He got away…again!

*This article of mine originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2023 issue of InsideMD magazine

Hunting season has finally arrived. Well, officially anyway. In my mind the season is always present. Hunting is a hobby; a passion of mine along with many of the other 88,000 men, women and children who hunt in Maryland each year. According to Maryland Department of Resources data those 88,000 hunters (19,000 of which come from out of state) spend a whopping $266 Million annually on various equipment and licenses with a total ripple effect including taxes, salaries, and wages generating over $400 million annually for the Maryland economy. Maryland, often described as America in Miniature, contains a variety of habitats harboring many huntable game species. From the large expanses of forested mountains in the west to the rich agricultural land and broken woodlots to the East, one can pursue the Whitetail Deer, Sika Deer, Geese, Birds, Ducks, Turkey, Black Bear, and small game species such as squirrel, rabbit, and fox to name a few. Along with this variety of game animals to pursue comes generous bag limits allowing for several animals to be harvested. Long seasons in which to pursue your chosen quarry with an array of weaponry add to the popularity of the sport. Maryland seeks to please every type of hunter with opportunities to hunt Whitetail Deer & Sika Deer from September to early February with either archery equipment, Firearms (including muzzleloaders and handguns) to a special primitive weapons season in early February. Primitive hunting devices are defined as longbows, recurve bows, flintlock, or sidelock percussion muzzleloaders. Turkey hunting now has a fall and spring season due to a successful trapping and relocating program that has increased the population of Turkeys statewide.  Turkeys previously only had a huntable population in the far western mountain counties.

Maryland boasts over 300,000 acres of huntable public land scattered over many state parks and wildlife management areas throughout the state. Statistics from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources illustrate the popularity and success of hunting in Maryland with hunters harvesting a total of 76, 687 deer and 5, 356 wild Turkeys last season. Harvest numbers are up 8% and 27% percent respectively from last year’s totals. Deer and turkey are the only game species requiring check-in via phone within 24 hours of a harvest.

Maryland is also home to many hunting clubs that lease private land where they enjoy rich traditions of hunting year after year at deer camps started decades ago and enjoyed down through several generations. Groups of public land hunters enjoy these traditions at their favorite annual spots as well. The anticipation of the hunt and camaraderie with family and friends still lead to many sleepless nights on the eve of a hunting trip. I have been very fortunate to belong to one of these clubs for over forty years and the memories made and experiences shared with my family and friends during our common pursuits have formed a strong foundation for the person I am today.

Eager to do my part once again as a hunter and contribute to this year’s harvest numbers, the weather finally cooled enough for my first trip afield in late September. With crossbow in hand, I headed out to my favorite 100-acre patch of woods in Carline County that I lease with four friends on the Eastern Shore. I had the woods all to myself that day and after consulting the weather for wind direction, I made my plan. I had put in countless hours scouting the woods for food sources, travel corridors, and trails where these gorgeous creatures of habit frequent. Putting the pieces of a deer’s daily travel puzzle together is a challenge that creates the thrill of the chase that keeps me coming back year after year. Being in the right place at the right time may get you a sighting but it does not guarantee you a successful harvest. One must also fool and evade the deer’s senses of sight, smell, and hearing which are far superior to ours. Success requires a mountain of patience, total awareness of the environment around you, and a good amount of luck. When it all comes together, the moment can overwhelm you with emotion. On this cool, clear September afternoon my plan was simple. Find the first trail crossing with fresh signs of consistent use, settle in a spot downwind of said trail, and wait. I began walking along a ditch that runs along the backside of our property searching for a spot where the deer were crossing into or out of the woods. Approaching an area where deer have historically crossed, I found what I was looking for. A path about a foot wide carved out of the ditch on both sides appeared among the tall grass and cattails. Closer inspection revealed the pointed hooves of deer tracks crossing the ditch in both directions. I smiled as I felt that familiar buzz of excitement and anticipation that never gets old. I backtracked about 15 yards downwind of the trail and walked into the woods another 30 yards to a spot where I could sit and watch for any deer using the trail. I was settled in my spot by 2 pm to get acclimated and tuned in with the sights and sounds around me. Experience and research have shown that deer travel mostly during dusk and dawn so I had several hours to sit back and soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of the early autumn woods. With the aroma of leaves and pine needles saturating the air, I leaned my head back to drink in the vivid colors of green, red, yellow, and brown leaves outlining a vivid, clear blue sky. Birds and squirrels revealed their presence with songs and chirps while hopping through the leaves and twigs on the forest floor. My camouflage and discipline to stay still seated at the base of an oak tree allowed for close viewing of these creatures, sometimes just a foot or so from my body. As the afternoon slipped by my focus was sharp for any signs of approaching deer. The sun was slipping behind the trees and the woods were starting to dim when I caught a flash of movement about 30 yards to my right. I could not see the animals’ head but a large deer was quickly approaching my ambush spot. I had little time to react as the deer seemed to be on top of me without making a sound. When the deer was behind a tree a mere 15 yards away, I attempted to draw up my stretched-out legs to have a rest to help steady my weapon for a shot. The deer did not materialize on the other side of that tree to meet my arrow. Sensing, hearing or maybe seeing me move, the deer made a sharp left-hand turn and was now 15 yards directly to my right. The majestic 8-point buck looked just as surprised as I did, and gave me just enough time to admire his long antler tines and impressive size before he turned and disappeared with two other deer I had not yet seen. With two bounds all three were gone before I could even think about releasing the safety on my crossbow to attempt a shot. The vision of their namesake white tails bouncing away from me would haunt and entertain me for a long time to come. I smiled and began the brutal process of reviewing the encounter in my head for the mistakes I made. The pain of my mistakes was quickly replaced by the joy of experiencing such a rare up close and personal encounter with a mature whitetail buck.  Although I didn’t score, my planning and scouting paid off by rewarding me with this unforgettable experience. With the likelihood of seeing any other deer now gone, I gathered my gear for the walk back to my truck. The sunset was underway with an explosion of colors contrasted against the dimming woods and now black trees. Enjoying nature’s art, I thought about this young season and how if it ended today, I would consider it a success. Not bad for the first time out this year but the special months of October, November, and December were just around the corner bringing with it the crazy antics of the breeding season where anything could happen at any time. When love is in the air, we animals can do some crazy things! I’m looking forward to the show. As you are traveling around Maryland these next few months you may notice an increase in trucks and campers hauling four-wheelers and other outdoor equipment on their way to or from their happy hunting places.  You may also notice an orange blob here or there traversing a field or entering a patch of woods representing a safe hunter finally getting out to enjoy some time in the outdoors. Having the good fortune of harvesting a deer in this beautiful state for the family freezer or local food bank is purely a bonus to getting out there. Good luck to everyone hunting this year. Enjoy your precious time outdoors, be safe, and shoot straight!

InsideMD is a subscription-only print magazine published quarterly. Publisher James Nelson (jim@insidemd.net)