If anyone had told me a month ago I would go through Maryland deer season without seeing a deer from my stand--not a buck, not a doe, not even a little fawn piddling around in the underbrush--I would have laughed out loud.
But here it is, a week after modern firearms season and I'm deerless, shotless, without even an active sighting to boost my spirits.
I did not keep careful track, but I must have spent at least 24 hours in tree stands overlooking some of the hottest-looking trails in the state, gun in hand, mornings and evenings. Before that, I'd spent at least 16 hours in similar settings with bow and arrow. Yet to this moment, I have not seen the first tail wag or ear flicker from my various perches, let alone felt my heart thump as a big old buck came rambling in, which was the plan.
Disappointed? Certainly. Upset? Not really.
By about the middle of gun season I came to the conclusion that luck simply wasn't with me this year. "That could change in a minute," said Paul Peditto, a valued hunting partner, as well as chief of Maryland's deer management program.
True enough. You sit in a deer stand and wait and wait through silent nothing till you're on the brink of quitting, then look up and here they come. Utter unpredictability is the sport's chief attraction, and I knew if I kept at it long enough, eventually a deer would happen by. Then again, it might not. Sure enough, this time it didn't.
I put my portable stand up 12 feet in an oak tree next to an Eastern Shore thicket so shot through with deer trails, deer scat, buck rubs and the like, you'd think deer were having a party there every night. But opening day came and went without a leaf disturbed by the shuffling gait of a whitetail. Folks had shots near me and some got deer. Not I.
I hunted George Hughes's woodlot near Wye Island hard that first week, but deer always get spooky after opening day and tend to move more at night than during the day. Every time I drove over there I caught deer in the headlights, scampering across the road. A couple of times I had to slow to let them pass, which seems comical when you're intent on bagging one. I could easily have bagged my limit with the bumper, but that's obviously not what it's all about.
I've brought home a deer every year for the past 10 or so, sometimes two. We like the meat and like to have friends over to share it. I'm not interested in big deer or trophies on the wall and we certainly could live without venison, though I'd rather not. The truth is, I like the hunting. It may be the only time of the year I get to sit quietly for three hours in a beautiful place with absolutely nothing to do but keep still and watch the sun come up or go down.
What sorts of things do you see? This year I saw a comet. Well, maybe it was a shooting star, but if so, it was the biggest I'd ever encountered by far. It etched a long, bright trail that hung for 30 seconds in a black, cloudless sky after the fiery ball at its head expired. Another hunter was with me, we were about to hike into our stands, and he caught the tail end of it, so I know I wasn't imagining things.
One day four Delmarva fox squirrels had a war in an old oak tree in front of me. They are an endangered species--big, pale-colored bushytails--but they didn't act endangered as they chased each other up and down, onto the ground and back up, knocking each other out of the branches as they squabbled and frantically grabbing on to twigs to arrest their falls. It went on for 15 minutes and made me howl, which probably scared a half-dozen deer away.
I was nearly overrun one evening by a flock of wild turkeys that roosted 50 yards from where I sat. Hens clucked and gobblers gobbled. What a racket! I couldn't see the birds through the thicket but guessed there were 30 or so, which proved about right when I climbed down out of the stand prematurely to go for a look, no doubt scaring away a dozen more deer away. The turkeys took off running when they saw me coming.
One night, walking back in the dark from yet another successful evening of doing nothing, I heard the unmistakable "Bzzzt! Bzzzt!" of woodcocks on the ground. I strode into some thick cover and the wary, brown migrating birds with the long beaks started exploding from the ground, erupting into flight with a whistling sound of wind over their wings.
Mornings I listened to goose music from assembled flocks. Once a red-tailed hawk swooped through the trees directly under my stand. Not too many people get to watch hawks hunt from above. Meantime, mallards and black ducks quacked away contentedly on the creek. I didn't see any foxes, but sometimes you do.
I hunted through the fog and wind and cold and on still, warm mornings when deer would have little reason to move. I got up day after day at 4 a.m. to be in the stand before first light. My wife kept asking me why I was going and I had no sensible answer.
Except that every day when I walked out of the woods, I felt considerably better than I had when I'd walked in.
Modern firearms season for deer is over in Maryland, but late muzzleloader season opened yesterday and runs through New Year's. For the second year, the nonprofit organization Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry is accepting donations from Free State hunters who take more deer than they need. FHFH pays handling costs for whole deer brought to meat processors around the state and has distributed more than 40 tons of venison to homeless shelters and needy families already this season.
FHFH's goal is to provide 1 million meals this year. For information on how to donate deer or how to make a tax-deductible donation to defray the processing costs, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call 301-582-4806 or send a check to 216 North Cleveland Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740.