WITTMAN -- Michael Spencer and his 16-year-old son, Sean, weren't looking to make history when they drove down to the Eastern Shore from their Montgomery County home yesterday. But if the first Sunday of deer hunting in Maryland in 280 years was designed for anyone, it seemed perfect for them.
As Seventh-day Adventists, who celebrate the Sabbath on Saturdays, the Spencers, who live in Silver Spring, went to church on the opening day of deer season. This year though, like thousands of other hunters, they got in weekend shooting by taking advantage of a one-day reprieve from a state law that has banned Sunday hunting since the Colonial era.
"Ordinarily, we'd have to hunt on a weekday," said the elder Spencer, who stopped for breakfast at Wittman's Market in this Talbot County crossroads. "I bought a share of a lease to hunt on some private property down here this year, so this was ideal. It's really a great opportunity for us to come down and do something together."
The change in rules, sought for years by sportsmen, was approved by state lawmakers last spring.
Supporters of the Sunday hunt say that car accidents involving deer have doubled in the past decade, although no one has an exact number. The state's farmers say the animals cause an estimated $30 million in damage to crops.
"The deer population has gotten so out of control, it's changed people's minds about Sunday hunting," said Valerie Connelly, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Farm Bureau. "It's not just soybeans and corn anymore. It's fruit trees, and nursery and landscaping stock that's being destroyed."
With the Department of Natural Resources estimating Maryland's deer population at nearly 300,000, wildlife management experts say allowing about 75,000 licensed firearms hunters a crack at sika and white-tailed deer yesterday might help cull 100,000 or more animals from the overpopulated herd during the two-week firearms season. Bow hunters were allowed a similar one-day Sunday hunt Nov. 2.
"Maybe it'll turn out to be kind of a big yawn," said Doug Hotton, a biologist who heads DNR's deer project. "It's only a one-day deal, but we're hoping that hunters who planned on going out Saturday will make a long weekend of it."
While Saturday's gusty conditions appeared to have inhibited the normal movement of foraging deer, limiting the number taken by hunters, state officials hoped yesterday's hunt would boost the totals.
By 9:30 yesterday morning, Wayne and Kenny Phillips of Claiborne and their friend Harry Nelson of St. Michaels were hauling a four-point, 130-pound buck carcass out of the woods, draped over an all-terrain vehicle near Claiborne. They headed for the Wittman general store, the nearest game checking station, and planned to go back out in early afternoon.
The trio said they often work six days a week, making weekday hunting or even Saturday outings difficult.
"I'm going to try to get out the next two Saturdays, but you never know," said Wayne Phillips, 37, a car salesman who says he would like to see Sunday hunting extended through the season. "I think God would forgive us for taking a day off from church and work."
Yesterday was the only Sunday in which hunting is legal during the traditional two-week season for deer. Twelve counties -- Allegany, Calvert, Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Dorchester, Garrett, Kent, Queen Anne's, St. Mary's, Talbot and Washington -- agreed to the change, permitting deer hunting on private property. Most counties in Central Maryland and in the conservative Lower Eastern Shore opted not to allow the Sunday hunt.
Opponents of Sunday hunting, including animal-rights groups, some religious groups, horseback riding clubs and others, say hikers and outdoors enthusiasts should be allowed to roam the woods on Sundays without fear of stray gunfire.
"From our perspective, Sunday was the only day during hunting season without worrying you'll get your head blown off," said Cindy Wood, a longtime member of the Wicomico Hunt, a fox-hunting group. "But with this many counties excluded, including Wicomico, it lessens the impact. Maybe it is a decent compromise."
For the Rev. Robert Kirkley, a Methodist minister since 1952 and an avid hunter for nearly 60 years, the Sunday hunting ban represented the last vestige of Maryland's blue law restrictions on Sunday activities, rules that were all but eliminated in the 1980s. Kirkley was preaching yesterday, after spending all day Saturday in an unsuccessful attempt to bag a deer.
"I think it's an antiquated idea," said Kirkley, who at age 74 serves three small congregations in rural Dorchester County. "I think it discriminates against anyone who doesn't observe the Sabbath on Sunday. Everybody else is allowed to pursue their hobby -- fishing, boating, golf, whatever -- on Sundays. Why not hunters?"