Anthony Tanner, a Howard County park ranger, bagged a six-point… (Baltimore Sun photo by Candus…)
Austin's Deer Processing is hard by BWI Marshall Airport and a stone's throw from Arundel Mills on a bend in the road that really makes you slow down and pay attention.
While folks were winging their way home after a visit with relatives or fighting mall traffic for those must-have holiday gifts, lots of hunters made the turn off Ridge Road and into Austin's the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the first day of Maryland gun season.
There was a sense of purpose this year as hunters raced to put deer in the freezer as a way to pinch pennies. Venison - free range and lower in cholesterol than beef - leaves money free for other things.
"In this day and age, it sure does," Christie Holland agreed as her husband, Neile and his cousin, Shawn Maher, filled out paperwork for the seven-point, 150-pound buck they shot near Mount Airy.
They were up at 2:30 a.m. and left the house at 4 a.m., long before the sun gave a hint of the beautiful day ahead.
They had hunted the same public tract before and saw a lot of signs of an abundant deer population.
Just after sunrise, "we got lucky," said Neile, who lives in Glen Burnie. "He was 60 yards to the right and a little below us in a creek bottom.
Maher, using a 12-gauge shotgun he borrowed from his cousin, put the buck down with a single shot.
"We're going to get something to eat, and then we're going back out," Neile said.
Last year, state hunters bagged 100,437 deer, a 9 percent increase over the previous season, with slightly more than half of them taken during the two-week firearms season.
Brian Eyler, head deer biologist for the Department of Natural Resources, said he expects hunters to match or exceed that total this year.
Anthony Tanner, a Howard County park ranger, arrived at Austin's with a six-point buck just after 10:30 a.m. He quickly placed his order with Kristin Trossbach - three sticks of bologna, one pound of jerky, butterfly loins and ground meat - as he agreed with Eyler's assessment.
"We're expecting a big harvest. We need one," Tanner said. "The deer have plenty to eat. They're eating us out of house and home."
The father and son team of Dennis Bryant, junior and senior, arrived with nearly identical eight-point bucks taken in Howard County near Route 97 and Interstate 70. The younger Bryant scouted for a week and, as he put up his tree stand Friday, he called to tell his father he saw both bucks.
"He said he had the exact right spot," said the smiling father. "I guess he did."
Joe Joicy and hunting partner Steve Weissner showed up with two bucks taken in Beltsville.
"I got jack," said Joicy, who managed a smile even though the deer he dragged in belonged to his son, T.J. "We're going to grab a sandwich and go right back out. Hopefully, I'll be back here for me next time."
Hunter after hunter came in to report that they had seen many more deer besides the one they shot and sensed many more hunters in the woods.
"It was like the Fourth of July. Boom, boom, boom, all around me," said William Frey of Pasadena, who brought in a doe, his second deer of the season. "I need two more to fill the freezer. Times are hard, but this makes things easier."
Lots of hunters talked about browse lines higher than last year, as hungry deer stretch to reach foliage and bark about five feet off the ground.
Charlie Lewis helps a Pasadena neighbor keep his deer population in check and donates much of the venison to Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a program that supplies food banks and pantries with the help of butchers such as Austin's.
"I wish they could do more. It's a good program," Lewis said.
The Hagerstown-based group, in its 12th year, gives deer butchers $50 to process each animal donated by hunters. Statewide last season, 2,489 deer were processed into 124,450 pounds of ground and cubed venison for 497,800 meal-sized servings. Austin's alone donated 1,400 pounds of venison to the Anne Arundel County Food and Resources Bank, according to executive director Bruce Michalec.
Trossbach said donations at Austin's were running a little bit behind so far this season.
"It's started slow, but I think it's because hunters are filling their own freezers first," she said. "We've still got time, so hopefully things will bounce back."