Checking in their prizes, hunters' smiles say it all



November 25, 2001|By CANDUS THOMSON

The weather wasn't bad, the hunters were up to the task and the deer were game.

What more could you ask for on the first day of modern firearms season?

Thousands of hunters waited patiently yesterday at check stations across Maryland to document their success as measured in pounds, points and pelts.

"We've had some sprinkles, but it hasn't dampened anybody's spirits," said Doug Hotton, who helps oversee deer management for the Department of Natural Resources. "A lot of the bucks taken are good-sized, older deer, which says that the hunters are being more selective."

Hotton was checking deer at Bowen's Grocers in Snow Hill. By mid-afternoon, the station already had processed 100 deer - 62 antlered and 38 antlerless - the largest running about 180 pounds.

Rob Jepson was three hours late for work at Anglers Sport Center in Annapolis, but he brought his excuse with him: a 10-point, 170-pound buck, with antlers that measured 21 inches across on the inside of the rack.

Jepson shot him at about 8:30 from a stand at the mouth of a creek in the southern part of Anne Arundel County, a piece of property he had been hunting without much success for a decade.

"This definitely wasn't a part of the plan, but it was a pleasant deviation," he said. "He's a dandy. I'm tickled pink."

The meat was already in the freezer by early afternoon, with the head on the way to the taxidermist today.

"I'm happy to be a member of the Big Buck Club," said Jepson, smiling. "Bragging rights? You bet. I'll milk it for all it's worth."

At Foster's Country Store, the only check station in Howard County, the staff was busy all day. Bill Davis, whose family owns the store, said they usually average 100 deer on the first day, "and I suspect we'll be over that."

DNR staff at Foster's had checked a 180-pound buck, and several 9- and 10-point bucks.

"It looks like a good year," Davis said.

Modern firearms accounted for 48,248 of the 84,776 killed last year. Bow hunters and those using muzzleloaders almost evenly divided the rest of the total.

In Garrett County, state biologists checked 136 deer at three stations by mid-afternoon.

"We had a 149-pound, 8-point - a real nice animal," said Harry Spiker of the Western Maryland office. "You grow 'em bigger back east, but this was a nice one."

Venison for the needy

Josh Wilson sits in the back of a Hagerstown church in a cubicle smaller than some hot-shot executive's desk. His assistant, Tammy Brown, occupies a similar cubbyhole nearby.

The space is tiny, but the outreach is immense.

Wilson and Brown operate Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a 4-year-old nonprofit group that funnels venison from the woods to food pantries statewide.

But FHFH has an overload problem: "We've got all the deer we can pay for," Wilson says ruefully.

You see, FHFH gets plenty of deer from generous hunters during bow, muzzleloader and firearms seasons. What organizers need is the money to pay for the butchering - $35 an animal.

In other words, FHFH needs help from NH - non-hunters.

Some of the money to process the meat comes from $1 donations hunters make when they purchase their annual Maryland licenses. But some folks forget and I know from personal experience that there are shops that automatically assume you don't want to spend the buck.

Last year, license donations dropped, says Wilson, while the number of deer - especially those killed with crop-damage permits - increased.

"That put us in the lurch," says Wilson. "We had to pay some butchers on the installment plan through late spring."

It also meant Wilson had to cut off donations of crop-damage deer this year.

We're talking a lot of venison for the needy. In Maryland, FHFH put 58 tons of deer in food banks and pantries in 1999 and 61 tons last year. Nationally, the group has spread to 25 other states, giving FHFH a total distribution of 750 tons of venison, or 6 million meals over the last four years.

In Maryland, hunters take their deer to one of 26 butcher shops participating in the program. Locally, those shops are: The Butcher Barn and Thompson's Meats and Eats in Baltimore County, Sam's Processing in Carroll County, Bowman's Butcher Shop in Harford County, Boarman's Meat Market in Howard County and Laurel Meat Market in Prince George's County.

They can donate some or all of their kill. If they donate the entire deer - which yields, on average, 50 pounds of meat - FHFH pays the butcher $35. Wilson says that makes venison a bargain at 70 cents a pound vs. the market price of beef.

As their surroundings indicate, the folks who run FHFH keep it simple. They use space donated by Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church and have a monthly budget of about $9,250.

Wilson's dad, FHFH founder Rick Wilson, runs the national program from his home.

"I think it's neat that we can do what we do without becoming top heavy," Josh Wilson says. "But our butchers are working on a shoestring for us, and we've come to realize that we can't rely on the $1 donations to carry the day."

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