Howard County's expanded deer hunt starts before dawn tomorrow, when hunters carrying muzzle-loading rifles are set to enter the woods at Columbia's western edge, set up their tree stands and wait.
The first three days of the expanded hunt at the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area off Trotter Road are for hunters using only the old firearms technology. Muzzle-loader deer season begins statewide Thursday, state Department of Natural Resources officials said.
"The idea is being out in the woods. It gives you more variety," said 20-year muzzle-loader hunter Marty Hays of West Friendship. He, like many muzzle-loader owners, also hunts with bow and arrow. They like the greater challenge, the more primitive weaponry and the longer amount of time in natural surroundings, several hunters say.
Confusion about whether deer killed in Howard's hunt would count against state-imposed annual bag limits pushed the county to include muzzle-loaders in its expanded hunt. Under state rules, a hunter may kill four deer with each of three different kinds of weapons - muzzle-loader, modern firearm and bow - in the Central Maryland region, which includes Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick and Baltimore counties. The other three hunting regions, the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Western Maryland, have differing limits.
Last week, state officials decided to exempt deer killed in Howard's expanded hunt from the state limits to encourage hunters to participate in Howard's hunt and a similar one in Montgomery County in January. The purpose of the Howard hunt is to cut the size of the county's deer herd and help reduce collisions with vehicles, damage to low vegetation and residential shrubs, and the spread of Lyme disease.
This year, Howard expanded hunting to include David W. Force Park, off Interstate 70. Hunts at the park and Middle Patuxent will run through December. Last year, hunters using shotguns killed 134 deer in the expanded hunt at Middle Patuxent. County deer manager Phil C. Norman said the goal this year is to reduce the herd more.
Howard has 111 hunters registered and qualified for the expanded hunt, but no more than 30 will be allowed to enter the woods on a given day. Last year, 97 were registered. All hunters are screened and interviewed. They must pass a marksmanship test and may not fire at a target more than 80 yards distant. All firing is to be done from tree stands.
Thirteen of the 39 expanded hunting days are reserved for hunters with single-shot muzzle-loading rifles, an increasingly popular way to hunt, said state deer project manager Paul Peditto.
The state maintains bag limits because deer populations have begun to stabilize in some rural areas, though deer are still too abundant in suburban areas in places such as Howard and Montgomery, where more homes make hunting a problem, he said.
Last year, Peditto said, hunters killed more than 77,000 deer in Maryland, 16,000 of them with muzzle-loading weapons.
"It's really personal preference. They are real accurate and real effective," he said of muzzle-loaders. Norman said using single-shot weapons "will slow down the harvest. A muzzle-loader is not as efficient a firearm."