* A muzzleloader's prayer: Let the cold weather continue, the colder the better -- within reason.
The Maryland primitive weapons deer season opens Saturday, and the outlook is excellent barring any repetition of wet weather that so adversely affected hunter success in the recent modern firearms shoot. Temperatures below freezing will rule out rain while also prompting deer to move more during the day.
Can it be that 1991 will be a repeat of last year when bowhunters and muzzleloaders set records, which more than compensated for a disappointing modern firearms bag? In the end, the '90 combined modern firearms, bow and primitive weapons bag was a record 46,317, thanks in part to 8,605 taken by bowmen, and another 4,636 downed by muzzleloaders who once again have a little something extra going for them.
Their season is a long one, 13 actual shooting days -- quality days, I might add. Gone will be the crowds who roamed the woods and fields during the shorter modern firearms hunt, an estimated 125,000 or more of them. Muzzleloading is a fast-growing sport, but last year there were only about 35,000 buffs out trying a la Daniel Boone. This year, figure on a couple thousand more.
Rainy or wet weather is the biggest problem for the front-end loaders. Dampness and black powder hunting don't mix, and keeping one's powder dry when everything else is wet is more of a challenge than bagging a trophy buck. Saran Wrap, plastic sheeting and some commercially available gadgets help a bit, but eventually the dampness can work into the charge.
When that happens the primitive weapons buff hears that dreaded sound -- a click when he pulls the trigger, or perhaps just the puff of a percussion cap firing. The resounding boom and black smoke is missing. It's even worse for those who prefer flintlocks and their open-spark ignition system.
In addition, muzzleloaders have other disadvantages. Their range is appreciably greater than that for a bow, but considerably less than that of modern rifle. Even worse, there is only one shot. Rare are double-barrel muzzleloaders, so from a practical point, one gets only one chance.
I have turned to muzzleloading exclusively, and as much as I have practiced, the fastest I can reload is 15 seconds -- and that's under ideal conditions with all the paraphernalia all laid out before me and ready. One doesn't have that advantage afield, and even if he did, a deer can be long gone in that time.
Despite this handicap, there is a fascination about muzzleload hunting, the challenge and the pleasure of hunting as one's forefathers did, and the satisfaction of giving the game more of a chance. Maybe muzzleloaders -- like bowmen -- are a bit smug in a folksy way, but they have every right to be. It's a great sport, and despite its handicaps, one in every 7.5 muzzleloaders bring home the venison.
In that the season is long, muzzleloaders need not be confined to a specific area or two. They have time to try different places -- and it's easier to get muzzleloading hunting rights. For those still considering their options, following is a county rundown in order of hunter success last year:
Garrett, 790; Washington, 597; Frederick, 553; Allegany, 550; Carroll, 253; Baltimore, 207; Kent, 193; Charles, 191; Queen Anne's, 141; Cecil, 133; St. Mary's, 119; Anne Arundel, 114; Montgomery, 109; Talbot, 107; Howard, 95; Dorchester, 87; Harford, 81; Calvert, 67; Caroline, 61; Worcester, 52; Wicomico, 48; Prince George's, 45; Somerset, 43; Harford, 0 (military installation kills at Aberdeen Proving Ground) are not included in county counts.
In those kills, 1,020 were antlered; the remaining 3,616 were mostly does. With muzzleloaders it's hunters choice. New this year are regulations that allow muzzleloading handguns in all counties, though they must have a barrel of at least 6 inches, be of at least 40 caliber, and loaded with a minimum of 40 grains of powder.
Also, bowhunting is allowed during the muzzleloader season that continues through Jan. 4. For additional information see Pages 27 through 29 in the Guide to Hunting and Trapping in Maryland.
* Sunday: Mountain Club of Maryland hike of Gettysburg Battlefield. Call 335-2146.
* Monday: The Ward Brothers collection of waterfowl art will remain on display through this date in the Holloway building at Salisbury State University, then close until April when it will reopen at the new $5.2 million Ward Museum of Wildlife Art, also in Salisbury. Call 1-410-742-4988.
Planning ahead ...
* Jan. 15-20: Washington Boat Show, Washington Convention Center, call 1-703-569-7141.
* Jan. 18-26: Eighth annual International Auto Show, featuring many vehicles suitable for outdoor pursuits, Baltimore Convention Center. Call 385-1800.
* Jan. 23-26: Mid-Atlantic Outdoor Sportsmen's Show, Maryland State Fairgrounds, Timonium.
* Jan. 24-26: Delaware Sportfishing Show (featuring Delaware Bay fishing), NUR Temple Shrine, New Castle, call 1-301-841-6974.