THURMONT -- Some 120,000 deer hunters in Maryland go into the wood from Worcester to Garrett counties with great expectations during firearms season each November. Generally, two of three hunters come back empty handed.
Meran Kline, a taxidermist from Foxville, came back with two deer, a pair of bucks taken Thursday and Friday from virtually the same spot on 150 acres of private land atop Catoctin Mountain in northwestern Frederick County.
For Kline and probably the majority of longtime Maryland hunters, the tail of firearms season, which closed statewide yesterday, held the best hunting.
"The first part of the season, the weather wasn't real cooperative," Kline said Friday morning after checking in a 77-pound spike buck at the Mountaingate Service Center on Route 15. "It was almost too warm. The first day [a week ago Saturday] was real windy, and a lot of hunters I talked to didn't even see any deer."
The warm weather held through Monday and Tuesday, and Kline held off from serious hunting until after the weather began to change Wednesday night and Thursday morning, when a cold front moved through the state. At 8 a.m. Friday, the temperature held at 32 degrees.
"Usually, you get a weather change -- rain or cold weather, something like that -- it seems to improve things. The deer get more active," Kline said, brushing back the thick hair on the flanks of the 100-pound, six-point buck he had taken Thursday afternoon.
"Take these deer when it is 70 degrees out and they have their winter coat, they're not going to move much because they're going to get hot, plus they don't burn up as much energy.
"You put a big fur coat on when it is 70 degrees, you're not going to move too much, either."
At the start of the firearms season, Josh Sandt, who manages the state's deer program through the Department of Natural Resources Forest, Park and Wildlife Service, said that perhaps only the weather would keep Maryland hunters from a second successive record harvest.
The FPWS makes its counts on opening day and after the close of the season. Sandt was not available to comment Friday. The harvest from firearms season was expected to be between 38,000 and 40,000 deer statewide.
Mark Hooper of the FPWS Central Region office said Thursday that the deer harvest was off and attributed the decrease to imperfect weather and generally poor hunting conditions.
But judging from the slow parade of whitetails brought into Mountaingate Friday after Kline checked in his spike buck, hunting had picked up as quickly as the temperature had dropped.
Kline is a pleasant, opinionated fellow who has hunted Maryland for 25 of his 36 years. As an avid hunter and taxidermist, Kline said, he remains close to the state deer herd and wonders whether hunting regulations are as effective as they might be in controlling the health and welfare of the whitetail population. But he also readily admits that changing them would be bucking a tradition.
"I killed two bucks, and I had two buck tags," Kline said. "But in my opinion if they want to control the deer herd, they are going about it in the wrong way. If they are going to let a person kill two deer, it should be mandatory that the second deer be a doe. The bucks are being killed off at too high a rate."
That high kill rate, Kline reasons, results in what he calls an improper ratio of bucks to does in the wild.
"The perfect ratio is one buck for every 3 1/2 does," Kline said. "But a lot of areas around here [Frederick and Washington counties] and other parts of Maryland -- Allegany County, Garrett, for example -- you got one buck for every 15 to 20 does. That is not good."
If there are too few bucks, Kline said, it extends the rut, or season of breeding excitement among deer.
"All the does in a given area should already be bred," Kline said. "But what is happening is that does are coming back into heat for a second time, and if a doe isn't bred this time, she will come into heat once more."
In a worst case scenario, Kline said, that could throw the breeding into late January or early February. Breeding that late would create fawns toward the end of the summer rather than preferred births at the start of May. Fawns dropped in May stand a far greater chance of surviving the next winter than those dropped in late summer or early autumn.
"Just like me, everyone wants to kill a buck," Kline said. "But what the hunters are doing is throwing the balance off."
It follows that if the more mature, 3 1/2 - to 4 1/2 -year-old bucks are being harvested by hunters, then younger, inferior bucks must be responsible for the breeding. In a natural setting, it also follows that genetics may begin to deteriorate when the strongest do not survive to breed.
"It is just dyed-in-the-wool that you kill bucks and that shooting does is a bad thing to do," Kline said. "But if you could get the ratio back in line, in just a couple of years you would see the quality of the bucks coming back, you would have a higher percentage of bucks in the woods and the hunter success rate would still be just as good.
"But you also would start to get everything back in balance like nature intended it to be."