QUEPONCO - Last week's thaw didn't seem much like fox-hunting weather, but you'd never know it watching two dozen members of the Wicomico Hunt Club on horseback chasing a noisy pack of hounds over flat fields of corn and soybean stubble and slogging down logging roads and trails in the woods.
Some burned up precious vacation time; some are lucky enough to work Ocean City resort jobs with reduced hours during the off-season. Others are self-employed or retired, their time their own.
However they manage it, every Wednesday and Sunday from Thanksgiving to Easter, come rain, snow - or, worse yet, temperatures in the 70s - hard-core fox hunters will be following the hounds.
"I've been hunting since I was 15, and I've got the job of the century," says Cindy Wood, controller for Ocean City's Kite Loft chain. "I work three days a week during the winter, five and one-half during the summer. What could be better for somebody who loves to ride, whether we see a fox or not?"
This time, the hunt did not go well. Nearly four hours into the chase, huntsman John Dean blew sharply on a bronze horn, calling in the 39 baying hounds that had scattered into a dense swamp near the Pocomoke River - treacherous territory for horses and riders.
Following an on-again, off-again scent, the dogs had strayed a couple of miles from the 1,500-acre spread of fields and woods where club members, pounding across the countryside astride 1,000- to 1,500-pound thoroughbreds, had hoped to glimpse a scampering red fox.
"It was a bad scenting day, I guess," says Dean as he gathers the panting pack into a trailer that will haul his horse and the dogs back to his Centreville farm. "They hit a couple tracks, but nothing solid."
Hamilton P. "Ham" Fox Jr., the club's 82-year-old hunt master, agrees this was a disappointing outing - "provided anybody can complain about a 70-degree day in January."
This time, he says, the dogs were confused by unseasonably warm temperatures that scrambled the scent of their furry prey.
Fox, who started hunting in 1929, says the sport ought to be called "fox chasing," since the object is not to kill the animal but to leave it alive for another day's hunt. Only rarely, he says, does the club hear complaints from animal-rights advocates.
Ordinarily territorial animals that will run in a predictable 2- to 6-mile circle when chased, foxes begin to roam during the late-winter breeding season. Mild temperatures might prompt that behavior a month or so earlier than normal, Fox says.
"Ideal conditions for fox hunting would be a nice heavy frost and temperatures in the 30s," says Fox, a retired Salisbury lawyer who served two terms as Wicomico County's prosecutor. He has been the club's hunt master nearly 40 years.
Despite the freakish weather and an ailing hip that forced him to follow the hounds from a sport utility vehicle instead of on horseback, Fox says times are good for the Wicomico hunt, one of nine still active in Maryland.
"We have a pretty interesting range of people - professional people, retirees, working-class people. We don't have an elitist mentality about fox hunting down here," Fox says. "They've been running foxes on the Eastern Shore since the 1600s and we enjoy being part of that." (No one's asking the foxes if they enjoy it, but they were imported to the Shore from Europe in Colonial times to provide sport for hunt-happy planters.)
Decked out in riding hats, tall boots and crimson wool "pinque coats" (named for a Revolutionary War-era tailor who bought up surplus garments left by the British army), the group travels all over Delmarva and occasionally across the bay for joint hunts with other clubs.
Members are always on the lookout for a willing landowner with at least 500 acres who is willing to accommodate riders, horses and dogs.
"One of the hardest things is finding and keeping landowners who'll give us permission to hunt," says Jerry Senter, a chicken grower from Fruitland who got hooked on fox hunting more than 30 years ago, when he married his wife, Carolyn, a veterinary assistant. "That was when I first learned to ride. If I didn't hunt, I'd be sitting home by myself."
Injuries are a fact of life for fox hunters - although Eastern Shore riders concede that the level confines of the peninsula are less hazardous than hilly terrain in the rest of the state.
Every year, somebody wins the less-than-coveted Seat Belt Award - hunters win one point for falling, two for sustaining an injury, three if an ambulance is called, four points for a trip to the hospital.
"In this sport, things can go from totally boring to terrifying in a matter of seconds," says Senter.
Members own their horses and pay $350 annual dues to cover Dean's salary and dog food and veterinary expenses; the latter item is usually minimal since six members are veterinarians.
The sport can be an expensive addiction, admit riders such as Jane Rhoades, who for years has served as a "whipper in" - the person responsible for cracking a whip or firing a blank pistol to keep the hounds moving forward together.
Women, in fact, dominate the sport. Men are outnumbered nearly 12-1 in the Wicomico club. Boys, members say, generally lose interest in horses once they learn to drive.
"I've been riding since I was 5 and hunting since about 15," says Rhoades, a 62-year-old Denton homemaker. "It gets in your blood. I have three kids, all grown now, but I planned my pregnancies around fox hunting."