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James Drake

To say that the modern firearm season for deer is popular with many hunters is just like claiming most dogs would enjoy a juicy steak bone.

We all know there isn’t a chow hound that’s ever barked who wouldn’t happily take that leftover T-bone out of your hand, and darn few hunters pass on the opportunity for a little deer hunting during the firearm season.

This time right now is what occupies many of our dreams all the rest of the year.

We’re into it now, but there is plenty still ahead for this season that began Nov. 24 and doesn’t close until Dec. 8. There is even an open bonus firearm hunt Southern Marylanders may enjoy on Jan. 4 and 5.

The bag limits in our part of the state are most generous, too. Hunters may legally take one antlered and 10 more antlerless deer during the modern firearm season. It’s even possible to get one more special bonus antlered deer to make it an even dozen.

Such liberal limits are a magnificent testament to successful deer management and also, in no small part, to the white-tailed deer’s ability to adapt to our modern environment.

It wasn’t always this way.

I'll admit to being old enough now to collect social security. When I first seriously started to hunt deer back in the 1960s, it was considered a successful-good-lucky-triumphant day if you even saw a single deer. To actually bag one and fill your tag was really something very special to any hunter.

One single antlered deer was the absolute total bag limit for many seasons.

Short of inventing a time machine, there’s no way to get a truly reliable historic population estimate, but when the first European settlers arrived in Maryland, there is evidence they found ample white-tailed deer for their needs.

Before that, the Native Americans hunted deer in all seasons and the resident wolves and mountain lions had their fair share during the year as well.

Unregulated hunting and the destruction of natural habitat caused the deer herd to decline in the 1700s and 1800s.

By 1900, Maryland had only a small handful of deer in the most remote sections of Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties, and deer hunting was finally outlawed throughout the state in 1902.

In the 1920s, Maryland purchased deer from neighboring states and released them into special deer refuges.

The first modern Maryland deer hunt was held in 1927 in a very small area of the state and five bucks were killed by hunters. The legal hunting area expanded a bit in the next few years and by 1932, a total of 32 bucks were taken by all Maryland hunters.

By the mid-1950s, deer hunting was allowed all over the state and a little over 1,500 deer were taken during a typical year.

The deer population continued to expand and in 1957, the first antlerless deer were allowed to be killed during firearm season, but only in Wicomico and Worcester counties.

After that, the Maryland deer population just kept growing. By the 1980s, white-tailed deer started having increased conflicts with the also expanding human population of our state.

Farmers were sustaining increasingly big losses, there were a lot of accidents on our roads and deer damage to our planted landscaping was getting out of hand.

To get things more in balance, deer managers started thinking that the cultural carrying capacity of a certain area for deer might be smaller than the biological carrying capacity of the same land.

Put simply, more deer could probably survive on a given tract of land, but the humans also living there didn’t want so many around.

We were most definitely starting to have too many deer in certain parts of the state and the deer population was found to absolutely thrive in our new, modern day environment of a combination of forest, agriculture and residential housing.

The bag limits started to expand, but the deer population continued to grow.

Finally, in the last 10 years or so, we seemed to have hit a balance.

Between the 2002-03 deer season and this year’s 2012-13 season, Maryland hunters are usually killing between 90,000 and 100,000 animals every year statewide in the combined bow, muzzleloader and modern firearm deer seasons.

More females are also taken out of the deer herd each year to a ratio of about 65 percent to 35 percent of the totals. Some wildlife experts in Annapolis are expecting the total deer kill total this year to be a little closer to 90,000 mark than 100,000.

That’s because the acorn crop was so bountiful this year and few animals have to travel far and therefore be in harm’s way to find food.

We’ll just have to wait and see if that prediction proves true.

What no one can deny is that modern deer management has been a huge success in Maryland and deer hunters are enjoying those efforts in the field, forests and marshes of our state right now.

All the thousands of deer hunters out there contribute almost $200 million to Maryland’s economy and support nearly 2,300 jobs.

Maryland collects $15 million in state and local tax revenue every year because of deer hunting and the federal government takes in another $16 million.

A 2007 survey poll by Responsive Management found that over three-quarters of the Maryland general public agree or strongly agree that deer should be hunted to maintain a healthy deer population.

Balance, it’s all about balance.

Catfish revenge

Southern Marylander Ron Van Tassel was fishing for catfish at the old Slavin’s launch site on the Mattawoman Creek a week before this just past Thanksgiving when he felt a very big tug on his line.

After a fair struggle, he landed the beast.

It was a fat Arkansas blue catfish and the folks looking at a digital scale Van Tassel was holding his catch with called it 70 pounds even.

Van Tassel didn’t think it quite that heavy and later, when weighed on a more suitable scale, he was proved right for the fish was actually just a tad shy of 60 pounds.

Those people who saw 70 pounds on the digital scale were actually looking at it upside down, and were seeing the letters “OL,” which meant the scale was “overloaded” or the fish was too big for it to handle.

Still, a near 60-pounder would make any fisherman proud. And as Van Tassel hoisted it up chest-high for a photograph, the big fish had an equally big wiggle in Van Tassel’s hands.

Now the retaliation begins.

The big blue cat slipped from his grip and fell straight down to land on top of Van Tassel’s right foot. And, it came down barb first.

That big, sharp, unyielding, rock-hard barb impaled deeply into Van Tassel’s flesh.

“It lit up my fire, I’ll tell you that,” said Van Tassel when we spoke by phone the day after Thanksgiving from his room at Civista Medical Center in La Plata.

“It swelled up, was blood red and my foot looks like uncooked hamburger right now,” he said.

Van Tassel also added that the doctor told him, “No, you can’t go deer hunting.” Real bummer.

The treatment is I-V antibiotics for infection. Van Tassel told me he hopes to get out of the hospital real soon but will be confined to his home for at least 10 days to continue the antibiotic therapy.

Hopefully, everything will work out just fine.

In talking with Van Tassel, it was obvious he hadn’t lost much spirit.

He even had some advice for other catfish fishermen: “These are pretty cats and this is a good time of year to fish for them. Just watch out where you put your feet.”

I’ll add to mind and respect those barbs with all the parts of your body. After all, when you think hard about it, this could have been a far more unpleasant injury.