||Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton
Changing Seasons in the Life of a Hunter
In the winter, when they become tired of carrying those heavy, useless weapons, they lay in the bleakest and coldest spots they can find till their horns freeze, and, in a week or two after, become loose at the head.
—Meshach Browning: Forty Four Years of the Life of a Hunter, 1859
Meshach Browning, Maryland’s most heralded outdoorsman, missed the mark on whitetail deer and their antlers, referring to them as horns, which they are not. There’s a difference, but I forgive him for his error, attributing it to his times, when wildlife biology, indeed basic knowledge, was in its infancy.
The dropping of antlers comes not by freezing but as part of the annual cycle of deer. They are shed in mid- to late-winter, so that new and usually bigger ones can grow atop their heads. But Meshach Browning — who moved westward from Frederick County to Garrett County not long after colonial times — was right on many other things, thanks to his understanding and appreciation of wildlife and nature in the the mountains of Western Maryland.
Browning is said to have harvested between 1,800 and 2,000 whitetail deer in his lifetime, but it is not because of his prowess as a hunter that once again in the first week of December I will make a pilgrimage to his grave-site just north of Deep Creek Lake, where the legendary nimrod hunted for food for the table of family and friends, and for hides that put money in his pocket.
To the Hunting Camp I Go
Deer season in Maryland by tradition starts the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Deer no longer limit their range to the deep woodlands and the mountains of Garrett, Washington and Allegany counties. Because there is no longer any need to travel to the traditional hunting grounds of Western Maryland, or perhaps the lower Eastern Shore, increasing numbers of Marylanders hunt from their homes rather than distant deer camps. For many hunters of these times, venison is available not far from their back yards. More than a few get their deer right in the back yard.
But for this writer once again, home is not where the heart is during deer season, despite its comfort and convenience. Nor will I be among those who journey from his home to woodlands, marshes and fields to spend time or money in the pursuit of whitetails. No sir, not me.
Instead, my prime deer hunting effort will be in the mountains of Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties, where one mountain in particular will top my list. Overlooking Deep Creek Lake, its name is Roman Nose and it is among those tromped by Meshach Browning in the early to mid-1800s. Only once since I arrived in Maryland in 1956 from the flatlands of Nebraska, where I edited a small newspaper, have I not journeyed to Western Maryland to join those on the deer trail — and that was due to bypass heart surgery a week before the season’s opener.
Listless as I felt in my last days at the hospital, I yearned for the deer camps 140 to 200 miles to the west: the camaraderie, the poker games, the getting away from it all, the mountain hunting — and my pilgrimage to Meshach Browning’s grave, which I still view as a shrine for Maryland’s outdoorsmen.
To Hunt But Not to Kill
Meshach’s goal each day he set out from his cabin not far from Deep Creek Lake was to kill, for to do so meant food and income in a region where poverty reigned. Me, I’m different, but only because I’m of a different era. I have the wherewithal to put food on the table, and I buy what I need or want without potting a fine buck, bear, wolf or panther.
Also I have spent more years on this planet than did Meshach Browning. With age, lost is much of the macho vibes within mind and body. As that occurs, there is so much more appreciation of what one sees, hears and feels when on the trail for deer or any other wildlife. There is no pressure to bring home venison, fowl, or other game. It’s just being there that’s important. Younger hunters will find this hard to believe, they’re gung ho. But grant them more decades afield, and most will understand.
My old journals show that over the years from Vermont to Alaska, I have, harvested 117 big game animals bearing horns or antlers. Though that’s only a fraction of Meshach Browning’s score, it’s more than what any individual is entitled to in a lifetime. The past dozen years, I have come home both empty handed and fearless of scorn from my colleagues afield. I am as satisfied as the fellow hunter who has his picture snapped with a 10-pointer of 250 pounds.
I have had my chances, many of them, to lower my 50-caliber Thompson Center blackpowder weapon or my 30-30 carbine. But at the last moment I have let the fine buck continue life. These days, that deer has made my day by just being there. By watching it, I have come to appreciate its being and have learned another thing or two about its wary patterns, bringing home fodder for columns and articles I write for other hunters in this and other publications.
These days when I watch a deer approach, whether it be a buck with a fine antlered spread, a doe or perhaps only a small “uneducated” button buck, I appreciate its very life. Watching it come within range, I have become familiar with it and see it not as roast of venison, a mount on the wall or a kill to brag about at the checking station. Instead, the short period of familiarity brings to mind the notion that that creature is somewhat like me; it would like to go on living.
Oh, the time may come when I will be tempted as at a distance I see a galloping buck with a trophy rack. There will not have been that brief closeup encounter during which I have looked into its eyes and appreciated its niche in my hunting experience. I’ll handle that temptation when the time comes.
Horn or Antler?
As for Meshach Browning’s attribution of horns to deer, allow me to explain the difference. Horns are permanent, never shed like antlers. They’re what cows have, as do musk oxen, big-horn sheep, mountain goats, bison and antelope. They continue to grow as long as the animal lives; they are made of keratin, found in claws, hooves and fingernails.
Antlers are pure bone, produced by the fastest bone growth known to science. They sprout from the heads of bucks during their second summer and are dropped six to nine months later with new ones to start with the formation of “velvet” the following summer. Seeing how fast they grow, Mother Nature in her curious and wise ways dictates they be discarded in late winter; otherwise an adult deer would within a few years be so top-heavy that hunters would need neither guns nor bows to harvest them. Deer and other antlered wildlife (such as moose) hunts would be like plucking blueberries.
Good hunting in the traditional way.