The 2005 deer season for this Maryland nimrod ended almost as soon as it began. I was perched in a tree in the Howard County woods at 5:40 a.m. on opening day last weekend, awaiting dawn on a quiet, chilly morning.
I'd managed to dunk one boot while crossing the creek and the wet foot was starting to go numb in the 22-degree cold when a faint rustling in the leaves signaled the imminent arrival of either squirrel or deer.
Slowly I squared to face the scratchy sound. In moments a gray-brown ghost appeared, prancing gently through the dim-lit leaf duff. It was smooth-head, either a yearling doe or young buck with no visible antlers. In suburban Howard, hunters are not just allowed but encouraged to take does in an effort to reduce the burgeoning herd there.
That suits me, since I hunt venison for the table, and nothing makes better table fare than a tender yearling. The deer was cautious but so was I, and when it stepped behind a tree trunk 20 yards away, I raised and steadied the shotgun and was ready to click off the safety when it popped out the other side.
So at 6:50 a.m. on opening day, the deed was done and the annual quest was over. It took an hour or so to field-dress the doe and drag it a half-mile across the creek and back to the truck.
The weather remained relatively cool, so I let the deer hang in the shed behind the house for two days. Monday evening the dog and I went out back and I spent another hour or two skinning and butchering. Into the freezer went two tenderloins, six rump roasts and three big bags of cubed stew meat. The bones and hide went back in the woods for the foxes, raccoons and field mice to nibble on.
It's legal in Maryland to take several deer per season. I may get out again this week, but once the freezer is stocked it's hard to get enthusiastic about sitting in a tree stand in the cold, usually for several hours at a stretch.
Statistics show that most deer are taken on opening day when the game is less wary and hunters are everywhere, but that has not been my personal experience. I'm in an unfamiliar position this year -- done and dusted with two weeks to go in gun season. I'm using the unexpected free time to do something rare in our fast-paced world -- think!
So as another memorable year in the outdoors winds down, here are a handful of random thoughts from a guy who gets paid (modestly) to think them up:
* ON THE RIVER: It's time for the whitewater paddling community to stop prattling on about how safe its sport is. Every time something awful happens on the river, paddlers maintain it was just bad luck and that whitewater kayaking and canoeing are safer than driving on the Beltway. Two young, highly competent and much-loved Washington area paddlers lost their lives on big water this year. It's irresponsible to blame their loss on mere bad luck.
The Washington area's spectacular whitewater is a gift to those who live here but it is not without serious peril. Complacency is the enemy. "Every death on the river was avoidable and should have been avoided," says Barbara Brown, a veteran paddler. She speaks the truth.
* ON THE BAY: It's time for someone to take a stand on the proliferation of fishing tournaments that reward anglers for killing large rockfish returning to the Chesapeake each spring to spawn. Last year thousands of these pregnant cow rockfish were killed in cash contests during early trophy seasons in Maryland and Virginia. Both states should regulate this nonsense out of existence, or at the very least get it under control, since supposedly conservation-oriented fishing clubs and organizations are too busy running the tournaments to do it themselves.
My vote goes for a ban on spring cash tournaments and a system of trophy tags allowing anglers one large rockfish apiece per spring season, to protect our premier sport species from overexploitation in the crucial spawning period. In fact, why not do as Florida does with tarpon and establish an extra permit and fee for those who want to kill a trophy fish?
* ON POLITICS: Maryland has a chance to hold some well-shod feet to the fire in the upcoming gubernatorial election. The state went from having one of the nation's most environmentally responsive governors (Parris Glendening) to one of the least (Robert Ehrlich). With dead zones expanding on the Chesapeake and urban sprawl claiming marshes and fields at a torrid pace, hard questions are in order for the three aspirants -- Ehrlich, Doug Duncan and Martin O'Malley.
Duncan and O'Malley pledged their commitment to environmental issues at a session of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters in Annapolis last week. Ehrlich, who earned a grade of D+ from the league for his environmental policies, was invited but didn't attend. Wonder why?
* ON FLETCHER'S: One of Washington's finest outdoors institutions, Fletcher's Boathouse, survived a shift from 150 years of family ownership to control by the big government concessionaire GSI. Somehow GSI pulled it off without a hitch, getting the fleet of old wooden rowboats up and running for spring fishing season on short notice. GSI now is building some replacement boats while promising to maintain the old. Give 'em a hand, they've earned it.
* ON OLD DOGS: This was the year we said farewell to Kramer, our old black Labrador who died at 13. He could no longer stand up and was in pain from tumors when I took him to the SPCA, where a nice young woman helped me carry him inside and said, "We'll take care of it from here."
I patted his weary old lovable head, walked outside and cried like a child.