A week ago Saturday, Maryland completed the first of two trial October muzzleloader hunting seasons for white-tailed deer, and while the kill did not reach the numbers game managers had estimated, the experiment was said to be a success so far.
Ed Golden, head of DNR's deer management program, said late last week that the preliminary count for the Oct. 20-22 hunt was 3,928, including 122 Sika deer taken in Dorchester County.
"Hunting pressure was light to moderate, with the heavier pressure occurring in an eastward pattern across the state, especially in counties where either antlered or antlerless deer could be taken," Golden said. "But for the first time around, it went well.
"And in a two-year experiment like this, you would always rather have a lower kill than more than you expected."
Golden said that the southern region of the Western Shore and the middle and lower Eastern Shore had the highest numbers of hunters. The highest county kill was in Charles, with 308.
Eleven counties where either-sex hunting was permitted recorded record kills for muzzleloaders.
In Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties, only antlered deer were in season. Those five counties were the only ones in which the 10-year average kill for the traditional, two-week muzzleloader season was not surpassed during the three-day October hunt.
In February, Golden had estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 deer might be killed during the October season.
Heavy leaf cover may have been a major problem for hunters, Golden said, cutting down general visibility and sightlines.
But overall, the numbers seem to reflect an increasing interest in muzzleloader hunting and the size of the state's deer herd, which is estimated to be between 180,000 and 220,000 animals.
In 1989, there were an estimated 30,000 muzzleloader hunters in the state. By 1993, there were 40,000, and they took a record 5,178 deer during the traditional December season.
The three days in October produced a kill equal to 75 percent of the 1993 record, with most of the hunting pressure occurring in the non-mountainous parts of the state, where the deer herd has been flourishing and become a persistent problem for farmers and backyard gardeners in some areas.
In a broad sense, game managers aim for a kill composed of rTC more antlerless deer than antlered animals to stabilize the population. But in the western five counties, where the deer population is within management goals, the antlerless kill has been restricted to ensure the future of that portion of the population.
The kill in the muzzleloader seasons -- both the trial period that will be resumed next October and the two-week December season -- has increased dramatically since 1984.
In Charles County, for example, muzzleloader hunters took 30 deer in 1984, 106 in 1989, 264 last year and 308 in the October hunt. Baltimore County went from 17 in 1984 to 223 this October.
The biggest jump has occurred since the mid- to late-1980s when bag limits were increased and either-sex hunting was allowed in the majority of the state's 23 counties.
Will the early muzzleloader season have an impact on the rest of the 17-week bow season or the two-week modern firearms season that starts at the end of November?
Game managers have said they don't believe it will have a noticeable impact.
Where the greater impact might be felt is in the late muzzleloader season, from Dec. 17 to Dec. 31, when the 3,928 hunters who took their deer early cannot hunt unless they have purchased a bonus stamp for a second deer.