babble anyone has ever been privileged to hear.
It went on and on and on, then stopped, then came back again, stopped, and came back some more--the noisy highlight of an otherwise uneventful day in the deer woods.
Terry Sirois indeed was the one who had shot at 7:15. He came lumbering into camp dragging a spike buck, a decent-sized 1 1/2-year-old deer that I recognized immediately. Ten days before, when Eastern Shore deer were still in their two-week-long mating rut and bucks were carelessly chasing does around, I walked up on the very same buck 50 yards from the place where Sirois shot it.
I remembered well the two, six-inch-long curving tines of his budding rack of antlers. He had a hangdog look that day, his nose down sniffing the trail of scent the doe had left behind. I surprised him at an opening in the woods. He stopped and I stopped and we had a two-minute standoff, 40 yards apart.
I had bow in hand with an arrow notched, but there was no way I could raise it without spooking the deer. He stared me down, stamped a foot to make me react, but I wouldn't. Still, he won. Eventually I made the first move, a baby step to see what he would do. He was instantly away, tail high and flagging, bound for the nearest thicket and safety. Temporary safety, anyway.
Modern firearms season for deer season runs through Dec. 11 in Maryland, followed by muzzleloader season Dec. 18-30.
In eastern portions of Virginia, the seven-week-long modern firearms season runs through Jan. 1. The shorter, two-week season closed on Saturday in western portions of Virginia.