OAKLAND -- Hey, the weatherman killed us with kindness. Give us back those frigid snowy days that so often panicked Western Maryland deer hunters and sent them hurrying back to their metropolitan area homes immediately after opening day shooting.
It was more like Dade County, Fla., than Garrett County, Md., as the '91 season started Saturday, but the hunter exodus was still evident -- though not prompted by snowflakes and fears of being snowbound. Instead they wanted to be sure their venison didn't spoil.
How balmy did it get? Would you believe the wind chill index was 111 degrees higher than on the opener a decade ago. Yes, 111 degrees.
I opened the 1981 season at Roman Nose Mountain with the mercury at 5 above zero, and the wind screaming through the trees at 35 miles an hour. By midmorning, the can of diet soda in my rucksack was frozen solid -- so were my feet. I wished for warm weather.
This year I got it. It was 68 degrees with no winds at 9:15 a.m. when Donna Bettinger of Oakland checked in the first deer of the season at Johnny's Bait House. It was a 2-point buck of 100 pounds dressed.
Sixty-eight degrees with no breeze compared with 35-mile winds at 5 above figures out at a difference of 111 wind-chill degrees, said Fred Davis, chief weatherman at BWI. And what a difference it made.
Hunters didn't have to keep moving to keep warm; when hunters don't move, deer move less. And it was warm across the state, getting well into the 70s in more easterly and southern sectors.
The opening day deer kill reflects the difference. This year it was 12,582; last year, 15,485. However, don't despair, deer seasons have a way of averaging out -- and we still might well reach the predicted 35,000.
"We've got the main ingredient -- deer," said the Department of Natural Resources' forest wildlife chief Ed Golden at his Cumberland office late yesterday as the rain poured outside. The rest is up to the hunters, many of whom were discouraged by yesterday's rain, with more expected in some areas today, with possibly some light snow in the western counties.
But Davis said weather will be dry and cold by the time the season ends Saturday at sundown. Saturday, the fields and woods should be loaded with hunters.
There was much shooting the first few hours I was afield with Dr. Larry Stafford and Chuck McCrobie, but as soon as light rain began to fall, the shooting slacked, and the wet forest floor allowed game to slip about silently. We saw only does.
But there were many unusual sightings for a deer season opener in the mountains -- grasshoppers, mosquitoes, spiders, and such. Missing were squirrels. While much of the state enjoys a great mast crop, nuts are scarce out here where the drought hit the hardest, so bushytails have little to hunt for.
The first two days of the season were marred by seven mishaps, all but one on the Eastern Shore. John Lee Evans, 39, of Baltimore was flown to the Shock-Trauma Center with a shoulder wound received when mistaken for a deer at Hebron. Charges are pending against another hunter.
Two hunters fell from tree stands, two shot themselves in the foot, two others shot themselves in the hand. Yesterday a hunter was found dead in Kent County, but DNR Police said death appeared to be of natural causes.
Opening day deer kill
* Listed below is the county-by-county breakdown of this season's opening day deer kill:
Allegany 1,404; Anne Arundel 120; Baltimore 408; Calvert 163; Caroline 200; Carroll 768; Cecil 493; Charles 461; Dorchester 772; Frederick 1,110; Garrett 1,453; Harford 283; Howard 176; Kent 814; Montgomery 369; Prince George's 162; Queen Anne's 540; St. Mary's 309; Somerset 267; Talbot 332; Washington 1,139; Wicomico 273; Worcester 556.
Hardest hit by the weather was Allegany County, down 1,038 from 2,442 on the '90 opener. Allegany was tops for the entire '90 season with 3,737. Garrett, second last season, was down nearly 300 this opening day; Washington was down 200.
If you think the overall decline might indicate fewer deer, consider that bowhunters had taken 8,504 in their lengthy season going into Saturday, which was 804 above last year at the same time. Last year's bow-season total was a record-breaking 8,605, so bowmen are assured of another record when their season resumes for another month afield.