Burton on the Bay:

Changing Times on the Whitetail Trail

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it can sure help. If Swiss lore is authentic, had William Tell not practiced back in the early 1300s, his son would have been in a heap of trouble.

Increasingly, deer hunters who don't practice not only don't get their venison, they don't even get to hunt.

Many states, Maryland and Virginia included, now require those who participate in special hunts to prove they are proficient with their weapons. Flunk the mandatory test, and you stay home where your bad shooting won't leave wounded game.

You might say it's a matter of hitting a target of paper or metal before you earn the right to try for the real thing. No longer does just passing a hunter safety course guarantee one the privilege of participating in many special hunts designed to thin overpopulations of deer.

Some hunters get the surprise of their lives, as I have noted the past several years. Eric L. Wee of the Washington Post witnessed the same thing last week as 140 hunters tried to prove they were marksmen enough to hunt whitetails in two Great Falls parks.

Having been lucky enough to have their names drawn from among 1,200 applicants, they were at the last hurdle - and supposedly luck was to have no role in the "finals." Most hunters passed, but among those who didn't were a few whose confidence level was above what it should have been.

Imagine how those experienced hunters who flopped felt when 42-year-old Linda Brooks, nervous and with no hunting experience behind her, stepped to the firing line with her new 12-gauge shotgun, tried to calm herself - and succeeded.

When she fired, the recoil knocked her off balance, but she put 11 of her shotgun's 15 pellets into a 14-inch square paper target at 25 yards. She said she wanted to get into hunting and thought the best way to do so was to join in the special shoot.

But her qualification represents the exception. Maybe she's a natural shooter, or maybe she was just lucky.

Four pellets in the target were required for passing

Though special hunts in Maryland don't involve scattershot, as will be used in the Great Falls hunt, they do include shotguns loaded with rifled slugs sometimes known as pumpkin balls. With each shot, there is just one projectile, much bigger and with a more effective impact on big game.

In Maryland, hunters can also qualify with muzzleloaders, and with these primitive weapons there is also one projectile. Bowhunters qualify with their bow and arrows. Some use more traditional bows, but the handicapped are allowed a longbow, which I believe was the choice of weapon when William Tell made his historic shot.

Never Let Facts Ruin a Story

We've all read about Tell. A fierce independent, he refused to comply with the demand of Gessler, the Vogt of Uri that he, like other Swiss, pay homage to the symbol of authority - a cap on a pole.

Tell saved his skin via his marksmanship when Gessler demanded he shoot an arrow into an apple atop his son's head. I read about it as a kid in grammar school - what a thrilling tale - but as I grew older, I assumed the story was something akin to Washington's tossing a silver dollar across the Potomac.

But recently, while watching some bowmen try to qualify for special hunts, I recalled the epic of William Tell & Son and decided to look it up. Sure enough, it was related in the two-volume Bonanza's History of the World, in which I read: "William Tell, like Robin Hood, is a legendary national hero, and yet there is nothing particularly unlikely about his story."

I searched the remainder of the entry, and other volumes, but found nothing to back up the exciting folklore encore to his remarkable shot.

The old book I read told of how Tell drew two arrows from his quiver. When the first struck true, he was asked by Gessler "why the second arrow?" He is said to have responded that had the first struck his son, the second would have been for Gessler, which infuriated the Vogt, who promptly ordered Tell imprisoned.

Talk about guts. But there was a happy ending. While being taken by ship to prison, Tell made a mighty leap to shore, later to ambush and kill Gessler. Was it with that same second arrow?

Never let facts ruin a good story.

Practice Makes Perfect

So much for history long past. Let's return to more modern times, like a few years ago right here in Anne Arundel County at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, where it was decided by the staff and DNR deer managers there were too many deer on the property and a special hunt was needed to avoid more habitat damage.

The mandatory weapon was shotgun with rifled slug, and hunters had to qualify. The test was to place three of five shots in a 9-inch pie plate. Surprisingly, about 40 percent flunked.

What a wake-up call. The flop rate has dropped considerably since then for that shoot and others. Hunters turned to practice, which Publilus in the First Century B.C. wrote "is the best of all instructors."

In most qualifying rounds, muzzleloaders must place two of three shots in a pie plate at 40 yards; bowmen must place their arrows - three of five - at ranges of 30 yards or less. If the hunters pass, they are allowed to participate in hunts for the year. Then it's back to renew their eligibility the next year.

DNR's Vic Maccallum, supervisor of outdoor education, said once the hunters fail, there are no more chances for the year. They're out. Oh, yes, regardless of experience, qualifiers must also have proof of having passed a hunter education course - even those old-timers grandfathered into the law that generally exempts those hunting before 1977.

Many entering the field of hunting - and Maccallum says they range from ages six to over 70 - wait too long for their hunter education courses and find them filled. Spring and early fall classes are the best to ensure enrollment, he advises, and those interested can call 410/974-2040 for a schedule of courses - more than 200 with 6,000 to 7,000 enrolled.

It's the same with marksmanship qualifications: Fail to take or pass the course and stay home by the fire while others hunt.

As for marksmanship, I'll never forget my introduction to blackpowder muzzleloader hunting. I showed up at a DNR range in Howard County with a new muzzleloader I intended to use in the winter season.

With instructor Phil Waggonbrener looking on, I poured powder, rammed patch and 50-caliber ball into the barrel, took aim at a target at 40 yards, fired and saw a hole half in and half out of the small bullseye.

I was jubilant, but not Phil. "Let me adjust the sight," he said. "Just a tad, and you're on the bullseye dead center."

"No thank you," said I. "That's close enough; let's leave well enough alone. As my old Yankee forbears said. 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'" Several weeks later in Charles County, I had a fine eight-point buck. The less than an inch "off center" adjustment has never been made.

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VolumeVI Number 3
January 22-28, 1998
New Bay Times

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