Burton on the Bay:

A Day in the Life of a Hunter


Town Point, md-Accompany me into the into the maze of vines, brush, brambles, tall pines and oaks on the spongy shores of the Little Choptank in Dorchester County, where Maryland's 1998 modern firearms season is only minutes away.

I have pursued this extraordinary sport for 65 years, spending perhaps 500 days afield from Maine to Alabama to Alaska.

Rise with me in the kid's room of the summer waterfront cottage of Baltimorean Dr. Larry Stafford, my cardiologist and another lifetime deer hunter. In 10 minutes the alarm will jangle, but on opening day, anticipation awakens me.

In the bed next to mine is Larry's father-in-law, Bill Vodacek of Crest Hill, Ill., who is past 80, and like me, is already awake. There's the usual ritual. In our skivvies, we dash to the porch to check the weather; it's 40 degrees, too warm for the chase of deer, but one has to make do.

There's not much talk as we gulp down hot oatmeal. We each have our own agenda, as was discussed over smoked salmon and baked rockfish with crab last night. In silence we fine-tune our own plans in the more than 40 acres we will hunt on the Stafford spread near Town Point.

Deer signs - droppings, tracks, rubs and scrapes - were observed late yesterday. There are unsuspecting deer all around us. Larry will take to a high tree stand on the water's edge, Bill will take his usual ground post near where two fire trails meet and hope a fine buck passes. I'm a different kind of hunter.

I prefer to meander, to walk and stalk walk quietly a few minutes, then stop a few minutes and wait, then walk again. Not only is it good exercise, but there are times a deer will hunker down when a hunter approaches. Then when he stops, the deer fears it has been discovered and bolts.

That's when one gets a shot. Sometimes as one walks, the deer bolts: the possibility for another shot. Also, I know where Bill and Larry are hunting and have planned my course accordingly. My approach might send a buck to them.

We can take either buck or doe, but Larry is particular: he wants one with fine antlers. Bill is more of a waterfowler, so with deer he'll take what comes along. Since I got my first deer at age eight, 116 more have joined my personal scorecard, so I don't know what I want - if anything. I just want to enjoy the woods and the chase and drink in my surroundings. About the kill, I am ambivalent.


Change of Heart

Five years ago, while I was pausing at a willow oak near where Bill is once again posted, a fine buck of eight points poked its head through the brush not 30 yards away. With him was a large doe. With my 50 caliber muzzleloader, it would have been an easy shot, but I watched too long.

I associated with that buck out taking a stroll with the doe. Finally, he was aware of my presence, we eye-balled each other for a moment - it was not too late, but I declined.

He was a magnificent creature; our encounter was enough to make my day. My freezer back in Riviera Beach was filled, so I made no move. I hoped he would move on close to Bill, who is yet to get his first deer.

He didn't, Bill went deerless, and that evening - not wanting to appear to be growing old and soft - I spoke vaguely of a deer that might have wandered his way.

I want my next deer to be one at a distance, perhaps a running shot, certainly not a deer with which eye contact is exchanged. Before I care to shoot, our meeting would be impersonal, the firing of my gun almost instinctive, with no time to become 'familiar' with my quarry or realize I am making the final decision on the life of something almost as big as I.

Perhaps I am getting soft, yet as I meander through the woods, I root for the success of my companions. I realize deer must be thinned out for their own good and that of other wildlife dependent on the habitat shared by all - though I shirk my responsibility in deciding which should be culled. Maybe an outstanding buck with an awesome antler spread will change all that.


Moseying the Woods

Before daylight, as I mosey about the woods, the trees are black against the first light. Restless geese call on the water; they are thinking of taking to wing. For three years they have enjoyed a moratorium, but next year could have a short season.

In the distance at 6:20, I hear the first shot from across the river, one shot, which probably means the hunter got his deer.

Soon there will be many more shots from all directions. As the skies lighten and trees now turn green against them, I am startled by an explosion almost underfoot. I have flushed a covey of quail.

Soon, many geese are flying overhead, off for the mid-morning feeding. Their breasts and underwings seem almost white from reflections of the sun. Forest birds flitter in the bushes I push through, but where are the squirrels? Hereabouts, Larry has seen even the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel, but I see none.

There's not a cloud in the sky, and it's getting warm tromping through thick stuff. The thermometer on the rucksack over my shoulder indicates 55 degrees and headed to 68 before it recedes to 54 by sundown.

On the grasses bordering the bog I hunt later are dandelions in bloom, I count five of them - and this is deer season, deer season in the Year of El Niño.

I drop by Bill's stand; he has seen nothing. Several hundred yards away, I see Larry in his blaze orange attire watching and waiting, but I don't approach. So intently is he watching the woods line of the Little Choptank, I think he could be waiting for a deer he has spotted for just the right shot. Any closer and I could spook it, and such things aren't taken lightly in deer camp.

At lunch break there is crab soup with a little talk about the non-events of opening morning. Larry, who usually scores on the first day, hasn't seen a thing. The thermometer reads 65 and rising, and I sweat as I head back into the woods. At the edge of the swamp, I flush a deer far ahead.

I brush a tick - a tiny brownish deer tick in deer season - from my wrist. Why, that's unheard of, but it's the second of the day this season of El Nino. Towards sundown, I stop much more than walk so I can watch geese return to the Little Choptank.

Then, I listen to the raucous calls of crows or enjoy sun-glistened holly berries in the thicket as bluejays dart to and fro. I've almost forgotten why I'm here or that I should be moving on if for no other reason than send a deer to my companions.

Dinner is butterflied venison steaks cooked tender and juicy over charcoal by Larry, and it's the last from his freezer, which we've done little to restock for the year ahead. But I'm not concerned. It has been a great day, a successful day - though perhaps only those who experience it can understand.

Just another day in the life of a hunter. Thanks for coming along.

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VolumeVI Number 48
December 3-9, 1998
New Bay Times

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