Those who hunt deer with modern firearms have had their season, and beginning Saturday, muzzleloaders get their chance.
They are expected to do well in Carroll County and the remainder of the state.
The hunt is a long one of 13 shooting days, closing out Jan. 4, with primitive-weapons buffs expected to once again set a new record.
Last year, the statewide bag was 4,640, with a record 253 taken inCarroll. Ten years ago, the state count was 303; only eight of them in Carroll.
That's how smokepole shooting is growing in popularity. It has become an important factor in deer management planning, saidJosh Sandt, who heads wildlife management for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Not many years ago, both bow and muzzleload hunting for deer didn't amount to much in overall deer management, added Sandt, but currently the two hunts combined produce kills nearly half that of the modern firearms season.
"Bow and muzzleloader hunts are important considerations, especially in counties such as Baltimore and Carroll," explained Sandt at his office in Annapolis.
In farmlands, deer are considered woodlot game. They spend most of their lives in small patches of woods adjacent to farms where they do much of their feeding.
In modern firearms seasons, when the pressureis significant, they either congregate in large herds, or spread outand hide. As hunter presence continues after opening day, they become difficult to locate.
Then, when the season is over, suddenly they are back.
The muzzleloader shoot is different. Though Carroll County is among the top in resident primitive-weapons buffs -- and has a kill that ranks fifth in Maryland -- the pressure is relatively light when compared with the modern firearms season.
Sand said the "low-density hunter presence" doesn't frighten deer and push them out of sight as it does in the big-gun hunt. Thus, hunters have more of a chance to score -- and an extra week in which to do it.
Though they have added opportunity, muzzleloaders have their handicaps, two of which play a big role in their sport. Rain makes things tough for modern firearms hunters by prompting deer to lie low during the day and reduces the presence of hunters who don't want to get wet and uncomfortable
The muzzleloader buff can endure that disadvantage, but worse, wet weather can mean misfires. The worst thing a primitive-weapons buff can hear is the click of the hammer falling on a cap that has become too moist to spark or the puff of a fired cap that sends a spark to powder too damp to blast out the ball or slug.
Among those who go all-the-way primitive with flintlocks instead of percussion-capmuzzleloaders, chances of misfire are even higher. Saran Wrap and other plastic-based coverings over firing mechanisms might keep out theraindrops, but atmospheric dampness is another matter.
Keeping one's powder dry is an uphill fight -- and not infrequently in wet weather, the primitive-weapons shooter loses. Even in good weather, misfires are not rare.
And regardless of weather, the typical muzzleloader hunter endures the handicap of one shot. A few muzzleloaders use double-barrel shotguns with pumpkin balls and slugs, but most use rifles. They usually get one shot -- and range is more limited than withmodern rifles.
I have been a muzzleloader buff for years, have practiced loading hours on end, and the fastest I have ever reloaded has been 15 seconds. In that time, a deer is usually long gone.
Making one shot count and living in the tradition of hunting as it was with our forefathers is what muzzleloading is all about. That's why I like it -- and that's why I have given up all modern firearms in hunting.
Anything from doves and grouse to rabbits and deer is a targetfor my Thompson Center New Englander which has interchangeable 12-gauge and 50-caliber barrels.
In deer season, muzzleloader hunting is the best of the best. Fields and woods are less crowded with hunters. Sandt figures that's one of the most important reasons many are turning to the sport -- in addition to the extra season if affords them.
Sandt said there might even be a decrease in modern-firearms deer hunters as more turn to the bow and the smokepole
"I'm glad to see it, and the special season at the time of the holidays," he said. "It is becoming a sport in which kids are getting more involved. Theyhave some time off from school for quality hunting, a time when father and son can shoot together, learn the ethics of hunting -- and with one shot."
As for the modern firearms season, it's history -- good history, though it fell short of the predicted 35,000 because of three days of rain and another of high winds. The kill, which is stillbeing adjusted slightly, was about 29,500, the third-best ever and down a couple thousand from last year.
Carroll County ranked seventh, down from fifth last year, but it still was the third-best ever inthe county.
The Carroll bag was 1,723 as compared with 1,818 lastyear and 1989's record of 1,870. The kill included 912 antlered bucks, 182 button bucks and 629 does.
Now, let's see what the muzzleloaders can accomplish.
1980.. .. .. .. 244
1981.. .. .. .. 322
1982.. .. .. .. 351
1983.. .. .. .. 466
1984.. .. .. .. 532
1985.. .. .. .. 583
1986.. .. .. .. 850
1987.. .. .. .1,001
1988.. .. .. .1,215
1989.. .. .. .1,886
1990.. .. .. .1,818
1991.. .. .. .1,723
NOTE: Total number of deer killedin the firearms season since 1980
SOURCE: Maryland Department of Natural Resources
PRIMITIVE-WEAPONS BUFFS HAVE 13 SHOOTING DAYS