Taking aim at video beasts Sport: In a modern twist on an ancient skill, shop patrons use bows to shoot arrows at animals on a screen.

March 12, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

MONKTON -- Forget running with the wolves, drinking with the boys or touch football in the park.

True bonding occurs nearly each night in the back room of a Parkton sporting goods shop where groups of hunters stand attentively before the Gods of Video with bows drawn.

Welcome to The Hunt, '90s style.

The pack of nearly 100 men -- and a few women -- has found a modern twist on the primitive art of bow hunting: a backwoods hunt league that lets them shoot at video images of deer, bears, turkeys and even giraffes, while feasting on marinated venison tenderloin, grilled sausage, ice cream sandwiches and Goldfish crackers.

"This is my exercise," said Bobby Hall, a 37-year-old hunter from Aberdeen, who drives to Parkton to unwind. "It's a nice little back-to-nature experience."

What happens in the rear of the J. D. Hunting Supplies store, located off York Road north of Hereford in rural northern Baltimore County, is as old-fashioned as it is cutting-edge.

The small country store draws hunters who in their spare time are plumbers, mechanics, computer technicians and even a taxidermist, all eager to take shots at a foam-backed video screen with colorful, handmade arrows.

They stand at the edge of a 20-foot tunnel and aim blunt-tipped arrows at videos of wildlife that portray animals surely more plump and tempting than anything wandering by a real-life stakeout in the woods.

Hushed and still, they shoot while trying to block out the crunching background sound of crackers being consumed by jovial colleagues.

As the arrow flies, it triggers an infrared sensor and computer to track its course. If the arrows hit just right -- Splat! -- a red bull's-eye pops up, representing 10 or 12 points. The computer records the hit and tallies the score.

"It's nice to have this camaraderie with a bunch of people," said Bruce Wehrle, an auto mechanic from Phoenix who joins the J. D. indoor hunt each Thursday. "Life is such a fast pace now that, for one hour, it's nice to slow it down. To get away from the everyday grind for a night out."

The league is a haven for sportsmen from winter's harsh weather and a way to shoot out of season, sharpening their skills indoors with the help of the Dart Target System, a $50,000 computerized hunting tool.

Similar indoor computerized hunting systems have been installed in Essex, Darlington, Hagerstown and McHenry, near Deep Creek Lake, as the video hunting systems have grown in popularity nationally.

At J. D.'s, it costs $10 for a 30-minute shoot -- if you can get past the awkwardness of aiming a weapon at a film.

The league pays off, too. The highest score at the end of competition draws a trophy and bragging rights. And hunters may enter the Big Buck Challenge, a chance to win $100,000 in cash, prizes and hunts as part of a national video hunting competition those at J. D.'s can begin taking part in March 22.

"Yes, it is funny shooting at a screen," said Ken Wehrle, Bruce's brother, who also hunts in J. D.'s indoor league. "When you first shoot, it's awkward. It's shooting into a dark tunnel, and not normal conditions. But you get used to it."

At J. D.'s, hunters stand in line to shoot at the screen. On weekends, reservations are required because the lines are so long.

"These are regular customers, but they are all friends of mine," said Jerry Dewese, owner of J. D.'s, who left a career as a longshoreman at the Dundalk Marine Terminal to open his busy store. "This range is super busy. The hunters like the realism of it. It's a sport they can get involved in."

Dewese said 335 hunters paid to shoot at the screen in January -- an increase from the 197 customers who shot in January 1996.

"It's friendly competition," he said. "Even bikers who come in here off of the hiking trail on weekends who are anti-hunting believe it's a worthwhile system."

The only fresh kill ever made inside J. D.'s was a tiny mouse who ran across the end of the darkened tunnel during a video shoot and met its untimely death under the foot of Bruce Wehrle.

"It's a good time out here," said Mike Zink, one recent Thursday night. "Yes, it's competition and we look at scores, but it's no big deal."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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