Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
Chasing the Deer
How hunters look at Maryland’s resurgent ruminant
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here.
My hearts in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.
This writer’s heart is also in the Highlands a-chasing the deer, but the rest of me is up here in the lowlands of Riviera Beach sitting out the remainder of this state’s two-week season that closes Saturday. I spent a couple of days on the chase for a mighty stag, but the weather was against me in the mountains of Western Maryland.
For much of the first week of this year’s chase, the weather has been too warm. This works against the hunter, especially where the terrain is vertical. In the flatlands hereabouts, it matters not so much. Things are more than a bit different between hunting mountain deer in vast forests and those in suburbs of cities and villages.
Two different worlds, and I’d rather be in the other one.
Rating the Rack
In many places down this way, whitetails are heavier thanks to farmers’ crops and our vegetable and flower gardens. Development also plays a role. When woodlands are cleared, the consequent brush and new growth is high on the list of preferred food. Deer density is quite high, yet the whitetails grow fast and healthy. The healthier they are, the better the rack of pointed antlers bucks carry atop their heads.
Bragging rights are based on points. Four points or less is a deer; six points signifies a good deer, eight to 10 points is a fine deer, anything above that if the rack is high, wide and one side fairly matches the other is an awesome deer.
That’s when the measuring tape comes out to determine whether the rack might qualify for the state or world record book.
Serious hunters on the trophy trail can tell you the nickname of the most awesome bucks ever taken (Hole in the Horn, Old Mossy Horn and such), the hunter’s name, antler points, score of the rack, where and when it was bagged. They’re aiming to be among the elite hundred or so listed when the next record book comes out.
This year the name of Bill Crutchfield is familiar, seeing that he recently got a non-typical 26-pointer in Charles County. Many are also familiar with Vincent Lee Jordan, who made the world book with a non-typical buck taken in Talbot County, or John Seifert Jr., who shot his typical 12-pointer in Dorchester County in 1973. But ask them about the cream of the crop, the biggest deer taken in Maryland and the response: Duh.
For the record, Maryland’s heaviest deer was taken by Wayne Hall of Northeast on the last day of the 1970 season at Elk Neck State Forest. The 10-point rack challenged neither the state nor world record books, but the weight would have in most states. It weighed 362 pounds, a figure among whitetails that is comparable to Paul Bunyon among his fellow men.
If typical and non-typical in antlers prompts curiosity, a typical rack is one that we see the most of wherever we might be: the point spread balanced on both sides, a typical rack such as those pulling Santa’s sleigh. All antler points point upward and ahead. The look is symmetrical. Antler symmetry depends on genetics and diet. Old-timers say it’s mineral intake.
The non-typical rack is one in which the antlers protrude from the main stem up, down, sideways, every which direction. They’re not a very stately sight; some of them have so many spiny protrusions from the stem they’re referred to as cactus horns.
Back when I arrived in Maryland in 1956, most on the deer trail headed west to Frederick, Washington, or better still, Garrett and Allegany counties. Primarily, that’s where the deer were. It wasn’t until 1951 that any deer could be legally hunted east of Frederick County other than in six Eastern Shore counties.
The statewide harvest in ’51 was 1,152, which, and get this, is not much more than half what the journals of Maryland’s best-known outdoorsman, Meshach Browning, indicate he took in the early to mid-1800s. Last year, the statewide harvest was 94,052. What it will be this year depends on whether the cold weather came soon enough to make up for the unusual temperatures during the first week of the season.
In the mid ’80s when the state’s deer population really took off, deer were everywhere; no need to head for deer camps in Western Maryland or the lower Eastern Shore. Why travel when, before or after work, you can get bigger deer with better antlers practically in the back yard? The traditional deer camps in the mountains were doomed.
Mountain deer don’t have as much to offer as corn-fed deer hereabouts. They’re lean, so are their racks. They forage in forests, not on rich farmlands, and now much of their food is acorns. They have to travel to fill their bellies, and the more they travel the more vulnerable they are to the hunter.
When the weather is warm, their bodies don’t call for much energy. That works against the hunter, as it did to me. But some hunters prevail, like nine-year-old Michaela McCrobie who bagged a buck with an antler point for each of her years, her first deer. She shot it from a stand, following her father Robert’s advice, “Look at the body, not the head.”
Michaela helped in the field dressing of her exciting achievement; already her sister Abigail, 4, is asking her grandfather, Chuck McCrobie, when her turn will come. Hunting is a tradition in the mountains of Western Maryland, the stags need not be awesome. It’s the hunt, not the harvest. And that’s why my heart’s in the Highlands. Enough said.